In the post-COVID world where working remotely is likely to remain commonplace, Jenna Rounds from VMLY&R advises strategists to focus on soft skills like building rapports with clients, demonstrating empathy, facilitating continual co-creation and building an alliance around ideas.

The past year has undoubtedly transformed how we work. While in many parts of the world corporations are starting to return to pre-pandemic life, it’s highly likely that the way people work may never fully return to what was once considered “normal.” 

Collectively we’ve proven that we can work effectively without being physically together. But that has come at the cost of serendipitous interactions – for example, the informal conversations that used to take place in the hallway, over coffee or in the café.

Those informal conversations can play a big role in how organizations communicate effectively. Particularly in situations of uncertainty, informal chats provide space for teams to voice concerns, express enthusiasm and seed ideas.

For our clients, the loss of this communication channel has hindered their ability to influence other marketing decision stakeholders, especially when it comes to garnering support for new ideas.

From this need an evolved strategic skillset has emerged: a softer set of skills that lives between insights, creative briefs, and consumer journeys – and our broader role in selling ideas.

As strategists, we are uniquely positioned to help our clients feel comfortable in discomfort and confident in uncertainty. With the right skills, we can learn to be provocative in a supportive way. We can help our clients clear their corporate paths to buy new ideas.

Doing so requires us to broaden the definition of what is considered “strategic.” These new skills don’t replace anything we’re already doing, but instead complement our traditional skills, rounding them out and paving the way for the work to shine more brightly.

In this new era, strategists should hone the following four skills.

  • Building rapport. This goes beyond the responsible and consistent trust-building that is a hallmark of strong account management. Having a good rapport means you can disagree respectfully and push back productively. As a starting point, it means truly understanding the strategic business challenges your clients are facing.
  • Demonstrating empathy – not only for the audience, but also for your client. What drives your clients to succeed? Take the time to understand their underlying motivations. Perhaps they’re driven by recognition, ambition or validation. Maybe it’s more intrinsic. Listen for pain points, fears and hopes. Understand their priorities and goals, both personal and professional. Then think about how you can connect with your clients around that.
  • Facilitating continual co-creation. We need to move beyond formal yet brief moments of co-creation, e.g. large client workshops, to a more informal, always-on co-creation mindset. Define problems together with clients. Identify questions, insights, and barriers together. Work through solutions together. Strategy presentations shouldn’t be a big reveal but rather a synthesis of thoughts that have already been discussed, debated and examined with clients. It may be challenging in the moment, but it will pay off in the long run when clients feel personal ownership of the strategy and can advocate for it within their organizations.
  • Building an alliance around ideas. Once your immediate clients are on board with your idea, the process of convincing the broader team begins. When meetings are virtual, it’s easy to invite more people, but that’s not always the best approach for selling ideas. It might be more effective to meet with one new decision maker at a time and leverage their buy-in to influence the next person. Work with your brand team to figure out the right way to influence stakeholders.

Combining these softer skills with traditional strategy skills will help forge deeper relationships with clients, which enable greater influence over the way ideas are perceived and will, ultimately, lay the groundwork for clients to buy breakthrough ideas to power business growth.

Future of Strategy 2021

Jenna Rounds' piece appeared originally in WARC's Future of Strategy 2021 report, which you can read here.