My conversation with Tiina Salzberg starts with names. First her own, with that intriguing double I. “It’s because I’m originally from Finland,” she explains. She was partly raised in the Netherlands, although she started her career in the United States and worked for several years in Switzerland before returning to Amsterdam, so she definitely qualifies as international.
“Plus I’m talking to you from the Scottish Highlands,” she adds, in an aside typical of the pandemic era. These days interviews can take place almost anywhere except face to face.
The second naming issue is that of Tiina’s consultancy. Created as an extension of 180 Kingsday, it aims to provide a “brand coaching” service to existing clients like Pepsico, Unilever and Danone. At the time of our conversation, however, it didn’t officially have a name. Fortunately, just before the deadline, the new operation was christened 180 Thinking.
In fact it has existed in a pre-launch format since last year, growing out of Tiina’s strategic leadership role at 180 Kingsday – where since 2017 she’s built a team covering brand strategy, data analytics, communications planning and content. The core mission of 180 Thinking is to dig deeply into how brands are perceived in culture and build new expressions and growth potential out of the results.
To give us a clearer picture, what might be a typical project for the consultancy? “Well, not so long ago a big FMCG client asked us to help them upscale their team in terms of getting to much richer insights for briefs. So we were asked to develop a model that would help their insights practitioners ask the right questions from the very beginning.”
The team developed tools that supercharged the client’s research efficiency and turned the higher grade results into insights that, as Tiina puts it, “sit at the right strategic altitude”. The result: more inspiring briefs and a creative output the client can be proud of.
She warns against regarding the unit as some kind of souped-up strategic planning service, however. “You could say it’s a mixture of planning and brand consulting, but I prefer to think of it as ‘coaching’. The difference is that I like to work very closely with clients. There are all sorts of consultancies, but my feeling is that many of them are the smart guys who come into the room, glean the information they need, then go away for weeks – or months, depending on the ask – and come back with what’s meant to be the perfect solution. I think it’s better for all of us when we do the surgery alongside the client.”
A better partner
For now 180 Thinking is six-strong: alongside Tiina there are two consultants, a data and insights specialist, a project coordinator and a business director. But she expects the team to grow.
With so many agencies now returning to the full-service model – having split out their media departments years ago – why create a separate brand strategy unit at all? “It emphasizes the fact that, for us, advertising is not always the ultimate solution. We preserve our integrity and independence by being able to focus on the strategic question at hand. Occasionally we may get the creative work off the back of that – and then we’ll move it over to the creative agency – but that’s not our goal.”
Could being a separate entity allow it to pitch for non-180 Kingsday clients, much as the independent media agencies did? “That hasn’t come up yet, but of course we’d be extremely transparent about it. We’re quite a close-knit family with our clients, so it would depend on the individual case. Let’s say we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
I wonder aloud whether the move was partly driven by the muscling in of consultancies like Accenture on the creative field. Advertising gets its revenge by jumping into consulting? “We didn’t think of it that way,” Tiina says, with a laugh. “It’s essentially a way of providing a better service for our clients. And our clients were actually asking us for that. They work with so many disparate consultancies and agencies that they lack continuity and synergy, so to find somebody who could provide a holistic service was a huge advantage for them.”
Tiina’s relish for strategic challenges springs from working in-house for some of the world’s biggest brands. Originally she wanted to go into law, but while she was still at university the jaw-dropping O.J. Simpson trial caused her to become disillusioned with the US legal system. “I was an idealist – in fact I still am.”
Instead she “fell into” a consulting role in New York, followed by strategic planning posts at several leading agencies. She then spent four years at Mondelez International in Zurich, where she worked on the brand strategy side of the coffee business, overhauling 40 brands in her first year alone. The next stop was Jacobs Douwe Egberts, where (“in a bizarre turn of events, having never worked in media”) she was made global media director, working on brands like Jacobs, L’Or, Kenco and Tassimo.
She admits it was a tough cultural fit: “A little too spreadsheet-based for me.” So it was time to return to the agency world, where she could once again get closer to the creative process. “I thought it would be interesting to bring everything I’d learned over the past six years back into an agency environment – to help build the agency of the future. That sounds corny, I know, but what I mean is: an agency that really understands the challenges clients face, what their day-to-day looks like – and is simply a better partner for them. It seems to have worked.”
New era, new model
Running her new consultancy in the midst of the pandemic hasn’t been easy, of course. “But we haven’t taken our foot off the pedal at all. We’re in the extremely fortunate position of having loyal clients who are still giving us plenty of work. Is it different? Certainly. I was constantly travelling before – and now not at all. But we’ve managed to adapt our model to online.”
One thing she’s appreciated, particuarly as an advocate for women in leadership roles, is the opportunity to spend more time with her family. “My sons are teenagers now, so I’ve been a mom for a long time. And throughout my career I have found myself constantly apologizing for having children. I still do it occasionally – and I’m sure that it’s not just me, that it’s systemic. Until the time no woman feels she has to apologize at work for having kids and raising a family, there’s still an issue.”
Perhaps the humanizing aspect of working from home will accelerate that process. Meanwhile, Tiina notes, many of her client contacts are women in senior roles. “We talk about this issue a lot. But not, these days, over a glass of wine.”
A strange time to start a new venture, indeed. But also a way of building strength for the future. If you can succeed right now, people are likely to remember your name.