Meet the strategists

Agency strategists, once perceived as a "fluffy luxury", are now seen as trusted advisers who add value to clients' businesses. Media Week interviews six leading strategic thinkers about their changing role.

Clockwise, top left: Charlie Makin, Hugh Cameron, Matthew Hook, Richard Hartell, Sean Healy, Stuart Sullivan-Martin
Clockwise, top left: Charlie Makin, Hugh Cameron, Matthew Hook, Richard Hartell, Sean Healy, Stuart Sullivan-Martin

Charlie Makin, chief strategy officer, Arena BLM
Major accounts: COI, Thomas Cook, Setanta Sports and Domino's

What is the relationship between strategists and planners?
Each account group has a strategic planner who is embedded in the day-to-day team. If a planner needs to do a presentation on return on investment, for example, a senior strategist will work with the planner to develop the project. Planners are expected to handle the day-to-day running of the account, but there will be overflow when they need help.

How can strategists ensure they are perceived as trusted business advisers rather than fluffy luxuries?
Strategists must prove they can create extra value for the client. We must understand how consumers are dealing with the issues they face, how digital influences their lives and how they are affected by the recession. Clients are trying to navigate tough times, so they need advisers more than ever. How can you get real insight into consumer behaviour?

You can't get real insight from one source. One problem is that the industry relies too heavily on the IPA's TouchPoints. We have to use many more tools and pool them together - we should go and sit in the shops where our products are sold to understand consumer behaviour. Good strategists must be inquisitive and want to know how people make decisions. There's no magic answer - the best planners are fascinated by their work and have a relentless enthusiasm for what's going on.

What's the difference between a planner and a strategist?
I've never understood the difference between strategists and planners. They both plan media. But maybe I'm just old-fashioned. I once worked out there are 15 to 18 different names in the industry for planning - we call it communications planning, because that's what it is.

Richard Hartell, chief strategy officer, Starcom MediaVest
Major clients:
Scottish & Newcastle, Honda, COI and Samsung

How can strategists ensure they are perceived as trusted business advisers rather than fluffy luxuries?
I'd like to think I'm the complete opposite of fluffy. Many people get caught up in media language, but good strategists talk in the language of real people who consume all the advertising we throw at them. Being a strategist is about real life and real people.

How long have strategists been around?
Forever. Before media broke away from advertising agencies, we had media thinkers who were just as good as today's strategists, only they weren't called that. There are not more of us around now - we just have the name.

Is there such a thing as a platform-neutral strategist?
No. Communications planning is about knowing that certain channels are better than others. Strategists need to have a bias towards some channels because they work better, but agencies are not biased towards a medium because they are paid by the client. Strategy is about making space in a consumer's life and mind for the brand to operate in, and that could be anywhere, providing it's the best space for that brand.

What is the role of a strategist in a recession?
When there is less money to spend, you can't pay your way out by relying on reaching loads of people using TV, so you have to be more canny and clever. The strategist must know how consumers' minds are working in a recessionary environment. Marketers must get smarter when there's less money coming in, which means we have to choose the right partners and work with them more effectively.

Matthew Hook, head of strategy, Vizeum
Major accounts: Coca-Cola, 20th Century Fox, Coors and Five

How do you fit within the wider agency structure?
The agency's media teams are really plugged into media owners and the planning teams are responsible for understanding what clients need day to day. However, in recent years, there has been more of a demand for people who take a long-term point of view of the client's business and can help them discover new ways of communicating. That's where the role of a strategist comes in.

What is the relationship between strategists and planners?
Broadly speaking, the planner is the person who owns the client relationship day to day, but they reach obstacles they can't overcome, and so need a fresher, long-term point of view. We're brought in to help the client find that new perspective.

How is the growth of digital influencing your role?
The whole process of engaging the consumer has become far more complex and needs far more steering. People have changed the way they consume, buy and research products, and clients need advice on how that shift will affect their business.

What is the role of a strategist in a recession?
There is a lot more focus than a year ago on being very clear on exactly how effective every piece of communication will be. In the past, you could be more happy-go-lucky and experimental, but today there is more focus on exactly what outcome you expect in terms of consumer behaviour.

How can you plan effectively now data goes out of date in three months?
You need to be a data hound and client-to-customer data is the most important. Most companies own a huge amount of data - on who's buying what and how often they buy it - and Aevolve (the Aegis research arm) helps us analyse those statistics.

Hugh Cameron, chief strategy officer, PHD
Major accounts: Sainsbury's, Cadbury, Warner Bros and ING Direct

How do you fit within the wider agency structure?
We have a dedicated strategy and insight team at PHD to develop new ideas and growth opportunities for clients, and help them understand how new communications layer with classical media.

What is the job of a strategist in an economic downturn?
Recessions are disruptive and they make everybody focus on their priorities and where investments should be made. From a planning and strategy point of view, everything is being questioned. Some clients choose to refine proven communications plans, but others are using this disruptive time to experiment and play around with the format.

How is the growth of digital influencing your role?
Every channel is scrutinised more than ever before, and some of the more experimental areas of digital just don't have the weight of history or evidence behind them, so they are hard to demonstrate to clients. However, we work with ambitious brands and they have capitalised on recent digital opportunities. Everyone has their eye on finding ways to come out of 2009 in a stronger, not weaker, position.

How has the role of strategist changed?
Clients and colleagues now expect strategists to be faster, more agile and able to combine being a conceptual thinker with evidence and analysis. Ten years ago, there was a sense that planners were given a brief, disappeared into a darkened room with all the data sources, and emerged with a pearl of wisdom on a silver platter. Today, the role is less linear and independent and far more fluid and collaborative.

Stuart Sullivan-Martin, chief strategy officer, Mediaedge:cia
Major accounts: Orange, Morrisons, Nintendo, Specsavers and COI

How can you get real insight into consumer behaviour?
If a strategist doesn't have a real obsession with understanding people, they will be hamstrung. Using quantitative methods, a good strategist will understand lifestyle and behaviour, and will employ qualitative methods such as face-to-face groups and recruiting consumers for blogging and online discussion forums. The good strategist has a natural empathy with people and follows their instincts.

How can strategists ensure they are perceived as trusted business advisers rather than fluffy luxuries?
Strategists who show their worth are the ones who start and finish with the client's business and understand how the company makes its money. A good planner will then deploy a rigorous, analytical and convention-breaking way of attacking a problem. The strategist's role has changed dramatically. We now consult clients across areas ranging from above- and below-the-line media to events and packaging.

How is the growth of digital influencing your role?
The greatest influence on our role is technology's effect on consumer behaviour. However, the word "digital" as a job description is increasingly useless. You can't think of people as digital or non-digital any more; digital simply oils the wheels of life.

How do strategists fit within the wider media agency?
Ten years ago, strategists were often a one-man show, but one person owning all the knowledge is no longer possible. Being a strategist is as much about diplomacy as analytical skill - it is a role for teams working together. Mediaedge:cia's strategists are dispersed among the agency.

Sean Healy, managing partner, strategic solutions, MediaCom
Major accounts: Sky, VWAudi, Royal Bank of Scotland Group and Mars/Wrigley

How can you get real insight into consumer behaviour?
By treating the people you are trying to influence with respect. It is amazing how many times I have watched focus groups and listened to other people in the room ridiculing the participants. The answer is to immerse yourself in the consumer's world: watch them in action and put your feet in their shoes. If you want to find out what people in Carlisle think and do, then go to Carlisle. The answers invariably do not lie in central London.

How can you plan effectively now data goes out of date in three months?
Consumer behaviour is changing rapidly as we experience unusual circumstances, but we should not discount lessons from the past. You need a finger on the pulse of what punters are thinking and doing right now, alongside rigorous evaluation of longer-term trends.

What is the role of a strategist in a recession?
A strategist's job is the same in a boom as in a downturn: to change consumer behaviour. To me, this means helping define opportunities for communications to solve clients' issues, to make everybody obsessed about consumer insight, and to build a consensus around a strategy that will deliver results in the real world. Is there such a thing as a platform-neutral strategist?

I'm not sure anybody's advice is platform-neutral yet. However, strategists can be neutral in terms of recognising opportunities to deliver ideas across touch points. We have always found giving clients the best advice pays back long term, both in terms of their ROI and our working relationship.

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