As part of the Future of Strategy 2022 report, Jo Arden – Chief Strategy Officer at Ogilvy UK – discussed ‘strategy at pace’, the changing customer journey and why agencies need to rethink diversity initiatives with WARC’s Anna Hamill.

When it comes to skills and experience required by you and your team on a day-to-day basis, what have been the biggest changes?

I think it’s pace. We’ve always been used to working really fast, especially when it comes to pitches. But I think that’s now becoming the BAU (business as usual). Part of that, I think, is due to COVID. It’s well documented: everybody started working much faster, timelines were shorter, were much more iterative, and we were working collaboratively to get to an answer. Strategists are good at that, we’re very adaptable as a crew. But I think that has become the norm, as opposed to just exceptional.

I think there’s also another driver here, which is that there’s a new generation of clients. It’s probably fair to say that tech businesses and direct-to-consumer businesspeople are born digitally native as brands and as clients. They don’t have the legacy of that long, deliberative brand thinking. They’re required to move faster, and with maybe less depth in the strategy.

All strategists – whether you’re new into the role, or you’ve been doing it for years, we’ve had to find ways to still retain our rigour whilst working much, much faster. There’s probably pros and cons to that as well. But I think that’s the one major difference.

How do you go about balancing those two things: rigour, but also the need for speed?

It’s tricky. You’ve got to take into consideration different personalities too. I have this continuum that I sometimes use with my team as a training thing, which has imagination at one end, and inspiration at the other. I think our job is to bring inspiration as strategists – from data sources, from people, from insight from doing the reading and doing the work. Then at the other end, it’s about taking that leap and applying a bit of imagination to the task.

When you work at pace, there is a greater emphasis on that imagination piece, and I have definitely noticed a generation of strategists who are terrific at that. But I’ve got quite an academic approach, and I think you still have to make sure that you’re scaffolding what you’re saying and making sure that it’s based on truth.

It’s about being self aware and understanding what end of the spectrum you’re starting from and – in either case – making sure that you’re doing enough of the other. Having that pause, deliberating and making sure that it’s based on something that’s got a genuine truth to it is important.

What do you see as the biggest trends coming down the pipeline that you and your team will need to understand and adapt to?

I’m keen that people don’t get distracted by things which are important and interesting and fun, technology wise, but which ultimately don’t change the fundamentals of humans.

The one big thing that, as brand marketers, we need to be really tuned into is the speed in which the awareness-to-conversion journey has completely changed. You don’t even have to be a strategist to know that if you’re sitting on TikTok or Instagram, and there is a product targeted at you and you are engaged in that piece of content, you can buy it immediately.

I think that represents a really interesting challenge for people who are building brands. The whole idea that you’re doing things in stages… that is not the truth of the world we live in today, and I’m quite fascinated by creative commerce because of that.

Strategists need to be very, very tuned into how that’s happening, how brands are doing it, and what the consumer motivation is that prompts it. I think that’s the thing, in a world of exciting things, that I want strategists to be particularly clued up on.

Some brands are going to media agencies and asking for a lot more creative input into example, TikTok or Instagram. What’s your view on that?

A great strategic thought should be applicable across mediums, touchpoints, platforms, etc. We have to be really mindful that the creative – as in, the execution of creative – needs to fit seamlessly into the platform you put it in.

I think some of the bigger legacy marketers are on a quite painful journey at the moment with trying to understand what the difference is across the platforms they use and how they should show up differently as a result of that. It certainly has taken a bit of a disruption of the planning process within agencies and on the client side to be able to get some good work in that space.

Do you think that’s a question of just different generations of marketers? Perhaps younger marketers feel more confident in that?

I think there is a generational shift. The platforms move so fast – it is impossible to keep up with [younger employees] on the nuances of those platforms, especially if you’re at a more senior level, because you’ve got other pressures. Our clients are not just thinking about what they put out into the world in terms of comms, they’re thinking about how they run a business and build brands and deal with production challenges and all of that stuff, which we are blissfully protected from [on the agency side].

It’s about finding the talent that does those jobs. We are in a well-documented talent crunch, but finding people that are super invested in the way that the new platforms work is really important, and at the moment there aren’t enough to go around. So that’s on all of us, isn’t it? We know we need to bring those people in and we need to give them the environment in which they can thrive, and they in turn would teach us about the stuff that we haven’t been born natively into.

What steps are you taking to develop your team’s capabilities for the future in terms of training or upskilling? What can strategists do now to upskill themselves for the future?

My answer to this will always only be one thing, regardless of whether you ask me this now or in 10 years from now. That is that people just need to understand what people are thinking, feeling and doing.

I have to, first and foremost, be with the consumer: working alongside them, speaking to them on a daily basis, spending time with them in their spaces, and seeing what it looks like to be part of their lives. That’s what it comes down to. That’s what the job of the strategist is – bringing the voice of the consumer into the conversation.

COVID, in the ‘work from home’ era, gave us pros and cons in that space. On the plus side, it was much easier to get a research group together because you can literally dial into a Zoom call then you’re in somebody’s living room. On the downside, it stopped strategists doing quite so much of the organic work on the ground, for example, going shopping with consumers or engaging in proper structured ethnography.

The answer is being engaged and fully immersed in what your consumers are doing. Sure, get involved in NFTs, Web3.0, read Wired, go to talks, understand the metaverse, all of that stuff. But if nothing else, spend the vast majority of your week speaking to people that buy the product you’re there to sell.

You mentioned some of the changing expectations around strategy from clients. How are you working with creative teams now?

It has evolved. I’m conflicted, because I want us to have a hybrid world because I know it’s better for inclusivity and a much more balanced life, but I definitely think that we make better work when we are physically together.

The way in which our work with creatives has evolved is that it’s much more formulaic – you’re checking in online at a scheduled time, and the work is on a screen and you’re going through it in a methodical order. I think it’s really hard to capture the nuance of the more kinetic conversations you have when you’re physically together. I definitely miss the days of when you stood in a room and you had paper on the wall. I think it’s easier to have great conversation and be really constructive. I also think it’s easier to have those slightly tougher creative reviews when you’re together.

Sure, we can do it [on Zoom], we’ve all worked really hard over the last few years to be able to establish that. But I remain unconvinced that we are equally as good creatively together when we’re doing it on Zoom.

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

There are loads of initiatives but is not much progress, and I think there are a few really obvious reasons actually. The good people that I work with here [at Ogilvy] and in the wider industry are definitely very invested in DEI. However, I think there are still some people [in the industry] who have got a very outdated, old-school approach to it, and some people who just do not understand DEI.

Being a woman who has managed to get to a reasonable degree of seniority gives you a good perspective. I’m also from a very normal background, a very working-class town. I’ve seen in the years that I’ve worked in advertising a bit of progress around people from working class backgrounds, but not masses. I still get ridiculous comments about my accent.

The thing that frustrates me, and I’ve had this conversation – not at Ogilvy, but fairly recently – is this absolute blindness to lack of opportunity. For example, in terms of the people that present for interview, so I will hear comments like, ‘they just didn’t have the work in their portfolio’, or ‘I read the other person’s opinion pieces in the media, and this person didn’t have any’, or ‘they’re not very active in our industry there, are they?’ I think this is dumb to the most ridiculous degree. If you understand anything about privilege, you understand and accept that as a white woman, I’ve experienced a degree of privilege and you accept that somebody else hasn’t.

I think we have to stop interviewing based on past work, and accept that the past work is a symptom of the privilege structure we have created. When I was at Publicis, I just put a post on LinkedIn saying ‘new minds needed’. I wanted to answer two questions: what role do you think strategy has in building brands? And what can I do for you to help you build the career you want? I interviewed everybody who answered those questions. I didn’t look at their LinkedIn, I didn’t ask for a CV. We hired a person and he is terrific. I still couldn’t tell you whether he went to university, I don’t know how old he is, or how long he has been in the job market… I know that he’s a year in and he is one of the best strategists I’ve ever employed. That is the challenge we have to face down.

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

I think it depends on the client that you’re working for. It comes back to empathy for your audience. I think it’s about understanding how that should play out in comms, because it’s a very fine balance in giving people good quality food that they can afford and making sure that that’s clear in communications, for example, versus making them feel poor, which is never a great strategy. I think the strategy has to be tuned in to how people are experiencing that cost-of-living crisis, and what they’re prioritising. Treats, especially small treats, still play a role.

The sustainability point is really important, because I think agencies will do well to remember that for most customers [sustainability] is definitely not the most important point when they’re making a decision about what they spend their money on. Those conversations about customer experience, the commerce journey and comms are things that we should be advising clients on, and I think that’s what the clients need from us. I think it’s the proper rigorous, big impact stuff for the business and the planet in the longer term. That’s what our job is as strategists.

I think we have a big job to do. I think we’ve got a responsibility to help brands land and communicate their commitment to sustainability. But I don’t think it’s always in consumer advertising, it can be in corporate communications or the way that their CRM is structured.