Tell us a bit about yourself, what do you do?
My name is Valerie Furgerson and I’m a Strategist at GSD&M. I focus on cultural strategy – finding the intersection of human truth, brand opportunity and cultural fuel. Alongside being a strategist, I run a travel blog that not only exists as my side hustle, but gives me insight into human behavior and culture that I can bring back to the job. Getting my hands dirty in the real, everyday world outside of the office gives me a unique perspective working with big brands at GSD&M.
What did you do before your current role and what led you to where you are now?
I’ve always been interested in human behavior. I didn’t even know that being a “strategist” was an option until I went to grad school in Austin, Texas. My journey began with content development and social strategy because it balanced two things I love: human behavior and culture. However, I didn’t want to just react to culture, I wanted to play a part in driving it. After graduation, I landed an internship at GSD&M, fell in love with it and received an offer two days after the internship ended. I’ve been there for nearly two years now and strategyland is everything I’d hoped it to be.
How would you define the role of a strategist in your agency?
Rather than being a role, a “strategist” at GSD&M is about having a unique and informed perspective of the world. We have UX strategists, communication strategists and brand strategists who all have different ways of interpreting our environment. To be a strategist means to provide framework for a way of thinking about things.
How have you seen the role of a strategist been evolving since you first began?
We’re in a weird time where consumers are demanding transparency from brands, but simultaneously, brands have never been less transparent. Rather than having a cultural ethos, brands are trying to ride the coattails of the next “movement.” Because of this, the role of a strategist is more about developing authentic ways for brands to take a stance on an issue. In turn, we’re having more uncomfortable conversations and admitting that your company or brand’s perception is, at best, skewed and one of many ways in which to view the world.
In your opinion, what are the greatest barriers an aspiring planner/strategist encounters when trying to start their career?
You will likely encounter very strong headwinds when first starting out; smart thinking is difficult to prove when you’re beginning. It’s probably for this reason that entry-level strategy roles are so hard to come by. You constantly have to sell yourself by thinking faster, smarter and more creatively than everyone else.
In your time, what have you noticed are the key skills and traits that separate great strategists from the mediocre?
Passion. You can teach technical skills, but you can’t teach passion. You either have it or you don’t. Passion will motivate you to think smarter and more creatively. If you’re a restless and curious person by nature, then you will be a good strategist. If you aren’t interested in pushing boundaries, if you don’t care about why things work the way they do then it will show in your ideas.
How do you avoid getting stuck in a cultural bubble and stay informed on the needs and desires of everyday consumers?
Go where the people are. I spend a lot of time consuming culture, which sounds exactly like something someone in Advertising would say. What does that actually mean? I read news from both sides and in between. I read books and articles from academia and Reddit threads. I get out there. I go out of my way to talk to the cashier at the gas station and my friends who teach second grade. I make every effort to connect with people of different ages, races and life stages. At GSD&M, two of our core values that we are encouraged to pursue are “restlessness” and “curiosity”. My interpretation of those values lies in how I interact with humans and culture on a daily basis.