Tell us a bit about yourself, what do you do?
I’m a planner at VIA. We help clients grow their businesses through creativity.
Someone smart once said that planners are like astronauts – we plan, think globally, explore, look to the future, go for moonshots, pilot our brands and teams – so sometimes I tell my kids I’m an astronaut (which always gets a good eye-roll).
These days, when I’m not in the office, I’m probably skiing (or watching my kids race). Uphill, downhill, trees, ice, powder…if it’s outside, we’re all in.
What did you do before your current role and what led you to where you are now?
I’m a reformed banker. I studied economics and financial markets and worked at a big bank coming out of school. After a while, the tie got itchy and I found that I was more Interested in the conversations with CFOs, CMOs and most importantly, their customers, than in cash flow statements or EBITDA.
So, we pulled up roots and after a cross-country drive from Boston to San Francisco, I got into marketing analytics which allowed me to transfer my modeling and analytical skills to new, more interesting problems – namely understanding human behavior to change human behavior. I stayed in analytics and strategy for several years, running teams and larger global clients for agencies in San Francisco, Boston and New York.
But, my wife are both from small New England towns and she grew up in near Portland so we always had a dream of taking up roots there and making our summer vacations just simply “real life”. So I had a conversation with David Burfeind, Chief Strategy Officer at VIA, and came aboard to start the analytics group. We grew the practice quickly, working with nearly every client in the building after a year.
Then as the agency shifted focus to attracting larger, national clients (who happened to also have existing media holding company relationships), we saw the need to bring media thinking upstream into the creative process. So we created a new practice area - Experience Planning - which was an approach for systematically deciding how and where an idea should be experienced in the world in order to change behavior. This was the first step in analytics and data naturally becoming a broader service layer at the agency, strengthening our competitive advantages of big picture strategic guidance and business-building creative ideas, rather than simply being the dashboard at the end of the process.
Then about 2 years ago, we finally decided to roll all of planning together, including qualitative and quantitative research, brand strategy and business insights, into a single discipline that continues to evolve and grow.
How would you define the role of a strategist in your agency?
Our agency is organized into “pods” where teams of planners, creatives, client strategists and project managers are co-located, so we’re always within shouting distance and a whiteboard. And the way we think about our respective roles is super simple ...
Client strategy is the “what” and the “why”. What are we doing and why are we doing it. They’re responsible for interrogating the assignment to make sure the rationale is clear and consistent with the business and marketing goals of a client.
And if client strategy is the “what” and the “why”, then planning is the ”way” – how do we actually do what needs doing? What insights, strategies, models, analysis and inspiration are needed to create the programs and platforms that deliver the outcomes required?
Which leads to creative, which is the “wow”. Making programs, platforms and ideas that are distinctive, inspiring and effective. And project management, which is the “how much and when”, keeping us all on time and on budget.
How have you seen the role of a strategist been evolving since you first began?
The path of a planner in many ways follow the path I’ve been on. We’ve see a shift from planners as specialists with deep skills in specific areas – think digital strategists, data strategists, brand strategists, social strategists – to planners as grand integrators and instigators with a focus on end-to-end inspiration, strategy and execution.
When we’re hiring, we look for what we affectionately call Genius Generalists, human swiss army knives who understand data, relationships, content and distribution and can apply the right mental models to solve any marketing problem. We’re biased to finding curious people with unique perspectives from outside typical ad agency account planning – whether that be tech companies, media agencies or client-side. We want planners to draw insight from many sources to inspire our teams, apply a variety of mental models to solve problems and prove how it all comes back to growing our clients’ businesses..
In your opinion, what are the greatest barriers an aspiring planner/strategist encounters when trying to start their career?
We see three typical barriers that successful planners find a way to overcome when joining VIA.
The first is a desire to follow rote processes and have a single way of doing things. Every problem we see as planners is different and though we have a defined toolbox of approaches and models, knowing which ones to use and why is a skill that takes time and patience to develop.
The second is losing sight of the “so what”. Sometimes, planners hide behind data and analysis that looks like “the answer” but ends up being interesting, but not instructive. Aspiring planners often have to work hard to honestly ask themselves “so what” and push harder for real insight.
Finally, new planners underestimate the importance of collaboration with other groups. If planning is all about the “way” to do something, it’s also largely a means to an end - namely a business-building creative idea. And that requires work beyond building the positioning, brief or strategy - impromptu work sessions to long nights, tense conversations - all of which gets the team rowing in the same direction.
In your time, what have you noticed are the key skills and traits that separate great strategists from the mediocre?
Aside from everything else we’ve mentioned, great strategists do a few things differently.
They aspire to shift our clients’ businesses on a grand scale.
They understand the drivers of a client’s business and focus our creative energy on influencing them.
They think downfield about how strategies can be executed and inspire teams with that vision.
They’re naturally curious and interested in how things connect together.
They don’t get caught up in the beauty of their slides or briefs.
They’re great translators and packagers, sharing all that they know in a way that’s clarifying and catalytic.
How do you avoid getting stuck in a cultural bubble and stay informed on the needs and desires of everyday consumers?
Being in Maine, we find it much easier to stay on top of what’s happening in the real world than when we lived in New York, or even Boston. Stopping for coffee at Fotter’s Market in Stratton or chowder and muffin at Becky’s Diner in Portland, you get a feel very quickly for what’s going on outside ad land.
Beyond that, here are a few tips to keep things spicy.
- Constantly hack your interest graph, like snooping on the Discover Weekly playlists of friends with massively different tastes. We also love Stack, which sends a different, random independently-published magazine every month.
- When traveling, switch up your content diet, force feeding things you normally don’t watch. For me, it’s Fox News and network TV. It’s sometimes painful, but definitely useful to see what’s news, what’s not and how others frame their arguments.
- Try to be a kid – join Reddit, follow who your teenage nephews follow, spend time on Twitch, get a Discord account and play video games (I’ve been sucked into League of Legends for the past few seasons). This means getting roasted by 13 year olds, but there’s no better way to understand the meme/streaming/eSports economy, how real kids talk and have a little fun doing it.