In recent years “strategist” has become somewhat of a buzzword. You’ll see it on LinkedIn after almost any job function, be it marketing, content, social media or UX. A lot of the time, it’s used to indicate that someone is at a senior level at their company. It can get confusing, but the word strategy has always evoked the same meaning. In the 1800s, it could have meant that a general found a creative way to use his army’s resources to win a war. Today, it could mean that the strategists on a team found the best way to use company resources to win over customers. In simplified terms, strategy means finding the most efficient solution to a problem, to achieve the results you want. This requires creativity, analytical thinking, compassion, and a finger on the cultural zeitgeist, amongst other things. So how do you get started developing such a unique skill set? We spoke to six people who have forged careers in this field to get some practical tips for aspiring strategists
Be Curious About the World Around You
Strategists need to understand their audience, and to think like a strategist, you need to be curious at heart. “The best strategists I know have lived multiple iterations of life. They can shapeshift into other people’s shoes because they have enjoyed a variety of diverse experiences,” says Megha Sthankiya, Senior Culture Strategist at The Marketing Store. “This gives them a level of understanding and reliability that you will not find from articles and books. So, be curious and expose yourself to different cultures, people, and experiences.”
Similarly, Katee Hui, Senior Strategist at Pentagram says, “I ended up in strategy because I'm very curious. I like to know why things work – and why they don't, and what some of those universal human truths are that underpin why we do things.” Even if you aren't naturally curious, try and develop this skill by consuming as much content as you can, and engaging with as many people as you can. Read books, go to talks, listen to podcasts – anything you can find that will help you connect with the world around you, and know it better. Knowing your audience will be key, because as Rob Estreitinho, Senior Strategist at VCCP Kin told us, “if we don't know what our audiences, colleagues or clients are really going through, then it will be very hard to persuade them to do things.”
Develop Your Powers of Persuasion
Speaking of persuasion – good strategy isn’t just about coming up with a plan, your team has to be on board too. This is where persuasion skills come in handy. Fadi Dada, Creative Strategist & Associate Director at Hill+Knowlton Strategies says, “This is the part that my fellow strategists often overlook. It’s not enough to write a great strategy, you’ve got to be able to communicate it in a way that is going to inspire your creative colleagues.”
Find something you’re passionate about, and then practice presenting why in front of friends and family to develop your persuasion and storytelling skills. “Strategists are storytellers,” says Sthankiya, “your greatest power is in connecting the dots others can’t see and compelling them to act on it.” Likewise, Hui says, “It's like a big research project where no one really cares that you've done the reading, they only care about how articulate and compelling a case you can make for a specific strategic direction.”
Learn How to Formulate an Opinion
To be good at strategy, you’ll have to cut through the noise and think of a clear path that leads to the outcome you’re looking for. “Here’s a sentence you should never say when presenting your strategy: ‘I’ve deliberately tried to keep this as broad as possible.’” says Dada. “Since any given project has so many potential ‘right answers’ good strategy is about making hard choices. It’s about taking in the endless circumstances, stats, data and facts that surround a project and setting a clear and insightful path forward – one that omits the noise and focuses on the good stuff.”
Hui reiterates this point, and says, “Strategy is all about editing and decision-making. There will be so many different data sources, user opinions, client opinions, market research, and other sources that you have to manage.” Practice making decisions by thinking of one clear solution to problems. Why is it the best solution? Ideate, deliberate, and learn how to have an opinion.
Start Somewhere, Anywhere
Most of the people we spoke to fell into a strategy role by accident. They started as community managers, social media community managers, you get the gist. One of the best things you can do to start a career in strategy? Just get your foot in the door.
Corey Kindberg, Associate Strategy Director at DDB says, “My advice to aspiring strategists trying to get in the door is to just get in the door. Take an account role, production role, or any role that is in the building you want to be in. From there, find the smart and weird people and make your intentions known.” Corey recommends advocating for yourself and finding a mentor. He met his future boss as a community manager at Edelman, and went by her desk every day to ask (read beg) her for work. Be persistent, ask for help, and be humble, and you’ll get where you want to be.
Forge Your Own Path
If you feel like getting your foot in the door is impossible, or just not happening, try and build a freelance portfolio instead. Josh Akapo, who was recently on GUAP’s 30 under 30 The Blacklist, says he had a tough time getting into the advertising industry through a conventional route due to a lack of opportunity. He didn’t give up though, “I just worked to build up my network to such a stage where people wanted to bet on me.” Forging his own path, he’s now co-founder and strategist at his own creative agency Archtype.
Akapo’s advice is to play to your strengths and what you know. For Gen Z in particular he says, “You’re in a demographic marketers and advertisers want to know more about and market to. Frankly, every young person's insights will be good, just because they're Gen Z, immersed in culture right now. You don't understand how invaluable that is.”