In conjunction with this year’s WARC Awards for Asian Strategy, this series aims to showcase perspectives from young strategists across Asia, highlighting their take on strategy as a marketing discipline and career path. This week, we speak to Malaysia’s young minds.

Malaysia may still be in the throes of combatting COVID-19, with its near future prospects remaining hazy, but its young strategists remain resilient and clearheaded. With an eye on orchestrating real business impact in a market that remains ripe for change, these up-and-comers are driven by an insatiable curiosity about the world and the opportunities it holds.

And there’s much to be optimistic about, as access to data continues to unlock new insights and the continued maturity of the strategic discipline enables further specialisation for those so inclined. The thinkers borne out of this dynamic market will certainly be making their presence felt in the years to come. 

Galen Lau

Title: Senior Strategic Planner

Company: Ensemble Worldwide, a division of Mediabrands Malaysia

Age: 30

How did you find your way into strategy work? Was it something you’ve always wanted to pursue?

I graduated with a degree in Advertising, majoring in graphic design, with big dreams of becoming an ECD. However, I could not shake that feeling that it just might not be meant for me. That was when I came across an Advertising Career Day - where experts from the various roles in the industry came to share about their jobs. Like bees to a honey pot, I was drawn to the role and purpose of a Strategist. Everything suddenly clicked.

I have always been intrigued by human behaviour. Growing up, I would people-watch to observe what they do, how they behave, how they would react and would always wonder why. When it comes to Advertising, I was always fascinated with the idea of how a simple message could influence how one would think, feel and respond.

Having said that, the right opportunity was not available back then, so I started my career as a Community Manager until Ensemble found me, and the rest is history.

As a strategist, how do you spend your time at work? 

I like to see myself as the M to my agency's 007s. I assemble business strategies, data-driven insights and human stories to craft creative strategies that are human-centric, relevant, distinctive and effective. Working together with departments across different disciplines to produce meaningful and impactful work, and ensuring our clients achieve their business objectives is extremely fulfilling.

But behind all that, no surprise - there is a lot of research, keeping tabs on the pulse of the nation and staying up to date with the latest trends and innovations.

How do you personally define the discipline of marketing strategy?

Strategy to me is essentially helping my clients get from point A to point B. Imagine a game map. Within it, you see where you are and where you need to be but everything in between is hidden. You will need to survey the terrain, identify the challenges or enemies ahead, and equip yourself with appropriate tools or weapons to overcome them so that you can plot the best route to reach the end goal.

Putting that into perspective, it is about understanding the client's business landscape, market trends and getting acquainted with their consumers to understand their needs. We use this data and insights as a north star to guide, inform and inspire creativity to help our clients achieve their business goals.

What’s on your wish list in terms of strategic thinking/work? 

Arriving at the right strategy is akin to making the perfect soufflé. The ingredients are simple but it is technically challenging. Each step needs to be followed meticulously, with the right timing in mind so that the top will majestically rise when it is baked. It is the same process for coming up with a world class campaign; it takes a brilliant strategy built upon layers of research and insights but it takes time and patience to put it together. 

While time is a rare commodity that I wish we had more of, what I’d wish for is to also have clients who are bold and courageous to take a leap of faith with us. To work with us to create "first-in-world" or "never been done before" campaigns that will be the benchmark for the future.

Where do you see yourself working in 5-10 years? 

Oftentimes I would joke with my peers, "Don't ask me where I see myself in 5 years when I don’t even know what I want for lunch!"

Jokes aside, our clients are starting to see us as not just a creative vendor but as consultants and a partner for their business. That is where I am steering my growth towards and that is a very exciting future to be part of.

My motto in life is to focus on the present and let the future worry for itself. Maybe I will still be in advertising, maybe I will be in consultancy, or maybe I will start a farm! But I find purpose being in the business of storytelling and "story-doing". And no matter where I will be in the future, this will be a part of what I do.

Where do you see strategy going in the next 10-15 years? 

Presently, as strategists in an advertising agency, we are already expected to be proficient in multiple disciplines of strategy - digital, creative, brand, business, communications, etc. Moving forward, I see that this will be the norm, as the industry expectations of strategists will be for us to provide more holistic and informed top to bottom strategic solutions that will drive a client’s business beyond one-off campaigns.

Malaysia presents an interesting opportunity because 98% of the businesses are made up of SMEs. These companies have good business owners but they might not necessarily have the skillset or resources, eg a fully-stocked marketing department to effectively market their business. As these businesses evolve, we will see a bigger need for strategists not just within the industry but to play a more vital role as business drivers for their products and services.

Jazreen Azman

Title: Integrated Strategic Planner (Manager)

Company: Entropia

Age: 31

How did you find your way into strategy work? 

At age 9, I wrote in my report card that I wanted to be a detective, inspired by the Detective Conan comics and Nancy Drew books. Connecting the dots to different clues and insights just gives me the adrenaline kick!

Although I didn’t have many crimes to solve at school, I did have a lot of problems to crack. Naturally, I became the whiz everyone turns to when crafting presentations, action plans, storytelling scripts and more.

A strategist at a creative agency saw that I might have a strategic flair. That’s where I got trained on the foundations of human insights and integrating strategic stories on consumer culture. I guess I did end up being a detective in the end… albeit more in the marketing communications space.

While blogging about my observations on consumer insights, a strategist at an award-winning media agency read it and wanted me as his strategist. I showed up on my first day on the job and got placed into a media planning team. And that’s how I ended up as a media planner by accident.

I ended up liking the work so much that I continued being a media planner for 3+ years. After that, I transitioned into a Media Strategist.

Later on, Entropia asked if I wanted to try out creative strategy. I hopped in, found that they have so many different departments I could work with - and I’m now an Integrated Strategic Planner across different functions - from creative, media, extended reality and more!

As a strategist, how do you spend your time at work? 

Essentially, my days can be broken down into the 3 themes below:

Clarity: The first task is distilling and understanding the brief from clients while also getting a better context based on their past work and competitive landscape. 

From there, we’ll choose which areas to focus on and devise a plan on how to achieve the marketing communication goals. Getting clarity early on before the main work saves the team a lot of time from struggling and being lost on the way forward.

Collaboration: With strategists working across different teams and clients, collaboration has become the lifeblood of the job. This includes getting alignments in meetings, WIP discussions, brainstorms and more.

Collaboration also means listening to the great ideas of the people around me. You’ll never know because some of the best strategies and ideas can come from anywhere and anyone in the team. 

That’s why as strategists, it’s not just about what comes out in our presentation decks but it’s also about bringing out the brilliance of the minds around us. 

Crafting: A lot of time is spent at the heart of the strategic craft - thinking of different ways to solve the same marketing problem and choosing which direction to focus on.

Aside from actually thinking of the solutions, it also means building up a database of inspiration from others by deconstructing case studies, presentations, talks, a variety of articles and conversation snapshots.

How do you personally define the discipline of marketing strategy?

Marketing strategy at its very basic is “a plan of action to win”. In our case, it’s about planning how to get from point A to point B - our marketing objectives.

Yes, this will be rooted in insights and consumer behaviour but it’s also about how it’s brought to life in CX (Customer Experience). 

It’s about maximising a brand’s holistic ecosystem across the consumer’s end-to-end experience. This includes not just paid media but also earned and owned media across social, CRMs, EDMs etc.

Having a holistic brand ecosystem and customer experience can really futureproof a brand, rather than just working from one fleeting campaign asset to another.

What’s on your wish list in terms of strategic thinking/work? 

Our marketing industry has a very conversion-driven culture, now more than ever. 

I hope there’s more space for strategic initiatives that are not just solely about driving immediate sales but also about building long-term brand equity.

This means helping to build a stronger connection between a consumer and a brand, demonstrating that the brand stands for a bigger purpose than just selling its products to you.

This is a vital strategic move in the bigger picture because the consumer’s connection and experience with the brand are also part of the brand’s holistic ecosystem. 

It futureproofs your brand when you’ve built a strong fanbase. They are not as easily swayed by any future changes to your products like pricing, marketing budgets, or even if a competitor comes up with a similar product to yours.

Where do you see yourself working in 5-10 years? 

Frankly, I don’t know. 

The only thing I know is that I can imagine myself doing Integrated Strategy till I’m 40. What form will it take? Which location will it be? I’ll just leave that open and follow my curiosity in the future.

This is the way that I’ve been navigating my 8-year career and I’m still enjoying the work I do today. I believe that if you follow your curiosity and pick the work that might be the most fun for you, working just feels like being at a playground every day.

Besides, the marketing industry evolves at a pretty fast rate anyway. So the only way to futureproof yourself as a strategist is to be agile and flexible in adapting to whatever comes our way. 

Where do you see strategy going in the next 10-15 years? 

For the past 5-10 years, there has been a strong emphasis on hyperspecialisation. This gave birth to many amazing new opportunities for Specialised Strategists such as digital strategists, media strategists, content strategists, CRM strategists etc. 

But from now on, many parties have seen that to really futureproof their business, it’s also about looking at the bigger picture. All of our moving pieces need to be connected as a holistic, integrated solution instead of being divided into silos.

With this being important in the marketing industry, I foresee the rise of Integrated Strategists who can collaborate with Specialised Strategists as the ultimate combo.

The synergy from having the best of both worlds will maximise the best possible value we can bring to our brands and people for the future.

Keith Ho

Title: Senior Strategy Manager

Company: ADA Malaysia

Age: 31

How did you find your way into strategy work? 

Truthfully, I stumbled onto it. I started out in account management and becoming a strategist never crossed my mind. I’ve always done account management but as part of managing clients and internal teams, I also thought doing the research and crafting the insights plus building the decks were just part of what an account manager does. 

It was later in my career that my General Manager told me what I’m doing is actually more of what a strategist does and that I should look to shift into that role. So when I left that job, I looked for a strategist role and that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing since.

As a strategist, how do you spend your time at work? 

The most time-consuming but also most important task is the research and analysis work. Whenever a brief comes in, that’s always the first thing and the longest to get done because it’s not just about looking at the data. Data is just numbers that don’t really say anything until you make sense of it and string a narrative together using that data. 

The other focus area would be crafting the insights and writing propositions as those are things that require crystallising everything you’ve researched into a strong line, which can be challenging at times.

Apart from that, it’s a lot of reading and writing of case studies or building reports and proposals.

How do you personally define the discipline of marketing strategy?

I think marketing strategy is beyond just campaigns, brand positioning or propositions; it should really be viewed as the entire experience of a brand or product. Identifying root causes or improving what a product does is just as much of a marketing strategy as it is deciding which creative or channel to use. 

To me, marketing strategy is about looking at the entirety of your brand or product and seeing where the gaps are and how we can fill those gaps even if it means having to spend time reworking the product itself because there’s only so much marketing communications can do for a product.

What’s on your wish list in terms of strategic thinking/work? 

Having the opportunity to work with brands who aren’t afraid to take risks. To have the opportunity to actually say what everyone else is thinking but not saying. I would love to work on brands who aren’t afraid to take some calculated risks in trying to build a brand that connects emotionally and is bold in saying what they believe in rather than being neutral or diplomatic about things all the time. If we want people to connect with our brands, then we need to have an opinion, just like people do.

Where do you see yourself working in 5-10 years? 

Honest answer, I don’t know. I think I’ll still be working in an agency but I’m also interested in working for tech startups or going over to the brand side of things. I think the world has been changing a lot and especially with the pandemic, it’s hard to plan what the next week will look like, much less 5 or 10 years down the road.

Where do you see strategy going in the next 10-15 years? 

I hope that strategy will be able to find a balance and understanding between data and the emotional. Right now, everyone is talking about data but I feel like with all this data, we’ve also lost a little of the emotional and instinctual part of communications. We’re driven by what the data tells us; we forget that sometimes, people are irrational and no data will be able to predict that irrationality. 

At the end of the day, customers aren’t going to look at your campaign or ads and care about what data drove these ads but rather how the ad made them feel, how it connected with them as a person. So I do hope we find that balance and still appreciate that sometimes in a data-driven world, we still need to call upon our instincts at times.

Faten Ashrof 

Title: Media Manager 

Company: Mindshare Malaysia

Age: 33

How did you find your way into strategy work? 

I started off in media planning. I think I’m good at it since a lot of people told me so. It became something that came easily and I felt that this career path was meant to be for me.

And yet, I simply didn’t love it.

Don’t get me wrong, it was okay. I learned a lot and worked with some great people. But I envied those folks who had a spring in their step on the way to work. People who absolutely loved what they did and couldn’t wait to roll up their sleeves and get busy. I always wanted to be one of those people.

I finally went for it and took the opportunity to focus on this strategic space. It’s been nearly five years and while there have been many bumps along the way, I can now say with full confidence that this is something I am passionate about.

As Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” It’s great advice but it’s not always that simple—it can be difficult to figure out what you love and how to parlay that into a viable business or job.

As a strategist, how do you spend your time at work? 

Believe it or not, this might sound clichéd, I spend most of my time doing research, brainstorming, and laying down the core or essence of the business or campaign to identify the challenges and potential solutions. I also use inspirational sources like a TED Talk or biography. It’s a simple way to reignite that fire to gets me motivated and back on track.

Strategists take pleasure in solving problems and exploring opportunities. They are curious at heart. And if they’re not curious enough to begin with, they’ll train themselves to be. I would not say I am naturally curious. But over the years, I’ve learnt to enjoy being curious. I’ve learnt a great deal because of that simple word. When the team was tasked to figure out their 12-month plan, I would be the first one to feel excited and assist them. When leaders tell you they had a hunch about an opportunity or a new business idea, I’ll offer my thoughts.

Being curious is just one of the many reasons I went into strategy. Curiosity is developed by knowing there are many things we don’t know and venturing into the unknown with a sense of enjoyment to find out more. This is in the mind of the strategist.

How do you personally define the discipline of marketing strategy?

Strategists in many ways are professional opportunists. They find the best opportunity, create a plan to take advantage of it and plan/direct resources to make the biggest impact possible.

It’s funny when you hear titles in front of strategists. Digital strategy (as an example) has been one of the rising stars over the past few years of the strategy world. Generally, though, strategy types are as different as a drama or an action movie. They’ve got a different look and feel but underneath it all, you’ve still got the same Hollywood Three Act Structure.

Ultimately, we need to see the world differently. Without that, we would never find “the way” to outline traditional thinking.

What’s on your wish list in terms of strategic thinking/work? 

A good strategist will be able to understand and articulate the factors identified as opportunities to pull the strings together. Basically, there’s no hard and fast formula. What you’re looking for is a person who can identify the problem, find an opportunity to fix it and create a measurable plan for other people to act on.

Personally, I would love to make a positive impact on the business and client with a distinctive and effective campaign approach. There is real value in butterfly-stroking our way up the stream to help our clients identify and exploit opportunities—but only if we’re able to translate those opportunities into creative or experiential output with immediacy and at scale. 

Where do you see yourself working in 5-10 years? 

I am driven to be the best at what I do and I want to work somewhere where I’ll continue to have opportunities to further develop my skills, take on interesting projects and work with people I can really learn from. To me, some of the most innovative thinkers are in this industry and that’s a big reason why I am where I am.

Where do you see strategy going in the next 10-15 years? 

Ten years ago, the narrative I heard most often was that the single most important role of the strategist was to help make the creative work stronger. Now, I see more opportunities upstream for creative problem solving together with client partners. I think it’s a natural shift for strategists because this is fundamental to how we think but I’m most interested to see how the role for creatives evolves alongside us.

Increasingly, the expectation of strategists is to cut the time associated with the planning process and strategy development – sometimes entirely – without having an adverse effect on the impact of the final work. And furthermore, to determine how best to use every possible media channel and adtech platform to broadcast one’s message, even as those channels further splinter and fragment to infinity.

Lastly, I think I have found my passion and I’m grateful for that. But every day I learn something new, and I will continue to keep learning because a strategist must be fluid, agile and adaptable to whatever lies ahead.

How to enter the WARC Awards for Asian Strategy

The WARC Awards for Asian Strategy are now open for entries. The deadline for submission is July 14, 2021 (a small extension can be granted, do reach out to the WARC team).

Now in their 11th year, the Awards aim to showcase the region’s best strategic thinking with a view to inspire the next generation of strategists.

Entry is free. For more info on how to submit your work, visit the Awards website.