Connecting the Dots

Like candidates, brands must appeal to consumers through both strong substance and clear values.

Kevin Skobac
Managing Director, Strategy Group SS+K
 

Tell us a bit about yourself, what do you do?

I lead SS+K's strategy group, a cross-functional team driving brand, business, and digital strategy for SS+K’s portfolio of consumer, enterprise, and cause-oriented companies. Brands like Tourism Australia, Wells Fargo, NCAA, Everytown for Gun Safety, as well as other well-known clients including HBO, Amazon, Samsung, Jet.com, and Obama 2012. I’m also the co-founder of SS+K Labs, our in-house incubator that explores nascent mediums, platforms, and technologies.


What did you do before your current role and what led you to where you are now?

I’ve grown up in the strategy group at SS+K over the last 9 years, but before that, I was responsible for the digital media strategy, planning, and buying for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. My background in digital media is helpful in tying strategic thinking and creative concepting to tactical activation and measurement. And my work on the youth anti-drug campaign taught me how to think about overcoming hard challenges through insightful strategy and engagement planning. For me, focusing more on strategy gave me a broader ability to make a difference in the world– by working with companies to improve how they operate, what they offer, what they communicate, and how they engage.


How would you define the role of a strategist in your agency?

One of the things that makes SS+K unique is our political heritage. We employ political style strategy for our clients, and what that means is essentially thinking of brands like candidates. Like candidates, brands must appeal to consumers through both strong substance and clear values. For brands to thrive, they too must build strong constituencies and win critical votes. And they must do so in the midst of a fast-paced, highly scrutinized environment, where cultural context is key. On that last point, we’ve developed a tool we call Social Forces that helps us identify and exploit the underlying cultural shifts that are influencing consumer attitudes and behaviors. We meld political strategy with creativity to develop unconventional solutions to our clients’ complex issues.


How have you seen the role of a strategist evolve since you first began?

Strategists, as with many other groups, were often much more specialized when I started. Now, as the industry evolves, we need to be able to flex considerably to play many different roles, on a wider variety of projects, for a broader set of challenges. For a single client, we must drive smart business strategy, brand strategy, and creative strategy. We must be able to flex from insightful researcher to dynamic creative mind to clever tactician. We are thinking through the brand’s opportunities and challenges from the broadest perspective, and guiding what must happen at the most tactical level, all at the same time.


In your opinion, what are the greatest barriers an aspiring planner/strategist encounters when trying to start their career?

Speaking mainly from my perspective at SS+K, the hardest part is probably that we expect everyone coming in here, no matter what level, to be able to contribute right away. Even young strategists here have a significant amount of autonomy, and teams will rely on them to meaningfully impact the work from day one. Our more senior members will of course work with and guide them along the way, but here at SS+K, we want everyone to have a voice, and value that. It’s exciting, but requires bravery.


In your time, what have you noticed are the key skills and traits that separate great strategists from the mediocre?

A voracious intellectual curiosity about the world is obviously critical. That curiosity needs to extend very broadly– to investigating people, culture, business, media, etc. Equally important is being able to connect the dots between things, looking deeper to find relevant and unexpected trends in all that you’re consuming, and channeling those insights into meaningful work. You also need to be able to craft clear and compelling stories with strong arguments that support your strategic point of view. Having the right ideas and insights are nothing if you can’t get your team and clients to buy in.


How do you avoid getting stuck in a cultural bubble and stay informed on the needs
and desires of everyday consumers?

This industry-wide challenge is only solved by fighting for diversity of people, diversity of thought, and diversity of work. We all need to push ourselves beyond our own lives, our own interests, our own communities. We aspire to do that through independent projects, and our brand work. For example, after the 2016 election, an SS+K team traveled to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to interview an Evangelical church community about their beliefs and differences, which turned into a short documentary as a small antidote to the divisiveness in the US. Another example: When developing a campaign for Wells Fargo on their commitment to working with people with disabilities, we collaborated with people within the disability community to develop our “With, Always” campaign. Similarly, through SS+K Labs, we partnered with Google and Dance for PD to concept and develop Moving Through Glass , the first-ever augmented reality product providing on-the-move access to proven dance-based aid for people living with Parkinson’s. We spent months with people with Parkinson’s and medical experts to refine and test it. By investing time in these projects, and prioritizing these practices, we learn intimately about, and build empathy for, people & communities outside of our own bubbles.