Tell us a bit about yourself, what do you do?
I’m a born-and-bred Scot and ex-racing cyclist who has spent most of my ad career in the U.S. and France. I’m also CSO at Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis, responsible for the brand planning and analytics groups.
What did you do before your current role and what led you to where you are now?
At the start of my career, I was lucky to catch the end of the last round of the full-service model, before most agencies spun off media. Since then, I’ve worked at everything from a small consultancy to global holding group agencies and independently. That’s led me full circle to what I enjoy and believe in most, which is a mid-sized creatively focused agency with a broad range of capabilities. I like this model because I believe that we’re selling the right thing for our client based on the best ideas, not stuck making the thing the agency was built to sell.
How would you define the role of a strategist in your agency?
Changing the quality and direction of thinking, and therefore the work, for the better.
We don’t always have to have *the* answer but should be instrumental in asking the right questions, and inspiring the whole team (client and agency) toward better answers and more creative work.
How have you seen the role of a strategist evolving since you first began?
There’s been a dilution of the métier and craft of being a great generalist that was once foundational to the role of a strategic planner -- specifically the ability to marry together a broad skill set: from highly nuanced use of consumer research, an understanding of culture as well as data and detailed business analysis, through to skillfully crafted creative inspiration. It’s harder to find those things today either in candidates or agency focus. But in many ways they are more important than ever. That’s partly why even with deep specializations in areas like analytics and social alongside generalist brand planners, we go out of our way at Carmichael Lynch to foster interdependence and learn deep skills from each other as we go. From team structure and scoping to working culture, we are not only working tightly together but also learning each other’s skills. That way, we are all pretty dangerous across the board and able to take the higher-order brand view no matter who is in the room at one given time or how fast we need to turn around a solution.
In your opinion, what are the greatest barriers an aspiring planner/strategist encounters when trying to start their career?
The brutally simple mathematics of scarcity. At any given moment there are only a handful of great entry-level jobs available in any given city, never mind any given agency. So it helps to think about different potential routes in, to be flexible about where you work (and live) and to talk to everyone you possibly can. But getting that first break will always be the toughest odds you’re going to face.
In your time, what have you noticed are the key skills and traits that separate great strategists from the mediocre?
Two things: Firstly, the art of spotting half-hidden seeds of magic among the boring morass of input, data and competing points of view; and secondly, the art of expressing ideas with a mix of clarity and poetry. Not literally poetry, at least not always -- but the ability to convey thinking in an insightful, impactful and compelling way.
How do you avoid getting stuck in a cultural bubble and stay informed on the needs and desires of everyday consumers?
As an expat Scot with French kids and an English wife, living in a part of the Midwest that acts more like a Scandinavian-inspired province of Canada, it is perhaps not as hard as for many. Being around people with a healthy skepticism of all things marketing-related helps a lot, too. There are so many more strands woven into a considered strategy today than in the past, so our role within an agency demands the ability to divorce ourselves from cultural bubbles. That starts with the ones in and around the industry.