****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.
Each 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.