What the hell is a creative strategist, and why should I care?

The creative strategist role has evolved immensely over the last decade, leaving many potential employees, HR personnel and even senior executives at odds as to how the position contributes to their business’ bottom line. In other words, no one understands what the job responsibility exactly entails.

To take a step forward, we need to take a look back. Prior to the internet, most agencies had teams of strategists (backed typically by MBAs) to identify and understand their clients’ business needs. They worked directly with the client to shape the product, based on a logistical understanding of operations and categorical opportunities. Then along came the world wide web, and with it a lack of clarity. Most brands didn’t know what to do with their digital presence (let alone how to monetize it), and neither did the strategist.

The result was an over-indexing on consumer experiences and emotion, and a glut of brochure-ware, which decreased the strategist’s value. During this period, many traditional agencies either evolved or were replaced with digital-first agencies that viewed the role as a cost center. Their solution was to either call everyone a strategist or eliminate the role altogether.

Fast forward to present day, and entrepreneurial creatives have proven their ability to impact consumer sentiment and complement business metrics. However, the digital world we live in is now driven by metrics, ROI, viability and scale, ultimately reviving the old strategist role and crucial need for them.

So now we have creative and strategist roles, both tasked with maximizing profit potential, but have entirely different ways of going about it. So, how do both bridge this gap and secure a seat at the table? By sharing the role.

Merging emotion and logic

Creative thinkers are focusing on the most important consumer needs and highlighting the insights to get there. On the other hand, strategists are focusing on the fundamental business goals and devising a path towards growth and profitability. Agencies need to think about it from both sides, and have them meet in the middle.

That’s the foundation of creative strategy: A partnership between dreaming and doing, theory and reality, in order to harness results within that grey area between the underlying business strategy and creative concept.

There are many different business models when dealing with the creative strategist role, but it all comes down to how the business is staffed to work. It’s rare to find individuals that can do both jobs of a creative concepter and strategist successfully, or agencies that have the overhead to support the role, which is why a partnership during this phase of your process makes the most sense. There’s a reason why the copywriter/art director pairing during the conceptual phase has worked so well in advertising. You’re bringing together problem solvers who have shared goals, but view and execute solutions in unique ways. The same is true for reconciling the needs of the consumer and business.

How to curate creative strategy

Incubation is key. While formulating a creative strategy, the mind subconsciously analyzes the inputs behind the brand—data, information, facts, assumptions, insights, sensory cues, etc—and recognizes patterns. This then fuels that “a ha” moment, when you conceive an idea and your mind begins to translate those patterns into actionable ideas. To nurture this process, the creative strategist pair need to give their active mind the space and time to sort through information and search for patterns, or more simply put to “sleep on it.” The most important part, however, is to capture your theories. Humans are incredibly forgetful creatures, especially so when you wake up in the middle of the night with an inspirational idea, so keep pen and paper (or a notes app) handy.

Secondly, get past your own biases. Too often I see creative strategy and the solutions that come out of it getting caught up in cyclical thinking. It’s no longer purposeful or valuable. Everyone has to be open to thinking from a new POV, letting ideas go and being perceptive of other approaches.

Lastly, set realistic timelines and bake in enough upfront time to think problems through. This way, the team can put more effort into ideation, rather than rerouting the strategy during the conceptual process, making the execution stage much more efficient.

I’m not much of a futurist, but…

Say what you may about technology and robots taking over the world, but they already have to some degree. They are shaping our views and mindsets through social media clickbait and obfuscation of fact. But beyond internet outrage, there is a much wider range of human emotion and a hierarchy of needs that deserve an appropriate amount of time, energy and effort. That’s why the creative strategist pair is crucial.

We need an industry-wide push for the marriage of emotional and functional needs. That’s where intellectual value is, that’s where true affinity happens, and that’s where brands can make a positive impact and benefit the most.

A 20-year veteran and passionate advocate for smart creative, kick-ass design and compelling experiences, Michael is responsible for guiding the strategic, creative process at GYK Antler to do what’s right for brands and entities by doing what’s right for their consumers. Michael has worked in digital and social media, product and package design, corporate identity, direct marketing, and general advertising.
This article was originally published in Campaign on February 27, 2018
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