Hi there. I'm Matt. Don't hate the player. Hate the game.1

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Aug 24, 2011 | Comments

Back when I graduated, I’d never heard of a strategist. Companies recruited at Michigan for planners, consultants, and producers, but never a title as ambiguous as strategist. And while not as popular as ninja, I’ve seen it attached to just about everything: marketing strategist, client strategist, brand strategist, social media strategist.

As I’ve witnessed the title grow in popularity (now including my own title), there’s no agreement on what a strategist does. For reference, Jinal Shah had an awesome post on the digital strategist role from an agency perspective:

“My title confounds me. It didn’t until I began to view it in the context of working in a global communications and marketing agency. I think now I have a more objective view of both the strengths and the weaknesses of this role. Some of this will be very common-sensical to you and I think it is, but I felt the need to articulate it so I can understand it better.”

Unintentionally, Jinal makes a great point: even if you’re hired as a strategist, the responsibilities don’t become clear until you’re well into the job. Yes, two parties hiring for a strategist and claiming to be a strategist can be stark disagreement.

While Jinal continues on with some really interesting requirements, my personal flavor of strategist has begun to take shape. As a strategist in a consultant-setting, I wish that there was a more specific title for what I do (e.g., digital experience designers?). But it’s the best we’ve got. It’s a necessary evil that we swim in ambiguity every time some asks us what we do. And it’s unlikely that folks who work in strategy ever realize the title clarity found with UX-designers, architects, or physicians.

But this isn’t a tirade on nomenclature, but on personal development. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I’d want out of myself as a digital strategist. For a young strategist-to-be, what wisdom would I pass down that will separate him from the assholes liberally adopting the title? Or put into a thought experiment: suppose you’re about to start a new digital consulting company of 10 strategists. Which skills help you identify the most bad-ass strategists (besides industry expertise)?

Here’s how I’ve set the bar for myself: four crack commandments for the strategist path.

1. Idea Development

In a weird twist of irony, idea development is the most important skill for me to grow as a strategist. I rarely see it discussed as a competency, an odd reality, since nearly every good or bad engagement ends with successful ideas. Great idea development starts with discipline. Great strategists can ignore the content hose for 48 hours, reflect on what they know, and create something meaningful on the Internet (i.e., Robin Sloan’s famous stock vs. flow). They have their own process for creating ideas, familiar with all the basic tools to do it (e.g., research, brainstorms, innovation sessions). And their ideas not just boring tactics, but function like startups (As I’ve mentioned before). They can create an amazing experience that could subsist on its own, strong enough that customers would pay for it. Awesome companies incubating these skills are firms like What If, Adaptive Path, and IDEO.

2. Product Vision

Part of this focus on startup-like ideas is vision. Using Nike+ as an example, I’d hope that its creator had the product-focused mindset to anticipate the many years, versions, and iterations that would go into the idea. Rockstar strategists have experience with long-term dedication to the development of an idea. They’ve at one point had a Steve Jobs-style obsession that required OCD fanaticism over details during development. They understand the underlying mechanics that drive their idea, like database-driven websites or simple javascript. I look to any product manager at a large company, founder of a startup, or kick-ass developer (i.e., someone at Pivotal Labs) for this training.

3. Execution

Warren Buffet once said that consulting (and banking) were the two industries to never enter post-graduation. Why consulting? Life-long consultants would spend all of their time recommending ideas and never learning if they were good. It’s an absence of feedback-loops. When a final deliverable has only a few recommendations, I can’t think of a better experience that would ensure success. The best strategists have been through countless cycles of idea develop and execution, learning from their mistakes and taking it to the next client.

4. Internet Culture

There’s a reason why I’d expect a group of 25 year-olds to come up with a better digital idea than a group of middle-America CEOs. When it comes to idea development, the most creative folks can effortlessly steal from the best of the Internet. I want to call it industry knowledge, but it’s not. There’s a difference between those who spent their high school days on message boards and someone who plays catch-up by reading Techcrunch. It’s cultural knowledge. It’s your ability to look at a client problem and steal mechanics from Internet heavyweights like DeviantArt or emerging startups like Kickstarter. You see the underlying force that make things on the Internet flourish and apply them to a client problem. To use Nike+ as an example again, I can imagine that the inventors reflecting on emerging ideas like collective behavior, data visualization, and quantified self to craft the experience. Without this tacit knowledge, digital novices cannot wrap their head an idea around until they see it brought to life.

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  1. Nicely articulated Matt. And what a great blog you have here! We should keep this dialogue about digital strategists on-going… there's more work to be done in defining and structuring this role. Part of the magic is its ambiguity, but that also makes it non-scalable. That's the part that needs to be solved for..

  2. Very good piece. Thanks for the knowledge:)

  3. Adam Lazzara

    Awesome post ma, really nicely done! 

  4. Kate Bordwell

    Hi there, a good article, simply put. I do wonder though, if by 'execution' you mean evaluation or iteration? Do you mean checking the execution meets the brief (and the client's expectations) and then evaluating how well it works so that it can be improved on?

  5. Thanks Adam, appreciate the comment.

  6. Thanks Flavio!

  7. So this might be a bit different for me at Undercurrent (as a consultant), but execution to me means bringing the strategy to life. If project 1 is coming up with the idea, project 2 is the Steve Jobs-esque orchestration to make sure that the vision is exactly how you planned it. With this would come the wisdom of learning how well it worked and what could be improved upon.I guess this means that execution is not just checking in 6 months later and seeing how your idea turned out. A good idea is only as good as it's execution. With just the client guiding the ship, my experience is that they'll fuck up a good idea, not maliciously, but because they lack the tiny details and vision that only a strategist could have.

  8. I think this is a really big – and interesting – topic.  You could write at least one blog article about it, if not a book!

    I'm interested in who your clients are – agencies?  Marketing/brand managers?  This might be where the distinction comes from. 

    I've pretty much always been agency-side so have always worked in an environment where the team works on execution (although client services and creative/development have been much more involved – and perhaps interested – in the details of execution than the planner/strategist.)
     
    However, the strategist can always walk across the studio to ask the guys how it's going and is always involved in the evaluation of the execution and the 3 month/6 month/however long follow up, and in planning the next thing.

    I guess if your client is an agency that would remove even that element of involvement, and then would depend on whether you had strategically minded people working on the project?  And also whether they understand why it's good to keep the strategist in the loop?

    Even in an agency I have had to be fairly pushy to find out how things are going, as once the concepts have been tested in research, the perception is that 'my work is done' until evaluation time.

  9. Late to the party, but great stuff here. As a post-Undercurrent'er, there were times where I wish I had had this kind of articulation of my coworkers. And that's not a knock on UC – it's a knock on The Game.

    Arguably, #3 above is the most important. #1 + #2 + #4 still equals 'assholes liberally adopting the title'. Or start-up visionary, successful or not. Or forum troll.

  10. Bonus points for referring to the Game. Capital G.

  11. Love this. Really great post! 

    I, too, wrote a blog post about a year about about my job description as a Digital Strategist (coming from someone 6 months into a Digital Strategy role) and how I worried I couldn't properly define what it meant. As time goes on though, I can see that it wasn't a “me” problem, but a “we” problem. Something that still hasn't really been addressed.You raise great points – but my favourite is #3. I find that I like to stay close when we hit the post-mortem or analysis phase of any project I've worked on because of the vast learnings I can gather. It's where I work with our Digital Analysis team so they understand where the initial intentions came from and I understand how they actually played out in the end. A really awesome gut check at the end of the day.

  12. Thanks for your thoughts. I too find post-mortems or any type of post-project analysis helpful.

  13. rktrixy

    Hey – as an actual architect (you know, bricks and mortar, concrete and steel) I get sent links for architecture jobs, only to find they are looking for someone adept in a language that has nothing to do with the number of exits required in a fire station. I would prefer that term “architect” be reserved for such as myself (and in some states, it's illegal to call yourself an architect unless you did all the schooling, internship and licensing required). So – what do you see as the difference between a data architect and a strategist?

    Keep in mind, I am a stranger in a strange land on this blog… do not mean to step on toes, just raising the issue.

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