McCann Worldgroup's Nicole Tan thinks that strategists have long played an ambiguous role, and to survive In an era of transformation, strategists themselves must evolve to become connectors and orchestrators.

"The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se." – Charles Eames

Eventually, everything connects. People. Ideas. Objects.

The role of a strategist has often been ambiguous, its very existence born out of ambiguity itself. At its simplest definition, a strategy describes how the ends (goals) will be achieved by the means (resources). It is the strategist’s job, therefore, to determine these goals, allocate the resources and identify the tactics that achieve the best outcomes.

While I do believe the pendulum swings both ways at different points in time, favouring the route of a generalist or specialist relative to an organization’s design and priorities, my response to this question is based on observations from four personal vantage points.

THE STATUS QUO: Operating in perpetual beta mode

“Across generations and across the world, people are now looking for experiences, services and products that help them to become better versions of themselves.” – Chris Sanderson, The Future Laboratory

We’ve entered an era of perpetual beta mode. This is especially true in Asia, with the rise of local tech brands like GoJek, WeChat, and Grab – apps that have penetrated the fabric of society, and are known to operate in a fast-follower mindset, following intuition over logic - using a test/learn/iterate approach on its service offerings.

One example is Grab’s ability to deliver on motorbike taxis in emerging markets like Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia to provide an affordable transport option, and another that didn’t work due to regulatory issues, such as GrabWheels (e-scooters).

As a strategist, this means finding comfort in the uncomfortable, and being open to the innovation process, learning how to not be too protective of one’s ideas, and to readily take a Go/No Go decision on further building, or abandoning an idea based on how it’s reacted to in the marketplace.

THE ROLE: Being the connector in a transitioning world

Because of the point above, the toolbox and ways of working for the modern strategist has expanded.

Today, the briefs that have landed on my desk require teams that defy the traditional models of an advertising agency. Teams are much leaner, where the strategist takes on a role of a strategic project lead (part-strategy, part-project manager), with many projects not necessarily involving creative teams at all or involving specific types of creatives relevant to the brief (e.g. product designers / creative technologists for service design solutions).

The above image shows two team models that I’ve experienced. While there is a key stakeholder (the client) for each brief, the creative solution delivered has both direct and indirect impact on other stakeholders and functions within the client’s organization (identified in red above).

Navigating clients and teams to new strategic areas mean that we might not often have the expertise and depth to have all the answers, while moving at speed. This translates to knowing when to ask the right questions, and when to bring clients and experts in as part of the process in an agile (read: truly collaborative, open and let’s face it, sometimes messy) and non-bureaucratic manner.

It also requires a certain knowledge of organizational design to structure the right teams internally, and a sell-in process to obtain cross-functional stakeholder buy-in from the clients.

THE INDIVIDUAL: The I-shaped generalist

Building from IDEO’s T-Shaped talent, I’ve found myself looking for peers that possess these individual personality traits, giving birth to what I define as an “I-shaped” talent – where the bottom layer represents their Individual personalities, distilled down to three C’s:

  • Curiosity: To have the relentless pursuit to hunt for the answers they might not yet have
  • Connector: To know when and how to engage the right person for the right conversations
  • Collaborator: To have the ability to lead or participate in multi-disciplinary teams in an additive way, because no idea today is formed just by the genius of one person.

THE WORK: Nail the ‘big idea’ and then more. Evolving the definition of a ‘creative solution’

I remember my time as a ‘hybrid’ account manager in the social department when the media industry underwent its digital transformation.

Amidst the confusion of running up barriers in crossing siloes, and unbeknownst to myself and many of my peers then, we were playing a part as change agents in our agencies. From introducing non-liner storytelling, implementing a more agile way of working, and providing consultative services on experiences to the customer service team (community management via Facebook messenger, and later, chatbots), we were – at a level then too junior to fathom – also bearing witness to the evolution of the CMO’s role.

This shift is summarized so perfectly in two memes, published two years apart:

The demands for customer-centricity in a data-driven and mono-channel world has given the role of the CMO added responsibilities. Organizations today expect CMO’s to have a point of view on every interaction that a customer has with their brand, but also be their growth engine. Because of the fragmented media landscape, many ‘digital’ teams fall under the remit of the marketing function, causing them to play an integral role in steering the organization’s digital transformation journey.

There is absolutely still a place for beautifully crafted storytelling and powerful pithy insights, as Tom Morton states, the nuances of a brand is the distinguisher between one’s brand from another. But to be strategic creative partners in this landscape also means leveraging the opportunities that comes with the expanded definition of delivering on a creative solution in a full-suite creative services agency.

As a strategist, this means considering different approaches to answering a brief, bringing forth a response that takes the conversation beyond the funnel, and upstream.


The era of the Transformation Economy and the rise of 5G will bear further witness to the convergence of innovation. This will give rise to demand for the I-shaped generalist strategists, who can orchestrate teams that elevate the conversation, and the work.

A person who brings enough expertise to the table in their chosen specialism(s), while pulling in other ‘experts’ or I-shaped generalists to be a part of the team.

In facing a future of ambiguity, I’d like to leave you with a quote by Linda Liukas, that continually inspires me as I venture in to the big unknowns of great pursuits and what if’s:

“If code is the new lingua franca, instead of grammar classes, we need poetry classes.”

Let’s keep on playing. 

This article is part of a debate series that address the question: “Is the future of strategy in the hands of a generalist or specialist?” The content was borne out of an event hosted by the Singapore Strategy Group – an informal industry community with the goal of enhancing the value and profile of strategy.

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