Humanity & Humility

RP Kumar, SVP of Strategy at RAPP NYC shares his view on how the roles of a Strategist has evolved and what it takes to make it in today's landscape.

RP Kumar
SVP of Strategy RAPP Worldwide

Tell us a bit about yourself, what do you do?

As SVP of Strategy at RAPP NYC, I lead a team of brilliant Strategists who provide strategic direction to the marketing efforts of our clients, helping them meet their business objectives.

What did you do before your current role and what led you to where you are now?

Starting in mainstream advertising at major ad firms like J. Walter Thompson, FCB and Lowe, I migrated to the world of Digital and Data Based Marketing around 10 years ago when I joined Javelin, in the Omnicom Group. I loved the transition – I learned so much and started to be way more attuned to today’s business realities than when I did “pure” advertising work. The business-building opportunities afforded by data and digital connections are so profound that we are at the cusp of a major upheaval in marketing and communications – we are lucky to be in the industry at this moment in time.

How would you define the role of a strategist in your agency?

Strategy is the core of our business; it is where everything – data, insight, process - comes together. My team and I make sense of it all – we collect, curate and analyze the data, glean deep human insights from those data, and use those insights to develop strategies that create true business value for our clients.

How have you seen the role of a strategist been evolving since you first began?
There was a time when Strategists could get away with just knowing how to write a decent creative brief. No longer. Today’s strategist has to understand how businesses run, what creates true client value, how data streams flow, and how to process data to make meaningful value. This is NOT to say that data is all a strategist needs to deal with – the true skill is in gleaning insights and actionable strategies from these data.
Overall I would say today’s Strategist is way more versatile than when I joined the industry.

In your opinion, what are the greatest barriers an aspiring planner/strategist encounters when trying to start their career?

There are two big barriers to starting a successful career: industry and individual.
The industry issue is that agencies have incredibly tight margins compared to a few years ago. Consequently, agencies don’t have the time or bandwidth to really train Strategists as they used to. This has resulted in a strange situation where a potential employer is looking for a young Strategist, just starting off in their career, but expecting them to deliver as though they have had five years of experience. 
The individual issue is that there is a lot of confusion and noise as to what “Strategy” actually is. Is it all about Digital? Data? Communications? Creative? Automation? AI? Young strategists, thus, face a wall of noise when it comes to deciding what “flavor” of strategist they want to be. This is a real issue in that Strategists are creating their own little pigeon holes too early in their careers without really understanding the true expanse of what a real Strategist can or should be able to do.

In your time, what have you noticed are the key skills and traits that separate great strategists from the mediocre?

I firmly believe that a deep sense of humility and humanity are essential for any strategist to be called “great.” It is easy to get seduced by clichés and buzzwords (unfortunately too common in our industry) and lose sight of the human being who is our ultimate audience. 
Apart from that, I would say great strategists are incurably intellectually curious; they are great observers and always carry a true sense of wonder about the world around them.

How do you avoid getting stuck in a cultural bubble and stay informed on the needs and desires of everyday consumers?

Living and working as I do in Manhattan, I know how easy it is to get caught up in my own feelings of self-importance, so that the outside (real) world seems like it’s an intrusion on my cozy little self-referential universe.
The solution is simple: I just get out of the office – often, and for long stretches - and watch people: not judgmentally, not critically, but respectfully, and with a powerful sense of gratitude – after all, they are the people who ultimately buy the products we market and pay our salaries! Similarly, when I’m with family or friends outside of my professional circle, I try to politely understand their motivations and desires on their terms, not mine – not “how can I sell them stuff” but more “how do I better understand them”.