Tell us a bit about yourself and your current role?
My role is strategy leadership, and what I love about my job is supporting the team and working closely with people. Being hands-on and involved in cracking strategies and shaping creative work is what I love most – and it’s what has kept me so engaged and satisfied for 24 years in this wild business.
When I am not working, and it’s not a pandemic, my best days are traveling somewhere new with my family. I have two girls and an Australian husband. We are proud dog people with four mini schnauzers who all love the pandemic because we are always with them.
How did you get your start as a strategist? What led you to pursue it as a career?
I graduated with a BA in Broadcast Journalism from the University of Oregon School of Journalism. I decided that I didn’t want to move to a tiny town and hope to make it big. But I wanted to do something that would be ever-changing, creative and driven by deadlines. This brought me to a small ad agency in Portland, Oregon. After almost two years there, I moved to San Francisco with about $300 in my bank account and hopes of working for a big agency in the city.
I convinced the HR person at FCB SF to give me a shot. Once I got in the door I learned about strategy – at that time it was called account planning – and I would pester the planner on our team to let me write briefs and I asked her zillions of questions.
The agency offered an account management training program, which was intensive and fun. The work culminated in a new business pitch that my team won. This was a step in the right direction for me: senior leadership knew who I was, which was important and difficult.
Back then, the agency was massive, and there were 500 people, but I was able to move to a more high-profile account: Amazon.com. Back then Amazon was adding tabs to its site at a rapid clip. It was intense. We all had Nextel phones, which were also two-way radios. As a junior account person I was mostly responsible for the things that I found to be most difficult – budgets, schedules and details. Eventually it all became too much and I walked into the head of account management’s office and quit. He was a lovely and kind person who asked me a bunch of questions. I explained that I really wanted to be a planner and that being in account management was not my bag.
He talked to the head of planning and they offered me the deal of my career. I took a month off and came back as a planner. If it worked, great. If it didn’t, I would leave.
It worked. I will always be grateful for the chance they gave me.
What set of skills do you believe it takes for a strategist to thrive in the current advertising landscape?
The fundamentals are still the same. You have to be smart, tenacious, driven, curious and creative. You need to create opportunities for yourself. Surprise people with your insights and contributions. Take chances. Demonstrate that you care. And don’t wait for opportunity to find you. This business has always been a game of hard work and luck. If you work hard, you will be in the right place to get lucky. Today things are faster than they used to be and teams are leaner; this creates more opportunity to grow faster and try more things. And with the ever-changing landscape there are more ways for you to dig in and become the person that helps the rest of the team understand the culture, platforms and audiences from a fresh perspective.
Make yourself useful and your career will take you amazing places.
What’s the most challenging aspect of the job? What helps keep the work interesting for you?
I would say the operations side of the job is where I feel the most uncomfortable. It is fun to learn about how to make a department and agency run, but what I love most is being hands-on and involved in developing strategies and helping create ideas. That’s the magic.
It’s so hard. There are a million variables at play, but when it works, there’s nothing like it. Seeing an idea that you supported go live in the world is the best feeling.
I also love learning about and experiencing different categories, brands and learning about new audiences. There’s always something weird and fun about any brand or category, and the harder that is to find, the more interesting the assignment. Sometimes the “uncool” brands and categories are actually the most fun and fulfilling.
Is there a part of the role that you feel is often misunderstood?
I think sometimes strategists think our job is about being the smart person with all the answers. That’s a real mistake.
The best strategists I have worked with actually are less concerned with answers and more focused on questions. Their minds and hearts are open to seeing and understanding things in new ways. They are curious. They are intrigued by human nature. They know they don’t and won’t know everything.
When they figure something out, their enthusiasm is infectious. They help the whole team see something that nobody else noticed. They rally the team and clients around an insight. They take a client brief and pull out the best bits and spin them up in a way that makes them fresh, inspiring and new. They aren’t afraid of problems. They look for them! And they are able to articulate them in ways that inspire creative solutions.
The best strategists aren’t lone wolves. They are pack leaders.
Do you have any advice for those looking to work in a similar role?
Be a student of people and culture.
Open your mind, be curious, work hard. Read a lot. Get out in the world and do things that are scary or out of your comfort zone. Get comfortable taking the wrong turn. An adventurous spirit will serve you well.
Figure out who you are and what you care about. Developing your own voice takes time and practice. This is a trade; I always tell people this. You need to work on lots of problems, in lots of categories to develop into a strong strategist. The more experience you get, the clearer your own perspective and voice become. Tell the truth. Especially when it’s hard to do.
Recognize the strengths you see in other people on your team. Help them play to those and develop the skills they also need to master. Know that your role is as a leader on the team and for the team.
How do you keep your finger on the pulse of culture? Where do you look for inspiration?
Everywhere! I am a voracious consumer of all media. I am always watching people. Paying attention to the world around you is a skill that takes a lot of effort. It’s easy to go on autopilot. Or just stare at your phone. Force yourself to engage in the world. This became really hard in the pandemic, obviously, but can be done. Have conversations with people. Listen to other people’s conversations.
Listening, really listening, is something we need to be better at doing. It is perhaps the greatest single skill that a strategist needs. Because clients, creatives, consumers – all people – drop hints right into the words they say (and don’t say). They often tell us the answer plainly, but we are too busy thinking about the next question to hear it.
Inspiration isn’t some magical force hiding in hard-to-find places. It can be anywhere and literally everywhere. Once you figure that out, you will never be bored again.