Karen Staughton, Associate Director, Strategy, AnalogFolk
Tell us a bit about yourself, what do you do?
I’m a strategist, which can mean different things depending on who you ask – the voice of the consumer, custodian of the brand, culture stethoscope. It’s all of these things (and more?), but fundamentally I see strategy as an essential step in the creative process: understanding the problem, identifying an interesting opportunity to solve it and working with creatives to build a plan that brings that opportunity to life.
What did you do before your current role and what led you to where you are now?
I’ve had a bit of a winding path to my current role. I spent the better part of 15 years working in the music industry in the UK – running my own marketing agency, working at record labels and heading up marketing at Spotify in the UK before I moved back to the US with my family a few years ago. I realized that I’d been strategy adjacent for years, but hadn’t yet had the opportunity to dive into the discipline feet first. The transition has been interesting for sure – from client side to agency side and from the UK to the US, but one thing that has been really helpful is my background in the music industry – if you ever need to understand how weird and wonderful humans are, music is a pretty great place to start.
How would you define the role of a strategist in your agency?
The Portland office of AnalogFolk is only three years old, and it operates like a grown up start up, so we have the benefit of being able to create our processes and dream ways of working on the fly for each client and project without having a lot of traditional agency baggage. That’s not to say we start from scratch each time, but it means that strategists at AF need to be pretty flexible and be ready to juggle anything that heads our way. The team has specialties across content, digital and product strategy and traditional brand planning – our role as a collective team is to connect the dots between client problems and creative solutions while consistently considering the people at the other end of the message.
How have you seen the role of a strategist evolving since you first began?
Despite a pretty firm definition of its function, the advertising landscape has forced the role of strategist to evolve continuously. Even over the past 1-2 years, I’ve witnessed the perception of strategy shift from ‘overthinking bottlenecks’ to ‘crucial business winners that clients often depend on.’ More and more brands and clients are looking for the why behind their executions to make sure their message and their money travel, so it’s a really exciting time to be in this role.
As an aside, I’m personally very interested in the shifting role of data within advertising and communications in general. I absolutely adore data, but with ‘big data’ comes big responsibility. On the one hand, as we’re trying to understand emotions, behaviors and motivations of the consumer, data can be an incredible tool, but when it’s relied upon it becomes a crutch. It’s our job to know where data is valuable and where it is actually clouding the bigger picture. For every data point, we need to understand the human ‘why’ to avoid dangerous assumptions. This role of data chaperone becomes doubly important from a creative point of view where the battle of relevant vs. interesting is waged.
In your opinion, what are the greatest barriers an aspiring planner/strategist encounters when trying to start their career?
In my experience, many agencies see a traditional training in brand planning and strategy as a critical requirement for the job, so it can be difficult to break through without a degree or extensive strategy experience through previous jobs, internships and work placements. As someone who didn’t take a ‘traditional’ route, I would urge anyone who is thinking of pursuing a strategy career to do their homework. It may sound obvious but learn what strategy is in the context of an agency, and business in general. Strategy is a word everyone wants in their title without always knowing what it means.
Beyond that, there are so many great books, blogs, online resources and communities that exist to learn and hone your skills. One of the most hireable qualities I’ve seen is in candidates who have a self-awareness of their strengths and weaknesses alongside an appetite to learn.
In your time, what have you noticed are the key skills and traits that separate great strategists from the mediocre?
There is no fixed recipe of what makes a great strategist, but I do think there are a handful of traits that tend to show up with the best people I’ve had the pleasure to work with.
- Curiosity - the most cliché, but arguably the most necessary. The best bit about this job is getting paid to ask why and I love to see the world through the eyes of others – that’s what makes us nimble!
- Fearlessness. Being unafraid to follow a hunch, and equally unafraid to circle back if it was wrong. There’s not a ton of room for your own ego when you’re trying to understand everyone else around you but I love working with people who are willing to go out on a limb to hone their instincts.
- Being OK with not knowing something, but being GREAT at trying to figure it out. At the heart of it we’re the resident problem solvers, so trying to ‘yes, and’ every problem comes in handy.
How do you avoid getting stuck in a cultural bubble and stay informed on the needs and desires of everyday consumers?
The first step is probably to accept that I’m not the everyday consumer. I tap into the strategists’ toolbox of desk research and resources, primary research, white papers and the occasional IRL human conversation, but anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I love a heated debate. On a good day I’m a natural contrarian, and on the best days an absolute cynic and spend an inordinate amount of time playing devil’s advocate everything - myself, friends and family, the news, culture and social media. I think the key to understanding people is to spend time with them, ask why and try to recognize commonalities and differences as opportunities instead of problems.