Let Our Empathy Lead Us: Andrea Zimmerman, ICF Next

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Andrea Zimmerman
Partner, Strategy ICF Next

Tell us a bit about yourself and your current role?

I am a 20-year agency veteran with a relatively varied set of experiences throughout my career. I have been with ICF Next in Minneapolis for almost 4 years, and I am currently leading our brand strategy and insights team.

I began my career in advertising and spent the first 8 years advancing my position in account service. From there I switched gears to design, leading everything from packaging, to in-store experience to brand development and design. Prior to ICF Next, I spent 5 ½ years at a brand design agency in Minneapolis where I fell in love with brand strategy and “digging in” to gain an intimate understanding of my clients’ brands and their audiences.


How did you get your start as a strategist? What led you to pursue it as a career?

In short, I love people. I love learning about people and what drives them, what they get excited about, what they feel challenged by. I love uncovering cultural insights that can be applied to a client’s business or brand challenge. That is what drives me, finding the intersection of what is important to a brand and what will move a target audience to act, engage, trust, believe and fall in love with the brand.


What set of skills do you believe it takes for a strategist to thrive in the current advertising landscape?

Of course, there are the basic skills of understanding business principles, brand strategy definition and techniques, and being a great storyteller. However, that can be taught relatively quickly. I believe the difference between a good strategist and great strategist, is instinct and empathy – things that can’t necessarily be taught. We continue to be asked to do more with less and turn briefs or insights around in a matter of days, sometimes hours. A great strategist has to have a gut instinct to know which leads to follow. Our job is to ask the right questions so that we pursue solutions to the right problems. There are often many paths you take to get there and having the right instinct can help you get there faster. That instinct is most often led by putting yourself in the minds of your target audience to really get to know them. Being able to understand the experiences and feelings of others, outside of your own perspective. As a brand strategist, we have to let our empathy lead us to what will make the biggest difference for our audiences and our clients.


What’s the most challenging aspect of the job? What helps keep the work interesting for you?

I feel like these might be two different questions, although still, perhaps, somewhat related. What challenges me most is time. As mentioned previously, we are always being asked to get to insights or a brief sooner. We have to move quickly and trust our intuition. Which is part of what keeps things interesting for me. I thrive in a fast-paced, ever-changing, challenging environment. I take pride in being able to serve the needs of my teams and my clients. [Quickly] providing the insights and strategic direction that drives great creative that effectively solves a problem, that’s what it’s all about.


Is there a part of the role that you feel is often misunderstood?

I think the most commonly misunderstood aspect of a planner or strategist is that you have to be the smartest person in the room. If you approach the role that way, it may be the quickest path to a disappointing career. I believe the best strategists actually come at each assignment from the very opposite perspective, which is to say they assume nothing and are seeking to be the one that has the most to learn. We have to let go of our preconceived notions, our personal experiences and open ourselves up to new possibilities, new ways of thinking, letting our curiosity drive us.


Do you have any advice for those looking to work in a similar role? 

Yes, be a sponge, soak it all in. Listen and learn. Our job is to understand our audiences and share that knowledge in support of our teams. Strategy lives and dies in execution, so be in service of those who execute.

Secondly, be ready for change because it will never stop. The beauty of our work is the skills and the fundamentals of how we get to a solution really haven’t changed that much over time. However, culture is in a constant state of change all around us. This is what makes strategy so exciting and rewarding. There is always more to learn.


How do you keep your finger on the pulse of culture? Where do you look for inspiration?

Inspiration is all around me. It’s in my kids and what they say and do. It’s in the media I absorb every day. It’s in the trade blogs and podcasts…when I have time for them. It’s in the places I travel and the people I meet along the way. That is how I keep my finger on the pulse, as a lifelong student of culture and strategy. I believe if you’re not learning and growing, you’re dying. So, I make it a point to focus on the former every day.