Brand strategy, design strategy and innovation

What is a strategist?

The word strategist almost always applied as an adjective to another role, as in Brand Strategist, Design Strategist, Social Media Strategist or Plumbing Strategist. I’ve always loved strategy so I’ve enjoyed several of these types of jobs in my career. Building great businesses may be a team sport. But at some point in the creative process, someone has to go away after the brainstorming is done and turn all the ideas into something real that can be communicated, tested and executed. That person is a strategist.

Brand strategy, design strategy and innovation
Asking professional strategists to define what a strategist is seemed a bit circular, but it’s as good a place to start as any other.

Recently I’ve been thinking about what makes a Strategist different to an Account Manager, a Copywriter or a Planner. I wanted to focus in on the role of a person who is referred to as a Strategist in a business, rather than the larger question  of “What is strategy?”

What’s a strategist?

My mum still occasionally asks me “So, what is it that you actually do?” In search of a better answer, I thought I’d ask a few friends what it means to be a “Strategist”, their answers included:

A strategist develops opinions on the future direction of a company and its brand, based on existing and predicted conditions, other known variables, intuition and research. – David Lyall, Creative Strategist

A strategist uses big-picture thinking, storytelling, insights, criteria development tools and synthesis in the development of agreed-upon end-goals. – Randy Deutsch, Design Strategist

A strategist takes a range of media techniques and tools and combines them into an integrated approach best suited to the client’s needs. – Wil Benton, Digital & Social Strategist

A strategist analyses complex environments or problems and designs practical pathways and business solutions to achieve organisational objectives. – Kaye Glamuzina, Head of Strategy

A strategist is someone who has the ability to see beyond the near term. – Richard Mander, Product Management Leader

A strategist is concerned with establishing the long-term direction of a business. – Anas, Strategy Consultant

A strategist is responsible for conceptually and holistically thinking of a future direction based on incomplete information– Rui Martins, Director

A strategist looks at all inputs that will be important to a business and distils them into the right solution for future success– Stephen Gibbs, Director

A strategist identifies choices, evaluates them and recommends the best course of action to realise the client’s objective. – Jake Pearce, Consultant

A strategist makes decisions based on a future goal, and connects the present to that future-state so that the path is perceived to be achievable by others. – Greg Ellis, Coach

A strategist is the thinker that informs the course of a business or project. –  Josh Levine, Culture Consultant

A strategist figures out how the various cogs and wheels fit together so that the whole machine hums. – Meena Kadri, Communications Strategist

What makes a good strategist?

Being people who think about improving things for a living, my friends also pitched in with what they think makes a good strategist. Their comments included:

A good strategist is marked out by their ability to use two words: “No” and “Why“. – David Lyall

A good strategist sees problems through other’s perspectives– Randy Deutsch

A good strategist can take control and fix something that someone else has f_cked up. – Kaye Glamuzina

A good strategist has a higher level view of a problem, this often comes from practical experience. – Richard Mander

A good strategist can see the wood for the trees. – Stephen Gibbs

A good strategist provides a “winning game plan which proves over time to be a winner”. – Jake Pearce

A good strategist creates a path that is perceived to be achievable by others. If others can’t follow the path, then it is not a strategy, but only a dream. – Greg Ellis

A good strategist has two core skills; critical thinking and writing; and if they are really good, pattern seeking. – Josh Levine

Last words:

Overall, the themes seem to be all about future thinking and problem solving. Something else that I’ve noticed when I work with other strategists is that they love to have the last word. So some of my friends offered a few parting shots:

Strategists are prepared to defend their strategy; frequently stridently – until contradictory or better information arises; or conditions change. Similarly to the military sense, a strategist is expected to come up with a recommendation within a certain timeframe, regardless of the quality and amount of information at hand. Just like design, there is no such thing as “no strategy”, only “bad strategy”. – David Lyall

A client may ask for strategies that will assure a more profitable or a more sustainable future. A strategist may point out that these are not mutually exclusive goals and can co-exist. Strategy provides a lens through which to see projects in a certain light, one that (because it provides a wide-angle view or rationale) engages and motivates. – Randy Deutsch

Strategy is about a bigger viewpoint. It’s about having a roadmap of products rather than working on a single product. I.e. where are we going as a business over time? It’s often about making an investment in developing a technology platform rather than just cobbling a product together. – Seeing a product as part of a solution. It’s also about thinking about what order to do things in. From a business or marketing point of view, where do we focus and when. – Richard Mander

When I first flew with Singapore Airlines in September 1998 I asked one of the flight attendants why they flew a 747 from Singapore to Johannesburg and then onto Durban to pick up only 60 passengers when that seemed to be a huge expense for little return? “Ah” he said, “Old Chinese proverb: He who does not cast his net, cannot catch fish.” Look how well Singapore Airlines has gone on to grow and create hubs on an international scale. Likewise, President JFK had no clue how to get to the moon and back, and nor did anyone else, but he set in motion the brain power of thousands to achieve a milestone for mankind. A strategist creates a vision that inspires action.  – Greg Ellis

I once heard that if a client is looking for a strategist, they really just mean someone who can think. In my experience, Planners tend to roost in the advertising world, while Strategists are generally in design businesses. Of course, that distinction doesn’t mean much anymore now that agencies are mixing and matching their capabilities. In any case, they’re essentially the same thing (with perhaps different skill sets). – Josh Levine

Thinking fast and slow

There is a common complaint that if your bathtub is leaking you don’t call a “Plumbing Strategist”, you call a Plumber. Even so, there is a great anecdote about plumbing strategy that I think is relevant to all aspiring business strategists: A plumber is called to fix a leaky hot water cylinder. He quickly spots the problem, tightens a small valve and hands the homeowner a bill for $100 as he is leaving. The homeowner demands a full breakdown of the invoice, protesting “But, you’ve only been here for 5 minutes.” The Plumber re-issues the bill on the spot stating:

– Fee for tightening valve: $5

– Fee for knowing which valve to tighten: $95

So, whatever you call it, the ability to think before you act is still valuable in almost any context. Maybe strategy is more of a mindset not just a job title.

3 thoughts on “What is a strategist?”

    1. Great stuff Drew. I like the automotive aspect of your blog. It’s an industry that has traditionally been so driven by innovation but has still struggled with really anticipating the ‘target market’ part of strategy.

  1. The more I research design strategy, the more I think this is really something I could do well and be happy doing. Almost all of your quotes describe ME. Now I just have to read through another year and a half of posts to get current… 😉

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