Nicole Armstrong is the new Head of Strategy for R/GA London. Ahead of the launch of WARC’s 2021 Future of Strategy research project, she talked to us about the challenges of the past year, the opportunities for the next generation of strategists – and how to make digital transformation more than just a cliché.
The agency world is facing a period of reinvention – where will the strategy role fit in? How is this reflected in your ambition for strategy at R/GA?
Strategy’s role in this reinvention rests on how we help our clients navigate the new challenges and opportunities they face. It’s our role to bring clarity to the business need and establish (if not invent) the area of opportunity to create impactful solutions. Then we must inspire and guide our creative teams to meaningful and memorable work that quite possibly has never been done before.
As a result of this, my ambition for strategy at R/GA has two key focuses:
- Team: Recruiting strategists who can tackle a problem from any angle, whether it be an innovative integrated campaign or building a complete end-to-end DTC consumer experience, is very difficult. It’s my ambition to grow and nurture a team of progressive problem solvers who are focused on developing transformative solutions found at the intersection of bold ambition, creativity and human truths.
- Process: It’s about integrating strategy from the beginning of the client engagement, throughout the project and beyond. Often strategy is the loss leader at the beginning. However, it’s the strategic vision that keeps the work true to the ambition, true to the consumer and true to the brand. Therefore, it’s critical strategy becomes a consistent and integrated component of the work.
Our Future of Strategy 2020 research found two contrasting experiences – some strategists felt the crisis opened up new opportunities; others were seeing cutbacks, layoffs and a shift to short-termism. What's been your experience?
The tensions that emerged in 2020 for strategy are both valid. I’m an eternal optimist. Even in the bad, I like to try and look for the good.
COVID has opened up new opportunities by forcing brands to look differently at their business and be more open to unproven solutions that reinvent how they engage with their consumers.
On the flip side, strategy has taken a pretty hard hit in the rush to get work out the door and realise essential revenues. However, the repercussions of this are being felt. Quick decisions without focused direction and customer understanding are starting to show their cracks. So although strategy was a casualty in the beginning, I see strategy coming out the victor, as teams and clients realise how essential strategy is to creating work that drives commercial value and meaningful customer impact.
How have the briefs you are working on changed over the past year?
Unsurprisingly, clients have become more open to digital experience innovation and are looking for greater customer understanding. This fills me with joy as my dream briefs are coming in the door more willingly. The hard sell to scale a brand’s businesses through digital services, customer relationship platforms and omnichannel experience design isn’t needed. This is now what clients are looking for. So I see this as a massive silver lining to COVID.
There is a lot of talk about the rise of multiple specialisms at the expense of 'broad' strategists. What should a junior strategist be prioritising at the moment? And how does a senior strategist build the right team?
A junior strategist should not be prioritising a specific type of strategy. The world is changing too fast for that at the moment. They need to be curious about the world around them and how it’s impacting the way businesses operate and the way people engage with them. Equally, they need to focus on understanding how to solve for the unknown. They need to be able to take on a brief where the output may have never been done before. This will help them grow and become a powerful strategist for the largely unknown future.
The notion of ‘right team’ depends on many different factors. But in my case the right team is about having a mix of senior talent that have a strong problem-solving mindset with a flexible perspective on what’s possible. They tend to have a focus, or a major if you like, in areas like brand, experience or innovation. Then, with the more junior talent, it’s important to give them time with different types of challenges, so they can learn key skills in one area, before moving them into another area. This is to help build strong diverse strategists who will become the progressive problem solvers of the future.
Does strategy have a diversity problem? If so, what can you and other strategy leaders do about it?
Yes it does. Unfortunately, like the wider industry as whole, there is a diversity issue from a legacy of hiring strategists from Ivy League schools and internships for senior executives’ friends’ children. I've seen this first hand and I don't like it.
I am looking for strategists from all walks of life and unexpected professional backgrounds to add not only diversity of work experience but also life experience. It's about working with new talent and opening doors for those who start from different places to help make opportunities more accessible.
This isn't an overnight solution as the last thing we want is to make people feel like they are filling a diversity quota. They want to know they are there on their own merit. But it takes an open mind from execs on what good talent looks like (it's not just from our circles and certain schools) and it's about working with new and emerging talent to provide access and visibility that isn't always there.
Do you see greater competition for strategic thinking – from consultancies, from media owners, from boutique shops?
Absolutely. There are two sides of looking at this. There is client-facing strategy and then there is internal-facing strategy.
Client-facing strategy is where a lot of the competition lies. Everyone wants to help solve their client’s most interesting and pressing challenges. It’s important for clients to consider the perspective they want their challenges solved for. Every agency can offer strategic thinking. It just comes from slightly nuanced perspectives based on what the agency specialises in.
Then there is internal-facing strategy. This is the strategy that takes the client’s brief, which may be one deliverable of the larger strategy, and translates it into a creative task that will inspire and motivate the agency’s creative teams to create a solution that will connect with people and drive business results. This is something that every agency needs to have baked into the project, even if the wider strategic thinking has already been done. This ensures the strategy translates to the specialist teams required to create the end piece of work, be that media plans, DTC platform development, brand design, or something else.
The Future of Strategy 2021 will focus on the next generation of strategists. To get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org