The Problem Solver: ARGONAUT Co-Founder & CSO, Max Heilbron

I think any good strategist should be sought after by creatives and account folks whenever there’s a problem that needs fixin’.

Max Heilbron
Chief Strategy Officer ARGONAUT

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

I’m Max Heilbron, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at ARGONAUT.

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

Before ARGONAUT, I was at Goodby Silverstein & Partners for more than 10 years. I started there as a communication strategist and eventually shifted over to brand strategy. It’s also where I met Hunter (Hindman, CCO and Co-Founder of ARGONAUT) working on the Frito-Lay accounts. When he asked me to help start ARGONAUT, I jumped at the opportunity, because he was my favorite creative to work with, and it would let me bring a blended communications and brand approach to strategy that’s rare at other agencies. Most strategists are one or the other; I like being both.

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

I am obsessed with the idea of being useful. I think any good strategist should be sought after by creatives and account folks whenever there’s a problem that needs fixin’. It could be a client problem, a strategic problem, a production problem, or a creative problem, but I think a strategist’s role isn’t just to inspire great creative with sound strategies; it’s to be useful and fix problems.

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

I think the world of communications has become more complex, and strategists are expected to help simplify that complexity. The root biological and psychological truths of human beings haven’t changed in thousands of generations: we’re social apes with big brains who are constantly navigating our milieu. But what has changed is the technology that surrounds us, and the effects that technology has had on culture. A great strategist helps cut through the noise and explain how technology drives culture, and how culture drives behavior.

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

I think finding a great mentor is a challenge; finding the right one can change your entire trajectory, and if you get stuck with a bad boss early on, your career will undeniably suffer. Beyond that, I think aspiring planners need to embrace the idea of learning to walk before they can run; reaching too far and jumping to “nailing the story” when they haven’t “nailed the data” or “nailed the basic stuff that needs to be 100% correct” is a big challenge. You want to nurture ambition as a boss, but you also need to prevent junior strategists from aspirational hubris.

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

Curiosity, and the ability to write well. The humility to understand when you don’t know the answer, and the confidence to know when you do. And increasingly, a willingness to roll around in the data and turn them into interesting, human stories for clients and creatives.

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

I subscribe to People magazine and listen to Top 40 playlists, LOL. I am proudly uncool, and I spin that as being “everyday.” I also try to read a ton of non-fiction, which presents the world in an unbiased light. I think most people in advertising need to read more non-fiction; we’re obsessed with trend reports and “best practices,” but there’s a world of information sitting on Amazon that’s way more valuable when it comes to understanding real people.