As part of Future of Strategy 2022, James Honda Pinder – Head of Strategy at We Are Social APAC – spoke to WARC’s Rica Facundo about understanding how marketing drives a business, the talent wars, and strategy’s role amid global upheaval.

Describe the type of strategist you hire for today. What are the skills, expertise and attitudes you look for? 

This depends on seniority. There are some preternatural instincts that you look for in any level of strategist, but particularly more for junior ones. Sometimes you look for more instincts rather than skills because they haven’t had a chance to learn and flourish in an agency environment.

But there are some core skill sets and traits that will always be part of the baseline of any good planner’s makeup such as cultural curiosity, the ability to bring simplicity to complexity, to make meaning from a mess, having an inventive imagination, empathy to put yourself in the shoes of the customer and having an observational eye. You must always have your head on a swivel.

But beyond having a natural instinct, what are the skills that a strategist needs to navigate the complexities of today?

It’s a very tumultuous time in the world right now. So skills in empathy, observation and being able to keep pace with what’s changing in culture and understanding why will become even more important.

However, one of the necessary hard skillsets that should be part of any modern planner’s box of tricks is the ability to fuse qual and quant insight cogently. Fluency in the tools – whether that’s trend bodies, data analytics, reporting platforms, GWI or leveraging a whole new suite of adtech tools on how to optimize content.

Another thing that’s important is being able to apply your skills in a manner which creates maximum impact. I talk about ‘behaviors not skills’ with my team. Even though you are great at your craft, if you don’t actualise them within the context of the client needs or their timelines, then your skills are not as impactful as they need to be.

From a way of working perspective, planners need to be able to play well with others. You have to be more comfortable being the synapses between different departments and being a cohesive part of a process that today is a lot more fluid than it is linear. Planners need to be able to be comfortable sitting in their proverbial ivory tower and equally be able to be street fighters on the ground. We need to evolve and work faster than ever and operate in a more collective way.

Do planners need to be more generalists or specialists to thrive in today’s environment?

My ex-colleague used to talk about the ‘planner with no prefix.’ A few years ago there were people who were calling themselves social strategist, digital strategist, etc. Why would you hire five or six different planners when you can hire one person who can do a lot of things? So I think you’ve got to do a lot of things in a generalist way, but equally you must also know how to lean into your own uniqueness as a strategist. Understand what it is that you are particularly good at and make it a real selling point for your profile and something that clients will want you on their business for. Longer term this will add a lot of richness and diversity to the greater ‘plannersphere’ because the marriage of idiosyncrasy and conviction drives more differentiated strategic thinking.

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

I think of strategy as the intersection of systematic thinking and storytelling. When I first started the onus was more on the storytelling, but now strategists need to consider that they serve two audiences with different needs and priorities.

You still need to be an inspiring and directive when speaking to creative teams, bringing simplicity to something that’s very complex, i.e. making the category understandable and identifying what is the lateral leap a brand can make. But increasingly, on the client side, the kind of language of success internally is more numerical than it is the narrative based. And so planners need to be adept at making strategy palatable and digestible to different audiences. Planners need to be smarter than ever about who they’re speaking to and how they’re partnering with them. Not only what are they trying to achieve in terms of getting from A to B, but also within that process, knowing what is the role they play at different stages and to different kinds of stakeholders.

What do you think is driving this change?

The CMO agenda is evolving which is more tangibly around growth. In the heydays of brand focused advertising, the CMO agenda was more about brand health. But now CMOs and marketing teams are more focused on short-term commercial uplift.

How must strategists mirror this shift in thinking?

Strategists need to lean closer into understanding the business model of how companies actually make money. And I think by doing that, you’ll be able to identify more closely the metrics that actually matter to the client versus the metrics that are just within reach of measurement through whatever platforms that we have access to.

What steps must agency leaders take to develop their team’s capabilities for the future?

The major shift that a lot of agencies are going through right now is the work from home dynamic. The question then becomes about how you maintain or recreate the hive mind energy of a really buzzing planning department, in an era where not everyone’s going to be in the office? It’s important to inculcate a magpie mindset and create forums and environments where ‘intellectual theft’ is not only permitted, but encouraged, where people can steal with pride.

Mentorship is also critical. People who are generous with their spirit and thoughts are more galvanizing as leaders. And I think that’s what a lot of young, hungry and ambitious strategists in this part of the world really resonate with.

In the coming year, what do you think is going to be the most significant threat to strategists in the region?

Recruiting the next generation of really good strategists. Branding or advertising is not in the top five or 10 desirable jobs anymore for the really smart kids leaving university today. I’ve just noticed anecdotally that a lot of younger planners that we may have interviewed at some stage are moving to tech firms or Web3-type consultancies.

What value do you think strategists in creative agencies can bring given this day and age?

There is no industry in the world that’s saying ‘give me more complexity’ or ‘make it harder to understand.’ The archetypal instinct of planners to be able to take things which are a bit messy, and make meaning out of them, to understand things with rigor but explain them in simple, articulate ways, are valuable traits in any type of business environment.

So I don’t fear that the skill set is no longer going to be needed. I fear that the skill set is going to be more demanded in other places and we are going to fail to attract the best talent to work in our environments.

How do you see cost of living and inflation impacting the type of strategic work that you’re doing?

It’s something every strategy department needs to have at the top of their empathy list. From a marketing point of view, it’s all the four P’s coming together to solve that problem. It’s a supply chain crisis, so suddenly brands need to raise its prices and pass on some of the increased costs to their audience. So is the brand strong enough to justify this price increase in the eyes of the customer? Is the product or service meeting enough of a customer’s need states or fueling their motivations? Is it easy enough to buy, in the right channels, is it framed with an attractive enough promotion?

I think on the client side, it requires more holistic thinking around the four P’s. This is a really big opportunity for planners to lean into this kind of consultancy level strategy work.

How do you see trends in deglobalization affecting the marketing landscape in Asia?

We live in quite a strange time. Globalization from the late 1900s was the big economic unlock that brought a lot of prosperity to many sectors, created new jobs and spurred new types of thinking all around the world. But what we’ve seen in the last 10 years is a rise of populist politics, and from the world going from very open to being more closed.

I don’t think that really changes the needs of brands, because great modern brands will still want a global presence. So, if anything, there’s an interesting kind of tension where the world is kind of closing in on itself, but brands need to be more open than ever. And in order to do that brands actually need to work harder to cultivate a truthfully authentic presence in local culture.

It’s always been a truism that embracing local culture can be a creative multiplier. And with the way that the world has transformed in the last few years and every country and society feeling today’s larger macroeconomic tensions in their own nuanced ways,

there’s an opportunity for brands to be hypersensitive to these shifts in dynamics in order to play a more fundamental role in answering consumer pain points, aiding their motivations and meeting their needs.