Monday, May 28, 2012

There's no such thing as a Digital Strategist

I've had some interesting conversations recently with a number of frustrated planners in different parts of the world over the notion of an agency role called "Digital Strategist."

To be clear as I begin this, it's my own personal view that there is no such thing as a Digital Strategist (and I'm really sorry if that's the job title someone has foisted upon you, but chances are you're not a strategist).

Why do I believe this?

Simple. Strategy is by definition a broad, encompassing area of commercial pursuit. It's about the master plan, a grand design or game plan. Focussing on a single, narrow channel means that you are not taking into account the full picture of the landscape that your brand, your consumer, your shopper lives within. If you focus strategy on a single channel it becomes tactical and operational by definition. 

Part of the annoyance in these conversations has to do with bosses. Mainly male, white and over 50. All of whom struggle to understand what is going on in the digital landscape and, for fear of missing out, need to be able to point to the new shiny things to be able to say that their agency "gets it". But all it does is prove the opposite. If you have digital strategists in your agency, your agency doesn't get it. 

Account planning has always been about the synthesis of lots of different bits of data and the connection of dots between brands and the people who use them. All that has happened is an expansion of that data, the channels, platforms and places where people and brands can come together. You have to be able to see the entire picture in order to develop ideas that will be effective across all connection points (even if your agency only executes a few of them).

Obviously today's planners need to have a deep knowledge of all things digital, as well as deep knowledge of older media channels, experiential, retail and so on to build a brand, make a sale, launch a new product etc. That's the role of a planner in any type of agency.

No matter what it is called though the important point is that planners should focus on understanding the journeys people go on, bring clarity to the roles different channels play in a brand's mix and identify how brands can be built by participating and interacting with people on these journeys. 

In the agency context then, someone who claims to be a digital strategist most probably isn't.


Not the girl next door said...

I could go on and on about this. On the whole, I disagree with the tendency most planners have in assuming that a planner and a strategist is one and the same. The argument is not about the title – which could be merely semantics but it is about the work process and the skill-set.

It is especially easy to mistake and get confused about this in the type of environment we work in (i.e advertising agency) Step outside our bubble, and you’ll see that there are many flavors to a digital strategist and there are several deep skill-sets they have honed and developed over time to be simply merged with planning.

Just as there are several layers to brand planning, there are several layers (maybe more) to digital planning. If you ask me, digital planning sits under brand planning and not next to it because it needs to ladder up to the brand attributes/ values etc.

My biggest criticism of traditional account planning is that the planners don’t get very involved in the actual “making” of the idea. It’s called production in planner speak and the word is boring and uninspiring but in digital – that’s really where the idea gets made. And the idea continues to morph until it is beta tested. It continues to morph even as it is launched and the results come in and we tweak and make the idea better in real-time. Digital strategy is the true marriage of account planning, creative and production.

A (good) digital strategist works for the idea. With digital, you have to launch an idea that is in perfect harmony with innovation and current consumer habits/behaviors. You have to launch an idea that is technologically not too advanced and not too behind – Goldilocks! And that is not production or creative’s job alone – that is as much strategic thinking and application of tactical insights.

Also, the insights a planner brings to the table often only inform the birth of the idea or a creative direction. The insights that a digital strategist brings to the table informs the success of the idea and the actual meat and flesh of it. Sometimes it is insight maybe tactical (will this particular user experience really invite participation and sharing?) and sometimes it is blue-sky. Point is – they both underwrite the making of the idea across the phases.

Our role will eventually become obsolete – it will mostly be absorbed by creative (Josh Shabtai is a great example of a strategic digital creative. These are RARE) and a small part of it will be absorbed by planning. but not yet. And not for the next few years. We have far too many traditional planners that simply aren’t interested in digital to wear this hat. You can’t teach someone to be an early adopter or experiment with technology or play around and deeply immerse/ engage in every new social platform or make games. Advertising needs us – until the next generation comes into the workplace because all these habits and attitudes, will already be baked into them.

I wrote this blog post that created quite a stir in our industry a while ago. (over 270+ tweets and 80 likes)
It doesn’t answer the question whether we need a strategist or not, but perhaps it will parse out the difference. It is tactical and process oriented.

And then I wrote another that also got lots of positive feedback:

Happy to talk with you more about this if you’d like.

Craig Elston said...

Thanks for leaving this comment. I love that you did and you obviously feel really passionate about it. It's taken me a while to get back to you as I've been travelling. There's too much in your comment for me to respond to every point you make, so I'll pick this one; the notion of a hybrid of three disciplines labelled Strategy. Is it Strategy? There's merit in the notion of hybrids, but to me it's a specialism in digital channels and getting digital stuff made and out the door (which is critical).

If the role is all wrapped up in one person then surely calling it Strategy is over claiming its reach? Much of it may be semantics, but wouldn't something like "Digital Specialist" be more appropriate?

As you stated, "…its as much strategic thinking and application of tactical insights”. So is that strategic thinking or tactical thinking? You went on to say, "The insights that a digital strategist brings to the table informs the success of the idea and the actual meat and flesh of it." Meat and flesh; tactics?

One other quick thing. You said, "We have far too many traditional planners that simply aren’t interested in digital to wear this hat." I completely agree with this statement. And it is shame on planners everywhere who behave in this way. How can they not embrace the digital world? They are poor planners if they are not embracing it. They are missing a big part of their audiences' lives and unable to see the big strategic picture themselves.

But the good ones do embrace, live and breathe it. It is the good ones that reinforce to me that there is no such thing as a Digital Strategist. In your comment you stated, “Advertising needs us (Digital Strategists) – until the next generation comes into the workplace because all these habits and attitudes, will already be baked into them.” Part of my point was that the good ones are already here.

Not the girl next door said...

The word "strategy" is so bastardized...We just think of it differently and I'm not sure there is anything wrong with it.

I agree with you on one point -call us whatever. I'm personally not married to my title. You can call us digital strategists/ specialists whatever - just semantics. The difference between a brand planner and digital person/strategists/planner/specialists is in their skill-set, work-process and interests.

I just think that digital strategy and digital outputs aren't like brand strategy and its outputs - biggest difference is that one is dynamic and ever-evolving and one is not. It needs to be static/ adhered to. That just demands a different type of person.

Frankly on my end, I don't even understand why the debate and the frustration exists. One person can't do both these jobs - and they ARE two different jobs. No matter how good the planner, their lens is and must always will be the brand. The digital person's will and always be the "product" (whether that product is a digital campaign or whatever)...

Craig Elston said...

Thanks again for the comment. I have been on holiday the last couple of weeks with the family and I completely dropped off the grid. Wonderful stuff.

In the conversations I have had that started this off, I think the frustration comes from planners and their bosses - those higher up.

Isn’t the digital world that you describe much closer to that of media than traditional account planning? Don’t know how many agency big cheeses see it that way, hence the frustration from Planners.

I do think though that many planners would argue that their lens is not necessarily the brand, but it is the audience (consumer, user, shopper – whatever) and therefore would see themselves as having a point of view on the role digital should play in the life of the brand because of the audience, but that this kind of thinking the higher ups would probably insist is done by someone with the title “digital strategist”. Again, a source of frustration. And I would argue that it is everyone's job to be focussed on the product, no matter the medium.