Why the role of a “Digital Strategist” needs to evolve

****This blog post has ignited tons of conversations and discussions around the role of digital strategists. I’m currently collaborating with several thinkers to explore this thought forward. If you’d like to learn of the results, email me jinals28 AT Gmail. And thanks for visiting!

It’s been about six months since I joined JWT. And what a ride it has been. I feel like I’ve grown ten-fold and the learning’s continue. I’m reminded of how I felt when I first left India to come to USA for undergraduate studies. For someone that loves learning, JWT, like college, hasn’t disappointed. I will write a series of posts about key lessons I’ve learned but today, I want to explore some ideas I’ve begun to noodle with regarding the role of “digital strategists” in larger agencies. My title confounds me. It didn’t until I began to view it in the context of working in a global communications and marketing agency. I think now I have a more objective view of both the strengths and the weaknesses of this role. Some of this will be very common-sensical to you and I think it is, but I felt the need to articulate it so I can understand it better.

Missing skill-set in a digital strategist

There is varying degrees of overlap between traditional account planning, engagement planning, communications planning and digital strategy. Account planning was born in response to the increasing complexity in consumer needs. From my understanding, engagement and comms. planning responds to the complexity in media channels. Digital strategy, does a bit of both. It represents the consumer’s digital behaviors and also lays into consideration the channels and platforms to reach them.

All these forms of planning are more art than science. Or as Mark Pollard calls then, part intuition, part science. However, what I’ve noticed is that digital strategists often lack a foundational understanding and grasp of brand strategy. Because digital strategy is practiced so differently at different agencies, it is often reduced to a very tactical interpretation or extension of the core brand idea or platform. Account planning on the other hand is by and far practiced similarly across the board. Each planner has their own flavor but the process and output is similar. This brings a sort of discipline and uniformity to the craft that digital strategists at yet to grasp.

I can’t speak for others, but I’ve taken upon the task of teaching myself this missing skill-set because my instinct is that it will help me become a better strategist. Also I think as our industry matures, these three roles will merge to produce a hybrid thinker and problem-solver of sorts that is T-shaped: adept at planning and strategizing; but has a common, foundational knowledge.

Behaviors; not technologies:

Digital strategists must focus on the consumer behavior digitally – not the technology or the platform. I realize that this is an oxymoron, especially because consumer behaviors are born out of new technologies and platforms. At its root, problem-solving is the notion of inducing action or activating a new behavior in the consumers. It makes sense to anchor the thought-process here instead of the platform/tool/technology. Also, it is because in the current ad-agency environment, this is the most significant area of differentiation that a digital strategist brings to the table. Her understanding of behaviors online is why the creatives and the planners will listen to her. Leave the shiny technologies and tools to the creatives.

Areas of excellence:

Digital strategists must have an “area of excellence.” This goes back to the notion of being T-shaped. I think there are three main communication cycles where a digital strategist can situate themselves: Brand building/ awareness cycle; Acquisition or product sale cycle and customer loyalty cycle. See the attached diagram. Depending on the project need and the agency’s capabilities, a digital strategist with the right type of “excellence” should be on the team.

Screen shot 2011-07-22 at 5.55.50 PMEach digital strategist must have an “area of excellence.” For example, within my team, although we only have three digital strategists by title, I could argue that every member on my team understands and can consult intelligently to the broader strategy. However, each of the team member has a very pronounced area of excellence on her.

As you can see on the diagram, some area of excellence are applicable across the board – some sit more squarely in one product cycle. (PS: I’m sure social media cross the board but I wanted to provide a more black-and-white and a less nuanced look at the key specialization areas. I have also not accounted for technologists on this to keep this discussion focused and simple.)

I’d be open to any feedback you have on this theory of mine – but the general notion here is that when interviewing for digital strategists to join your team, discover early on what product cycle they best fit into and understand and what their area of excellence is.

These are just some top-line thoughts I have but I’m sure I’ll be writing about this more as my experience offers me additional learnings’ and insights.

Why the role of a “Digital Strategist” needs to evolve

44 Responses

  1. This is terrific Jinal. I’d add one thing, not sure how to fit it on your nifty chart though.

    The digital strategist must also understand how all these elements integrate with “traditional” marketing elements, whether they be PR, outdoor, print, etc. Digital can’t live alone and the digital strategist must understand how the parts can fit together.

    Rick Liebling July 22, 2011 at 3:30 pm #
  2. I agree with the “T” shaped analogy for the digital strategist and with the concept of using tech to facilitate the idea in contrast to tech as the idea. Where we differ is in the depth portion of the “T” analogy. I believe, its almost impossible to be an innovative digital strategist without a deep understating of the tech, it puts you in a situation where you are either waiting for examples of successful use of the technology or wasting time with ideas that when implemented fail because the tech doesn’t support the vision.

    As the customer decision buying journey shifts from the funnel to represent a more non linear structure with stimulus, research, point of sale and experience being keep touch points where digital strategy can influence the consumer, I would argue, transforms your areas of excellence to key components that every digital strategy must consider with stimulus being elevated across them all.

    @44thfloor July 22, 2011 at 4:38 pm #
  3. @44thfloor You’ve articulated it better than I could and perhaps I need to edit my post to reflect this. I think the emphasis should be on the behavior as the lead-into the strategy, not the technology. But it is a chicken-or-egg situation where unless you understand fully the technology, you cannot decipher the nuances of the behavior.

    Regarding areas of excellence – the point is that a strategist needs deep knowledge of one or more but a broad understanding of all. From experience, I can tell you that there not a single digital strategist that excels across ALL those areas.

    Thank you for commenting.

    Jinal Shah July 22, 2011 at 7:48 pm #
  4. @Rick Thank you – you’ve made one of those comments that actually should be at the heart of how a digital strategist approaches problem-solving. Thanks for voicing it out – it’s seems so natural to me that I didn’t acknowledge it but it needs to be. I’ll figure out a way to incorporate it into the chart ;-)

    Jinal Shah July 22, 2011 at 7:49 pm #
  5. Hi Jinal, this is certainly a very pertinent and relevant piece you have touched upon. While I am totally aligned with your views, @44th Floor also has made some very important points.

    The change in communication media has resulted in a switch from conventional thumb-rule of Idea:Production ratio – 80:20 to probably 45:55 today. The idea today is as good as its production/execution. Now matter how great the Idea, it will not have a positive result with the consumer if the Production/Execution didn’t manage to engage deeply.

    And in order to gauge the power of the idea, it is imperative that the Strategists has a reasonable understanding of the key variables in the Production / viability of the technology in use.

    Anyways once again, I could not agree more on the need to have Strategists that straddle all of the above platforms/areas of expertise (at a Brand/Consumer/Technology level).

    Look forward to more of your learnings! :)

    Tej Desai July 23, 2011 at 12:17 pm #
  6. Fabulous post.

    Kirsty July 24, 2011 at 4:15 am #
  7. Fantastic post Jinah. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and this is the first article to really push the boundaries on digital. Can’t wait to see more.

    As someone who moved from a brand strategy firm to a digital strategy firm, I feel like the two are in two very different worlds. Digital strategists are knee deep in tactics–it’s our job to design digital experiences (conceptually). Sure, a helpful understanding of branding concepts like positioning, segmentation, and research would be helpful, but none would be a requirement for creating awesome digital ideas.

    I really like the idea of behaviors vs. technologies. This is one of the most important things that current research lacks in this space: any clue to how people truly behave on the Internet. And we’ll never get to it with silly statistics like, “10% of people use a smart phone for shopping,” data that’s completely useless to digital strategists. Perhaps a ginormous company like JWT could commission something like this one day.

    I feel like the areas of excellence graph touches on a few interesting places. I’m much more excited, however, about areas outside of a traditional marketing cycle, like product development and ops. We’re all looking forward to the day we can look at a traditional product (e.g., newspapers) and enlist the advice of digital strategists to come up with digital ideas to make the thing more awesome.

    Matt Daniels July 24, 2011 at 1:15 pm #
  8. Thank you for the reply to my comment, I appreciate your openness and thoughts on how to continue to grow as a digital strategist. In your reply you stated, “From experience, I can tell you that there not a single digital strategist that excels across ALL those areas”, which started me to think, how would one go about measuring whether they or others excel in all of those areas? I came up with a few ways, but all of them pointed to the strategist core of being able to draw from personal and outside source expertise to create or recognize a good idea. Its making those connections that lead to insights and solutions that has become my personal target for growth. In the beginning of the dot com era their was this term “webmaster” and it referred to a single person who could handle everything digital for a particular enterprise, it was such a disaster and unrealistic, aren’t we all thankful we moved past that point. Thoughts?

    @44thfloor July 24, 2011 at 3:40 pm #
  9. I agree with Rick. A T-shaped strategist should understand how digital works with traditional elements.

    Carol L. Weinfeld July 25, 2011 at 12:20 am #
  10. ahah, it’s strange because all the article said that a digital strategist have to understand before of all the behaviour of the audience, but finally, the three areas you find as “the excellence” are all technical and very vertical, and there are not a reference or a suggedtion about the analytical skills and the metodology to understand the audience behavior!!! ahahah, it’s so strange. I think before of all we have to create a distinction throught a strategist and a specialist. a strategist know all the “tools” to find better solution, but have to ask at the vertical specialist how is the best approach to reach his vertical area. and identify with the complete plan the interconnection through the tools and “vertical strategist”. so, I think you have a very good team of specialist, but I’m not sure you have a strategist.

    danielaghidoli July 25, 2011 at 1:05 am #
  11. @44thfloor Ben Malbon from Google Creative Lab said something pithy but profound regarding the role of a digital strategist: “Know the User, Know the Magic, Connect the Two.” At its core, this is the job of a digital strategist. I think that’s where there’s another parallel from the discipline of account planning. Connections is at the core of how they approach their work – as it should be in ours. I think with this post, I’ve only scratched the surface. With help from commentators and practitioners such as yourself, I’m hoping we can bring more definition and discipline to the role of “digital strategy.” Thanks for pushing me forward.

    Jinal Shah July 25, 2011 at 7:31 am #
  12. @Matt Daniels Wow – thanks for the kind words Matt. My biggest point of contention with digital strategists has been that in some cases, the tactics are so far off that they don’t fit in with the brand personality. I’d like every digital strategist to ask themselves, “Is this tactic right for the brand?” before championing it. Also, I love how you mention product development and ops. I think, increasingly, even within traditional agencies there is greater demand and appetite for product and app development. You’ve given me something to think about – I’ll have to noodle it around in my head. Thanks again for the comment and pushing my thinking forward.

    Jinal Shah July 25, 2011 at 7:34 am #
  13. It’s great to see this focus on strategy. One thing I’d add – and it may make is somewhat three dimensional – is that many strategists could use industry knowledge of their clients. I’ve seen too many “stick with the tactics type of mentality without any understanding” of a particular client’s needs.

    Jonathan Trenn July 25, 2011 at 7:36 am #
  14. @Daniela – Thanks for reading the post and commenting. You are right in that the areas of excellence that I’ve identified are all very tactical and of specialist nature. But the areas of excellence are not meant to teach someone or provide a methodology on audience behavior but they are meant to help differentiate one digital strategist from another. This I believe is in the best interest of both the recruiter and the strategist. How a strategist (no matter what their specialization is) practices their craft and understands audience behavior is up to them – there is no book on how one can teach them to do that just as there is no book on how someone can teach an account planner to understand consumer behaviors. At least, that’s how I’m seeing this – open to your feedback.

    Jinal Shah July 25, 2011 at 7:40 am #
  15. @Jonathan Yep – that’s a prerequisite to this job! Thanks for your comment!

    Jinal Shah July 25, 2011 at 8:13 am #
  16. I agree with the challenge of being a “digital strategist” versus an overall marketing strategist. I think the key in any channel specialization is understanding the business holistically. It is often the case that digital channels are used to simplify amplify or color community engagement. In a silo, these efforts cause spikes in interaction, but to create steady brand awareness and meet overall objectives, you have to be immersed in the overall campaign and brand. Digital itself is ever-evolving (some even consider mobile digital) which speaks to convergence. Without an understanding of the overall business, you will only be creating spikes in digital and not really moving and needles.

    reema mitra July 25, 2011 at 8:37 am #
  17. @Reema As always, a very smart insight. Thanks for commenting!

    Jinal Shah July 25, 2011 at 10:21 am #
  18. Of course! :) And that was supposed to read “you will only be creating spikes in digital and not really moving ANY needles.” Love messing up a dramatic ending.

    reema mitra July 25, 2011 at 11:20 am #
  19. Great discussion Jinal. I think what almost everyone is saying is that digital is not a separate silo. So much of the “brand experience” is online these days. You have to take a holistic approach as Reema said.

    As you point out – looking at digital as a “tactic” and separate can lead to creation of content that is out of touch with the brand. (how many times have we seen that happen?)

    Digital strategist should be one of the top level positions, coordinating regularly in the creation as well as the execution of the marketing strategy. Who else in the agency has as much access to measurable customer behavior and communication? In my experience, the digital folks with all of the areas of expertise you listed above often come up with customer insight that others have missed.

    I admit I’m prejudiced, but I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of the role of digital strategist for all the reasons you’ve listed and more.

    Holly Buchanan July 25, 2011 at 12:16 pm #
  20. Great insight, really enjoyed this perspective.

    I would argue that a digital strategist must focus on what digital tactics would best drive the big idea.

    Be it the central vehicle or a peripheral add on, the focus must be centered around how digital enhances the idea and plays an integeral role in communicating the idea. Looking at it as a silo will only diminish the creative attention given to the medium and rendering it the weak link in teh campiagn.

    You are correct in saying that consumer behaviors are born out of new technologies and platforms and because of this evolution period it is very difficult to try and compartmentalize consumer behavior in this area.

    Digital consumptions differentiates itself from other forms of media because of its intimate nature. Be it on a PC or mobile device, social media network or gaming platform, the bahvior is going to vary drastically across the spectruim.

    But one thing that does unify this particular meduim is the fact that so many people are using it in so many different ways that the creative execution needs to now take direction from these channels and be maliable enough to accomidate so many new and colorful shades of behaviors.

    I read a lot of these kinds of blaket statements regarding roles and emerging technologies and what we all seem to be forgetting is that advertising is sales and selling is an art. Every challenge poses very unique problems to be overcome and those problems require unique tactics to address the issue the client is paying us to solve.

    Every assignmment requires a special strategist who can take a step back from the conventional wisdom and create a plan that addresses the uniqueness of the brand and its communication, otherwise we start seeing copycat tactics applied where they have no business being.

    Selling is a very dynamic and skillful art that doesnt take very well to strict and confining rules, this is where the book needs to be thrown away and innovation and ingenuity come in.

    Planners and strategists needs to constantly come up with new and creative ways to create tactics that are specifically formulated to solve the complex issue the brand is facing.

    When trying to formulate a chart such as the very nice one you have created in your post you need to forget the JPG image and have an animation of an ever changing structure that is contantly evolving and changing shape based on all kinds of very unique challenges.

    We all fall prey to trying to find static answers to very dynamic questions.

    Craig Elimeliah July 26, 2011 at 9:43 am #
  21. This was so refreshing to read – You really hit the nail on the head especially with your chart and expressing that you have digital strategists, each with their own level of “expertise” in something – creating a more robust digital team.

    I think @Rick Liebling had a great point and I know we’ve run into this often. We need to ensure that all digital strategies / tactics integrate with “traditional” marketing elements. It’s true digital can’t live alone and the digital strategist must find a way to make these fit together in a multi-channel approach.

    Elizabeth Huebner July 26, 2011 at 10:21 am #
  22. good post, and great insight. i think your most important point for me is ‘behaviours’ not technologies. And we look at behaviours – we need to always ask the question ‘why’? what are the human motivations, needs, etc. that prompt these behaviours (conscious or not).

    human motivations don’t change much, but their ability to meet these needs has been hyper-compressed in time and space with the opportunities that digital living gives us. Critically, from a digital strategist point of view is the opportunity to add evidence and insight from digital behaviours to the traditional hunches and ideas from the account / brand planning and creative realms.

    Paul Gage – regional planning director for APAC, iris.

    Paul Gage July 26, 2011 at 10:40 am #
  23. @Craig Selling isn’t the same as it was before. It is siloed and the consumer demands different ways to get to it. But I like how you’ve elevated the discussion by bringing it down to its essence. I do like your advice of creating a dynamic chart – want to help me? This is as far as my digital-design skills go!

    Jinal Shah July 28, 2011 at 7:38 am #
  24. @Elizabeth – Agreed! Are we both in the NY office? (Just noticed your JWT email address)

    Jinal Shah July 28, 2011 at 7:38 am #
  25. @Paul Hi! Thanks for stopping by. The “behaviors” portion of this post has gotten a lot of traction. I’m exploring it further now to discover how different digital strategist approach and define this. I agree in that human motivations don’t change much – but it’d be interesting to discover the nuances that digital has introduced. Or regional/ cultural nuances and expectations. Will be great to collaborate on this if you are interested.

    Jinal Shah July 28, 2011 at 7:41 am #
  26. hey jinal.

    great to connectg on linkedin. and yes be keen to talk about how digital has affected behaviours in different cultures. certainly if you look across india, china and SE asia (where i’m looking at the world), digital has had a really interesting and different impact.

    I guess the big difference in APAC is that people have gone from very little connectivity to a very mobile driven digital experience. The dial up, the broadband, the desktop, the laptop – all been bypassed. This means that that behaviours including technologies such as mobile banking, QR codes, RFID, are taken much more at face value of ‘what can it do for me’ rather than being viewed as a change or ‘scary new technology’.

    But then across markets you have differences based on culture, geography, language. SMS is massive in philippines and indonesia, whereas in china twitter and facebook equivalents are more prevalent. Often with youth, the motivational drivers are the same – to seek identity, to be part of a group, to test boundaries. but the technologies used can vary widely.

    anyway, be keen to connect and chat more.

    cheers,
    paul

    Paul Gage July 28, 2011 at 8:00 am #
  27. As a student who is new to the field of advertising, I have been interested in learning more about the position of an account planner. I cannot express my gratitude for this article and comments as it has very good suggestions about the personality of the ideal planner, industry trends, and comprehensible directions for those considering this as a career. Thank you for writing so candidly.

    Amber Porter July 28, 2011 at 10:56 pm #
  28. @Amber – you are welcome

    Jinal Shah July 29, 2011 at 12:03 pm #
  29. @Jinal and @Paul (and all): would love your perspective and welcome you to weigh in on posts anytime, as I travel from country to country with The Saturn Return Project to seek and share regional perspective on the global state of digital. Check it out at thesaturnreturnproject.com, and please feel free to weigh in on what I’ve picked up in So. Africa and Canada so far (first two on the tour). Great post Jinal and great discussion around your key points. Well done!

    Brianna August 4, 2011 at 3:42 am #
  30. Great article Jinal. I can’t help but agree with you on so many points. I often feel that many in our industry feel the need to employ new technologies without fully understanding how they fit with their target market, and where the fit within the promotional cycle/customer journey.

    I still stand by the very ‘basic’, but often simplest model of A.I.D.A. – yes, consumer behaviour is shifting due to digital world (hunting for a deal, reading reviews, researching), but at the core – the same, common theory still needs to be applied – regardless of how we interact with our prospects/customers. Together with a clear segmentation model, talking to potential customers at the right time, in the right ‘location’, with the right message should be easier than ever before.

    The beauty of the digital world is that the communication platforms available are so dynamic we are able to target, track and convert more efficiently – combined with a solid offline/traditional approach (often ignored), our clients objectives ‘should’ be met each time.

    With emerging technologies, an ever savvy youth market – we just can’t stand still.

    Refreshing read.

    Cheers,

    Matt

    Matt Dalton August 4, 2011 at 3:57 am #
  31. “consumer behaviors are born out of new technologies and platforms.”

    Culture and technology is symbiotic. One influences and creates from the other.

    But what do I know? I just shared your article to raise my klout score. Didn’t really read it.

    Mlego August 19, 2011 at 5:23 am #
  32. Hi Jinal,

    Thank you for sending me here. Great post and interesting discussion in the comments. My $0.02.

    1. Digital strategists need to work on the intersection of technology, culture, human nature and branding. We need to understand basic human behaviors and how they affect our behavior online, as well as how technology changes our behavior (online and offline). We also need to make sure that what we create online is coherent with the brand as opposed to visually consistent. We can’t just take briefs from the traditional agency and translate traditional ideas into digital and social executions. But we can’t ensure such brand consistency without knowledge of brand architecture, as you point out.

    2. As digital strategists, we need to understand not just the mechanics of how things work but also the dynamics (going back to behavior) and learn how to apply them across established and emerging platforms.

    3. We have started to create silos within digital itself: social, mobile, local, experiential, video, etc. and in reality there is a huge overlap between all these disciplines. Local is predominantly mobile and very social. Social and video are becoming more mobile. Experiential is becoming more social. SoLoMo isn’t a trend anymore, it’s very mainstream and we need to learn how to create experiences across platforms, media and devices that are coherent (vs. consistent) which requires more collaboration between teams and greater understanding of how platforms, devices and content overlap in so many areas. We can’t think of social and create social strategies without thinking of mobile and so forth.

    4. As I said in my post, http://andreanadrencheva.com/2011/07/24/evolving-digital-strategy-beyond-digital-promotion/ , we need to evolve digital strategy to more than just digital advertising and promotion. We use technology mostly for promotions without considering how specific technologies can affect the other three Ps of marketing: place, product and price. We call it digital marketing when in reality it is just digital promotion and advertising. Even simple technology such as text messaging can take the cost and infrastructure implications out of the equation and affect the product, the price and the place, thus giving us the opportunity not just to promote businesses, but to profoundly transform them: http://www.jigsawllc.com/2011/08/22/mobile-marketing-lessons-from-africa/ . We can create new products, transform distribution networks and change pricing models.

    What I see as the future of digital strategy is to create coherent brand experiences across platforms and devices and to extend digital promotion (or what we call digital marketing) to digital brand and business building strategies.

    Craig said that it is a very dynamic problem and I doubt that my ramblings can capture all the variables in the equation, however, I agree that digital strategy as a discipline needs to evolve.

    Andreana Drencheva August 23, 2011 at 5:43 pm #
  33. I am in my very early days of Digital Strategizing, This would surely help me a lot ! Thanks

    Ronak September 14, 2011 at 11:39 pm #
  34. Completely agree, great post.

    Libby Groettum February 22, 2012 at 4:23 pm #
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