Strategists Come in All Shapes & Sizes

RAPP Global CSO Shiona McDougall on how the role of a strategist has evolved, and what it takes to make it to the top.

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

I’ve been at RAPP for nearly 9 years based out of our London office working on a wide range of global and local clients including Virgin Media, PayPal, Skype, Waitrose and Ford. As Global CSO I also lead the development and definition of the RAPP group portfolio of strategic tools and champion best practice across our network.

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

I thought my career would always be client side I held a number of senior marketing roles in telecoms, publishing, and e-commerce. Then I agreed to do 3 days consulting in an agency and stayed for a year! After that, I went back client side and missed the camaraderie of agency life and the focus on the strategy that you don’t get when you’re a client. So when I got a call from an old agency colleague inviting me to join RAPP I jumped at the chance!

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

Strategists come in all shapes and sizes but the primary purpose of strategy is to focus resources to drive positive change. There are 3 skills needed to do that for RAPP clients and all our strategists have some combination of all of them: a). Insight development – finding the nuggets in data or research that we can leverage to inspire new directions; b). Customer experience design – finding ways to remove barriers or oil the wheels of a customers journey towards positive outcomes; c). Client consultancy – helping clients navigate the options available to them to achieve their goals.

How have you seen the role of a strategist been evolving since you first began?

Today’s strategist has to be data and tech literate as well as creatively inspiring and commercially savvy. Every strategist today needs to have enough expertise to navigate the complex data and martech landscape and to know when to deploy the data scientists and technologists!

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

I often say there is no such thing as a “junior strategist” because the job of a junior strategist is to figure out what kind of strategist you’re going to be. Every strategist has to be a thought leader and a driver of change and that means you have to have the confidence of a CEO, the rigor of a CFO and the persuasion skills of a seasoned door-to-door sales person. You don’t need years of experience to achieve this but getting the balance right between chippy know-it-all and passive minion takes a bit of working out and nobody gets it right from the start.

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

Ruthless editing. Strategy is not a demonstration of everything you know. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of all the peripheral information you may have collected and explored in your search for a solution and a direction. Good strategists provide clear focus  - whether for clients or for creatives – and that means organized storytelling that gets to the point quickly and simply.

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

I love attending qualitative research. Nothing beats an evening of junk food and listening in on a group of strangers talking about stuff – whatever the subject. Also: Mumsnet. Mumsnetters are articulate, funny, and opinionated and their views on everything are usually varied and interesting.