As part of Future of Strategy 2022, Mehak Jaini – National Strategy Head at 22feet Tribal Worldwide in India – spoke to WARC’s Biprorshee Das about hybrid strategy skillsets, the data challenge and making progress on diversity.

Describe the type of strategist you hire for today. What are the skills, expertise and attitudes you look for? Anything particular for India that stands out?

As the Head of Digital Strategy for the group for the last two years, my hiring strategy has evolved. I look for a healthy mix of brand and digital strategists. With more and more clients looking to build brands online, I look for bright minds that are nimble, insightful, comfortable with new age tools, data and techniques, and most importantly curious about the world around them. We do also seek out specialists – like business analysts, data analysts, social listening experts, CX strategists and digital transformation mavericks – to staff the agency and client teams as per need.

In India, the startup wave is becoming more and more prominent. With home-grown Indian brands seeking to grow through brand-first, digital ecosystem-based marketing, strategists who have an appreciation of both brand and business-led thinking as well as connections and digital strategy will be sought.

What’s new now compared to the DNA of a strategist five years ago?

Compared to five years ago, strategists are more comfortable with data and digital, exploring new technology, finding new, more novel and agile ways to uncover insights. Unlike five years back when research and discovery was more qualitative, today strategists need to be a balance of the data and the human, continuously building one and the other. Strategists today have also become more outcome oriented, unlike 5 years back when a strategist could build strategy for a project 7–8 months on end, without any visibility on the manifestation of that strategy as creative or campaign; today the expectation is to see and be part of outcomes here and now.

Any gaps between what clients are expecting versus available talent?

Not really, clients expect the very best of advice and guidance from their strategy partners, and that is what we are structured to deliver. But the challenge we face with clients is that they expect freely available third-party data to have all answers, and do not invest enough in getting answers from their own first-party data.

What steps are you taking to develop your team’s capabilities for the future?

Strategy is practice. The more you do it the better you get, and the more different types of projects, challenges, brand building you are exposed to, the better you shape your own style of working. Apart from learning on the job, we have also launched 1% disruption sessions – where the entire agency is taken through interesting frameworks, tools and techniques covering different aspects of skills and capabilities – every week in just 15 minutes. We are also in the process of launching our Digital Strategy toolkit, relevant frameworks and lastly investing in training from all our partners, third-party tools etc.

Do the multiple arms/specialities of an agency/group impact the trajectory of strategists?

Multiple arms require domain experts or executors, not necessarily strategists. We approach strategy as a common resource that needs to straddle multiple hats, with support from specialists, of course. In some cases depending on the nature and complexity of the work, clients do demand specialists. But we have realized strategists that are able to stretch themselves beyond their obvious domain (brand or creative strategy), help create a more cohesive sense of strategy.

In the coming year, what according to you would be the most significant threat to strategists/planners?

The biggest threat for the department is being unable to define the value strategy brings to the table. For strategists, agencies need to develop a way of acknowledging strategy’s efforts in the creative or communication process, without that it’s very easy for strategists (especially the younger lot) to get lost in a pile of presentations, without understanding their real value. This in turn leads to strategists seeking opportunities elsewhere – start-ups, consultancies or even branching off on their own.

In the next 12 months, what do you see as the biggest opportunity for planners/strategists to bring value to brands? How has COVID changed this?

The biggest opportunity for strategists is to help drive accelerated growth for clients – with the pandemic thwarting growth and an impending global recession. How does a brand withstand threats and emerge successful? COVID has also accelerated the need for people and data interpreters, where the combination of the two is essential to understand human behaviour and go beyond big data.

In terms of technological and media transformation, which changes do you see as making the biggest impact on the role of strategists?

Transformative technology is a given today. Strategists need to stay connected to this changing world, continuously learning and unlearning its approach, rules and more. But it’s important for strategists not to get distracted by buzzwords, and focus on the actual implications and impact of these technologies. They are the guardians of brands, and need to focus on the fundamentals of brand building and effectiveness.

Diversity, equity and inclusion is a hugely important area that the industry has been working on. How do you think this is progressing? What changes still need to happen?

I think we have made significant progress, and especially at DDB Mudra group with our various policies and initiatives like Open Pride, Phyllis Project for Women Leaders etc. [This work] ensures the work environment is designed for people to succeed no matter who they are or where they come from. As managers we need to be conscious of our hiring biases and continuously expand where we seek out talent from, for example, which universities and campuses, or the type of companies and industries.

Did the upheaval of COVID change any of your working practices as a team? What have been the learnings?

COVID locked us inside, where strategists had to be less reliant on real, hands-on qualitative research and switch to more technological, data-led solutions. The adoption of alternate data points to explore insights has been the fastest – be it via using listening tools, search analytics or more. And it is a welcome addition to the more visceral, adhoc approach to gathering insights.

What are some trends that you have observed in the last couple of years that have had a significant impact on the discipline?

Various marketing strategies have gained importance today – be it the emergence of sustainable marketing, a renewed focus on customer experience marketing (going beyond service orientation), collaboration marketing and more.

But the one that is most pertinent in building brands of today, in my opinion, would be knowledge-led marketing, i.e. leveraging one’s expertise, data and influence to shape perception and pull for a brand. We see creators leverage it to the hilt. This will require strategists not only to be fluent just in marketing but also their client’s business and intelligence, to shape brands authentically and meaningfully.

How do you expect external issues such as sustainability, DEI, and the cost-of-living crisis to impact your work in the next year?

While the changes like sustainability and DEI are positive ones, they are also making it harder to attract and retain talent. How does the industry at large get woke youngsters to see marketing for what it is, instead of an evil ploy to manipulate consumers?

More generally, how are social and cultural changes impacting strategy and how are you and clients responding to it?

Business and brands are undergoing fundamental changes in operations and cost structures, putting increased pressure on marketing budgets. As strategists, we are partnering with clients to get the maximum out of their marketing and brand building efforts. We are also working upstream with clients to prepare for sustainability, increased accountability and possibly a cookie-less future.