As part of the Future of Strategy 2022 report, Joyce Ling – Chief Transformation and Strategy Officer at WundermanThompson China – discussed how strategists can blend data with consumer understanding, the future of Web3.0 and the importance of evidence with WARC’s Anna Hamill.

When it comes to skills and expertise required by you and your teams in China on a day-to-day basis, what have been the biggest changes over the past five years?

I think first, what has changed is really the perspective and view of the role of strategy. It is no longer just a “way in” to set up for creative. Strategy has long become a standalone solution to many clients. The impact of this change has reflected onto strategist’s day-to-day skills, transforming them from traditional insights and tension to data and innovation driven “solutions.” How you are able to blend your market and consumer understanding with what data and technology can do to solve an industry’s challenge is the biggest and most necessary capability.

What do you see as the biggest trends or consumer behavior changes coming down the pipeline in China that you and your teams will need to understand and adapt to?

That it is no longer possible for marketers or strategists to gather, integrate, analyze, and create the output of a consumer profile only with human power. A lot of our traditional outputs (such as creating a persona or understanding a cluster) can – and should – all be conducted with machine learning algorithms. As strategists, we will need to know how to leverage technology to fully benefit our work needs and create more agile, trendy, and innovative solutions for the clients.

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

‘Cross-major’ training. I am mixing my team members and forming new hybrid talents to tackle different projects. On-the-job training is as important as classroom courses. Not only between strategists so they each get immersed into new skills, but they are also being mixed with experience and data experts to create new outputs.

How has your experiences as a CSO informed how you approached a bigger role tackling transformation more broadly?

Being a CSO, one of the most important skills is to be an information architect and be very quick and agile when it comes to drafting up a solution framework for the team and across the team. When this experience lands on the transformation role, it’s being expanded to reach more functions and capabilities within the company to quickly design an outline of our company-wide offering.

Have expectations from clients and other internal teams (such as creative) changed in terms of what strategists are expected to do?

We are actually very proud that at Wunderman Thompson, strategy serves an extremely important role. With its data-centric approach, all of our strategies have solid proof and validation and are extremely precise to touch our target audiences. So both our clients and creative teams respect and are happy to work with this output. It’s not about following one strategist’s direction, it’s about following data truth’s direction. And our clients understand that.

In the coming year, what do you expect to be the most significant changes to how strategists/planners need to operate in your market?

Picking up experiences, CX and UX both. They are both essentially strategy-related work before passing onto the designer and creative to develop outputs. So understanding different methodologies for experiences outputs will be critical.

In the next 12 months, what do you see as the biggest opportunity for planners/strategists to bring value to brands in China?

That strategists will be able to create solutions right in their own areas of expertise. This means in the agency environment strategy can be a standalone solution, and not always have to be attached to creative.

What can strategists do today to upskill themselves for the future? What sort of talent/skillsets are you looking to hire?

The world is changing so much, everything is related to everything. One COVID pandemic dropped so much impact on consumer mindsets and decision making processes. It’s time for planners to get out from their desks and get connected with the culture, the world, the economy and the market. Get out of reports and start having your own point of view in this world. I think too many planners rely too much on reading reports and this essentially draws them away from the real world.

How do you expect eternal issues such as sustainability, DEI, and the cost-of-living crisis to impact strategy in China in the next year? Are there any other big picture issues to consider?

The ways our consumers think and do will change a lot, and it will no longer be about locking onto two or three target audience groups to figure out who buys your products and how. Anyone can be your customer, and they will all surprise you with their expectations and behaviors. I think it’s time for brands to really start opening their horizon on accepting their different potential buyers. It depends on how the consumers buy your products, not just you.

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

We host more audience workshops than ever now, we never rely on reports anymore. Wunderman Thompson is starting to create a lot more customized reports to study our people and how they now behave in the cultural environment we are in, and how that impacts on their engagement with brands.

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

Web3.0. Our consumers are already cruising in it, and brands are not responding fast enough. They are cruising in the cyber space and leaving a ton of data in the space. We will soon lose the understanding of our consumers if we don’t act fast. This will essentially mark a huge challenge on how our strategists view our target audiences; how fast they respond, how they evolve, how they transform…

The last two years has disrupted so much about consumer behaviour and how we work. What’s your biggest lesson been?

Be flexible in everything: channels, audience, approaches, and more.