As part of the Future of Strategy 2022 report, Huiwen Tow, Head of Strategy, APAC at Virtue Worldwide, shared with WARC’s Rica Facundo about combining logic and magic, soft skills, and why brands shouldn’t shield strategists from commercial realities.

After a stint on the client side, what was your biggest observation about strategists when you came back into advertising?

When I first started as a strategist, the only expectation was to be good at writing a solid creative brief, an ability to do research, write a killer deck and present it. I don’t think the strategists who started five years ago were brought up this way. It was more like, can you write the social strategy, can you be on this pitch and that pitch. They were super spread out and stretched thin.

That’s why my biggest reaction when I came back into advertising was that the fundamentals were sorely lacking. There were strategists with five years of experience who could not write a clear and inspiring creative brief. It’s not because they are not good. It’s because the industry has changed a lot over the last five years. They had to be okay at many things, which made it hard to be good at the fundamentals.

What in your mind are the fundamentals?

Can you combine logic and magic? Do you have the ability to think critically, read data, take a leap of imagination, write the deck, and have an appreciation for creative work?

The problem is that in Asia a lot of strategists feel like they’ve become deck writers. A strategist can write the deck but our job is not to recap the client brief. Our job is to clarify the client brief and then be able to take it to places – which is not something I see a lot of anymore. This might be caused by the churn. If account management is so stretched, then they can’t clarify the brief, which is the first step of the process. Then the strategists have to step in. But if so much time is spent on clarifying the client brief, then there’s no time to think of where it could go.

Beyond the fundamentals, what are the skills you think the future of strategy needs?

Strategy has become boring, predictable and often non-essential to the creative process. That’s why I look for three soft skills: agility, people skills, and innate curiosity of the world around you.

‘Rigour’ and ‘methodological’ are two words that are typically used to describe strategists. I don’t think agility is a word we typically use to describe strategists at all, but it’s what modern strategists need today to thrive and take advantage of all the amazing change happening in culture and technology – from the metaverse, shoppertainment, etc. This requires a different kind of thinking from all agency functions – not just strategy.

Another trait that people don’t really talk about with strategists is people skills. You need people skills to socialize that thinking, to bring people along the way, and the humility to realize that your brief might be good, but there are many ways to solve a business problem.

Lastly, a sense of curiosity and optimism is important because it can take the brief to very interesting and different places, and starts from a place of “what-if” and possibilities. But this is difficult to train. So much of it is drawn from ‘did you see this go down on TikTok yesterday or ‘have you read this book’ or ‘I spoke to this random person.’ And ultimately going beyond the usual set of books, resources and reference points most strategists use.

How has your client and tech experience outside changed how you train and develop strategists?

Young strategists need to realize that the job of managing clients doesn’t rely on just account management, it relies on all of us. How do we present strategy? How do you manage the clients to convince and persuade them to a favorable outcome for them and for us?

The second key component is about building commercial acumen and driving impact. How can we spend our time working on briefs most effectively with a sense of the budget and desired outcome in mind? What are we doing to drive a positive commercial outcome for clients? How do we execute with impact?

Thirdly, not all briefs require the same approach – the trick is to identify the most effective way to get to the most informed and interesting place within the limited time we have. We need to train strategists to be agile and flexible with their thinking. Even though we have templates, it’s about training the team to use the bits that work, chuck the bits that don’t and reinvent as needed.

Can you elaborate about how you train for commercial acumen?

It starts from providing exposure and being transparent and fluid with information.

Don’t shield strategists from commercial realities. The training comes from opening up the silos between departments and providing exposure to your team about how different departments work together to drive profitability for the agency. At Virtue we strongly believe in collaboration and breaking down silos across departments. We are partners with account management in appreciating and undertaking the commercial realities of clients.

We do an ‘All Hands’ every quarter. And in these meetings the numbers are shared with the entire agency. Everyone knows the gaps and are aligned towards the same commercial outcome. Profitability starts from building an agency that people want to be part of, being transparent with the numbers creates a common understanding and a grounded starting point.

What’s the tradeoff between being fluid and rigid in the briefing process?

The rigid process is very useful because it trains your fundamentals. And it’s brutal training. Write the brief. Rewrite the brief. Write it again. And through that process, I think we’ve developed strategists who write very well and articulate their thinking very clearly.

What you don’t get out of a process that has so much focus on perfecting the document, is that there isn’t a consideration for how we can collaborate with the creative team to co-create the brief, or simply how we can take the creative brief to the team in an inspiring and engaging way that enables them to leapfrog into creative ideas. Is it useful, interesting and worthy of someone’s time? Or is it just a very succinct and beautifully written version of the client brief?

We have a very ‘no templates’ culture at Virtue. My approach to the briefing process is to give the team a sense of the structure, but feel free to break it if you think it’s the right thing to do. Give them something to start with, but don’t hold them to it. All briefs are different. For some clients what they need is not a killer proposition. What they might need actually is a solid communications plan or an opportunity map or an ecosystem where their brand can live and breathe in.

But how do you maintain the rigor in a fluid process?

Not having enough time to write the brief is an industry-wide problem. Because of this, the rigour must come from a different approach. It comes from being constantly plugged in. That is why my approach to rigour is inculcating an always-on “what’s happening in culture” environment within the strategy department, encouraging everyone to look ahead and keep our jobs interesting. Being part of Vice Media Group provides us a distinct advantage and relative ease to stay plugged in by being insiders to culture and having the ability to predict what’s coming next as the largest independent youth media company in the world.

My job is to create time for the team to do this. I stay close to account management to understand what’s coming in ahead of time versus waiting for it to come to your desk. That’s how you prevent the struggle because by the time the brief drops, strategists can instantly pull a POV together from existing knowledge, instead of scrambling to get their heads around the brief.

What is the biggest threat to strategists in the region?

The threat to strategists is internal agency culture rather than any external force. Strategists are typically the smallest department in any agency. And they can be very quickly forgotten or very quickly sidelined. But when you don’t know how to utilise a person to their full capabilities, that’s when people leave.

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?

One clear sign of progress is that clients are finally realizing it’s important. Clients now know that it’s socially unacceptable to not have DEI as part of your agenda. But while there’s an awareness, it doesn’t necessarily mean that clients understand how to truly deliver on DEI. You still get a lot of tokenism happening, and also distractions. There are a lot of briefs that say they want to do a DEI campaign. But the question should be why and how will this drive a commercial outcome at the end of the day?

A lot of DEI also still needs to be looked at internally. Doing a campaign that says you are diverse and inclusive doesn’t do anything. What really drives longer term change is to look at ourselves internally, and how do you drive that change from inside out?

In terms of technological and media transformation – i.e., Web3, media fragmentation, e-commerce, measurement, etc – which changes do you see as making the biggest impact on the role of strategists?

Going back to my earlier point around curiosity being core to a strategist. Cynicism is not going to get you anywhere in the Web3 space because none of it is built. It is a belief and a vision that is waiting to be realized.

There’s a lot of cynicism, rightfully, or wrongfully. At Virtue we do a lot of work in Web3 spaces and technologies and look at the metaverse with optimism. This is the next frontier of culture; a vast, collective experiment that we must take an active and enthusiastic role in if we’re to continue building brands from inside culture.

When it comes to strategists, I think that therefore embodying optimism is absolutely key to seize and capitalise on these exciting opportunities because only with an open mind can you see the possibilities. To activate the process, then the core skills around matching brief to possibilities and connecting the dots in between remain the same.