Tell us a bit about yourself and your current role?
I’m SJ, a Strategy Director working at David&Goliath, LA. I’m originally from a tiny village near Oxford in the UK, but I’ve lived in London, Brighton and NYC. I’m currently based in Portland, but moving to LA in the Fall.
How did you get your start as a strategist? What led you to pursue it as a career?
Well, it’s a non-traditional start. I kicked-off in academic publishing, which I wanted to be a pit stop on my way to academia. That didn’t happen. Instead, I started writing on the side for a digital magazine called Lecool, where I became the Social Editor. The publisher of the magazine got me a job at AKQA on the social team, which she was leading. For most of my time, I worked on Nike on the community side across multiple categories and geos, which was fun and helped me understand close-up the impact a brand could have on the consumer. I decided I wanted to be more upstream and develop the ideas rather than be on the social side. I made my move over to strategy “pure” shortly before moving to Portland where I worked on lots of Nike, Palms Hotel, and a bunch of new business.
What set of skills do you believe it takes for a strategist to thrive in the current advertising landscape?
I was once told “you’re paid to have a point of view, so have one,” and I’ve never looked back! I don’t believe strategists have the right answers (there’s no such thing), but we do need to have a very informed perspective on the answers. Owning a clear POV is #1. How you get to that is up to you.
How I get to that is by identifying the problems and solutions that come with the task at hand. This comes from curiosity and not being afraid to ask why. It also comes from pattern recognition —connecting the dots and noticing the themes between all the sources we’ve uncovered. Ultimately, I love making sense of mess, making complex things simple and sharing that understanding with other people.
Another element that’s important to me is not doing things just because we’ve always done them that way. We have to come at problems and opportunities with fresh eyes. Original perspectives that push at the norm are critical to our role and it’s critical to my belief system. I’d attribute this to my background because I’ve never really fit in anywhere. Growing up as a mixed-race Black and brown girl in a predominantly white village and then building a career in a predominantly white industry has given me a unique perspective— the result is that I question things that many other people take for granted. I love asking why and I love questioning expectations. I realized that what makes you an outsider, makes you a leader and my melting-pot background is the thing that makes me good at what I do.
What’s the most challenging aspect of the job? What helps keep the work interesting for you?
I still get an enormous amount of anxiety when a new brief comes in. It doesn’t matter how big or small it is, but the newness keeps me on my toes and it is also the most challenging. That’s no bad thing because I am one of those people who needs to teeter very precisely between mastery and novelty. Too easy and I get bored, too difficult and I get distracted.
Is there a part of the role that you feel is often misunderstood?
The writers and designers of our world are inspiring and on a different level, but strategy is, in the purest sense of the definition, creative. We’re making something new. Don’t @ me.
Do you have any advice for those looking to work in a similar role?
Consume and create. I think as strategists we get very stuck in the consume part, but we should be creating too. Even if it’s journaling. Even if it’s voice notes on your perspectives. I think one of the biggest lies we’ve been told is that if you can’t make money from your creativity, you’re not any good and you shouldn’t be doing it. And creativity isn’t just pictures and words, it can be growing a business, inventing something new, building a community, organizing a panel, even just putting out a POV on social. I’m not great at putting it out in public, but I am always writing. You can’t move in my apartment because of notebooks and post-its with random thoughts on them!
How do you keep your finger on the pulse of culture? Where do you look for inspiration?
I don’t see it as where to look, but how to build that muscle, because culture is everywhere. It’s a habit, or for most strategists, a compulsion. I read a lot, I listen to a lot of podcasts, I love “high/low” culture. You will not shame me out of my Love Island and Bachelor obsession! But equally I’ll read “academic” theory on race and class, the media, and gender. I have a BA and MA in English and Cultural Studies, and so strategy allows me to continue that education without staying in the echo chambers of academia. Whatever you say about advertising and marketing, at our best, we actually get to speak to a mass audience and shift culture.