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 some rising stars from Sri Lanka.

In terms of size, Sri Lanka could be a much smaller market when compared to its immediate neighbour. Then again, dismiss it at your own peril. The consumer mindset in the island nation is complex, they say, and here’s where the new wave of strategy led by the youth promises to make a difference.

The strategists WARC spoke to, whether having been introduced to the discipline by chance or not, speak passionately about their roles and responsibilities. And it is heartening to note how they are only eager to learn and grow further.

Sarah Hassanally

Title: Group Head – Brand Planning

Company: Leo Burnett Sri Lanka

Age: 30

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

My advertising career began with a stint in Brand Management, at which point I didn’t fully understand the different disciplines within an agency and how they worked together. In my first month at work, when I told my mother what my role entailed, she instantly replied: “That’s so not you.” Fortunately, I came to this realisation soon enough once I discovered the role of strategy and instinctively knew it was “so me”.

What drew me to strategy was that it was a mix of a lot of different things that I was interested in. From understanding more about people (formal research with a healthy dose of eavesdropping), to writing and learning about how brands are built and how they grow. Initially, I felt like strategy meant having all the answers but with experience comes the humbling realisation that you can never really know everything. That’s also what keeps it interesting and pushes you to learn and do more. 

As a strategist, what tasks or focus areas take up the bulk of your time?

A large part of what I do every day includes gathering information, making sense of it and eventually distilling it all into a simple problem to be solved or a message to be communicated. That said, each day looks quite different.

In a country like Sri Lanka, where people are quite laid back and friendly, research can mean talking to people on the street, to a tuk tuk driver on your journey home or simply knocking on someone’s door at the opposite end of the country and being welcomed into their home for an hour-long chat over tea (without a prior appointment). It can mean making clay jewellery with kids in the afternoon (it really does help them open up to you) and attending a coffee tasting session in the evening to better understand a new category you’re working on. 

As we’re a smaller market, we also keep up with the rest of the world and learn what they’re doing on a regular basis. Through our global agency network and beyond, searching for global trends, case studies and best practices provide inspiration and benchmarks for us to get better and is an area we focus on.

How do you define the discipline of marketing strategy?

Strategy is essentially an informed opinion on how to win in the market.

If you think of marketing as a simple three-step process, strategy is the second step preceded by diagnosis and followed by tactics.

Before you develop a strategy, you need to know the real problem you’re trying to solve. Once you have this in place, you can then make informed choices about what you will and won’t do, which is where strategy comes in. It answers the questions of who you’re targeting, what your positioning is and what your objectives are.

Once you have these steps in place, you can then figure out which tactics are best suited to help you deliver on your strategy.

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

The best strategies are always simple. However, getting to that point of simplicity and clarity requires an extensive appreciation of the many different aspects of a brand and business.

An example of how this looks in practice is when we’ve been involved on client projects from the onset and collaborated at every step of the process. On some brands we’ve been part of research at the product development stage, on others we’ve worked closely with not just the marketing team but the sales and distribution teams too and having access to their data and expertise lends unique insight into the work we end up creating.

This kind of collaboration usually requires more time which is not something we have a lot of, given how quickly we’re expected to respond on most projects but here’s hoping we can make it more of a priority.

What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years’ time?

What’s great about the agency environment is that you’re exposed to so many different people and disciplines. With agencies also reinventing themselves, in 5-10 years, the experience is going to be different to what it is today.

The nature of strategy work also means that you’re always learning and doing new things. So in 5-10 years, whether that work happens in an agency or a different kind of organisation is something I am open to.

Where do you see strategy going in the next 10-15 years? How will it evolve?

From a Sri Lankan perspective, what I hope to see is a stronger understanding of the fundamentals of diagnosis, strategy and tactics - in that order. Quite often, clients jump to quick-fix tactics before conducting proper diagnosis or taking the time to figure out what their strategy is going to be. Another issue is to tick tactics off a checklist without looking at whether they’re delivering on the strategy or not.

With the fundamentals in place, knowing where you’re going and what needs to be done to get there becomes a lot simpler. In complex and uncertain times, both now and in the future, we could certainly use more of that.

Shahan Fernando

Title: Assistant Manager – Strategic Planning

Company: Triad

Age: 32

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

Strategic thinking has always been a part of me since my younger days. However, this was properly unleashed during my stint as a client service executive at an agency where I used to work.

As I was doing my regular client service duties, I found myself researching various facts related to the client’s business and then providing them with strategic advice on ways to advertise. The senior management identified this and offered me a job with strategy. That was one of the best things that happened to me. I didn’t realise that day how happy I would be now to be doing strategy. 

As a strategist, what tasks or focus areas take up the bulk of your time?

The bulk of my time goes into research and coming up with a focused direction. There have been instances where I would have to spend days researching to find the real problem, a truth or an insight into the target audience.

How do you define the discipline of marketing strategy?

Strategy digs deeper into a problem/opportunity and provides an effective direction to the marketing exercise, and that too has been backed up by a consumer insight/truth.

Without these elements, it’s just a shot in the dark.

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

I often wish there was more time provided by clients to implement method planning into my work on a regular basis. Through this, a marketing exercise would be even more effective.

What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years’ time?

Yes, I would still be with an agency, as I love the opportunity to work across several industries, initiatives and clients on a daily basis.

When I started off, I was merely grasping the foundations of strategic planning and now I have surpassed that level to move on to the next, which is to come up with award-winning strategies. That would be gained through studying award-winning case studies, as well as speaking to more experienced strategists and creative people in the industry.

Where do you see strategy going in the next 10-15 years? How will it evolve?

I believe strategy would be headed towards a new era, where there won’t be strategists specialised in one medium. I believe every strategist would be proficient in all areas of advertising – ATL, digital, PR, media and OOH.

There’s a big hope of mine in relation to strategy in advertising – I hope the youngsters (younger than me) will realise the value of strategy and keep it growing in the years to come. When they see the value, there will be more strategists in the industry.

Kolitha Dissanayaka

Title: Strategic Planner

Company: Dentsu Grant (PVT) LTD

Age: 31

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

I always wanted to be in the communications business because I love creativity and so I pursued Mass Communications and Journalism in university. When I got an internship at Dentsu Grant, I was over the moon. I couldn’t wait to start.

But then I was put into the strategic planning dept and I was horrified. I felt that I was so close, yet so far away from doing what I loved the most.

But very quickly, the discipline of strategy grew on me because I began to understand the central role of strategy in directing creativity to meet business outcomes. Learning new things every day and people watching are two things that I really enjoy. This also helped me greatly.

Slowly, I also got interested in Social and Consumer Psychology, and realised that at the heart of creating any behaviour change was a well-thought-out strategy taking many aspects into consideration.

As a strategist, what tasks or focus areas take up the bulk of your time?

Like most other strategists, I spend a considerable amount of time learning new things. My major interest is in mastering behaviour-changing communications. I am totally fascinated by how seemingly trivial and unrelated things can actually change human behaviour for good (as well as for bad in some cases).

The science of behaviour change isn’t really limited to communications. It has far wider applications in today’s context such as app design, product and service design, UX/UI etc.

If we pay more attention to how people behave, we can significantly improve their experiences by eliminating pain points and making memorable, pleasant experiences for them.

How do you define the discipline of marketing strategy?

I like to think of strategy as the act of choosing carefully, based on objectives and key results expected. The essence of a good marketing strategy is data, as one cannot carefully choose without data.

Furthermore, the marketing strategy of any company should be periodically evaluated and updated to reflect market changes. Marketing strategy should be seamlessly aligned to both the corporate and brand strategy of a company. This is more relevant today considering that we operate in an uncertain market with constant and rapid changes.

Unfortunately, most companies have marketing strategy as a document only. The ideal situation is that various parts of the marketing function should complement each other and further, it should work in unison with other aspects, like the product development, engineering, customer service etc of the company, to deliver better.

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

I saw a clear difference between companies that were merely reacting to the pandemic versus companies that were able to quickly assess, recalibrate and deploy solutions. I was part of the team that was able to help a few companies do just that.

I felt that strategy could play a far bigger role, not just during the pandemic but even on an ongoing basis. For example, we were able to help companies transform from brick-and-mortar models to embrace agile digital ecosystems.

After seeing some encouraging results, as well as the value addition to these companies, I wish I could work on more projects of this nature – strategy consulting and digital transformation of the value chain.

What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years’ time?

Thinking about the next 5-10 years is not possible with the rate of disruption today. If I could foresee five years from now, I would be in a different business altogether.

Also, it’s difficult to plan with a fixed mindset now. That was a luxury the older generation enjoyed. But I think it’s thrilling, to a greater extent, to navigate the seas of uncertainty.

I want to be open-minded and be transformed by the ongoing disruption, as well as create some compelling disruption. So, I can’t exactly tell you where I will be. If the journey is adventurous, I will jump aboard. 

Where do you see strategy going in the next 10-15 years? How will it evolve?

The core idea of strategy will always remain as long as there are challenges and objectives to be achieved. The way we strategise, however, will change significantly.

How we strategise has changed so much when compared to even just a few years ago. Today, we have access to big data, which has changed the game. We can also deploy quick completely automated research.

But I like to entertain the possibility that the majority of the planning process may be automated, while the fun and addictive bit, wherein we apply our imagination, will still remain untouched. At least, I like to think that!

Ranali Tillekeratne

Title: Manager, Digital Planning & Strategy

Company: ADA Sri Lanka

Age: 31

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

From the start of my career, I have always been someone who would want to see or understand the bigger picture for what I would take on. I have always been interested in a strategic role but my different career paths groomed me for it. Even though I am passionate about building digital communication strategies for clients, it didn’t really start off that way.

At the start of my career, I was exposed to a financial-led B2B client servicing role. This gave me perspective on being number savvy and to always see the bigger picture. This helped me once I moved into a digital strategy role as my plans/advice to clients were always backed by data/numbers. It gave me quick wins which in return cemented the relationship with my clients. I always believe in data-driven strategic plans and I also keep a close watch on the returns and ensure the sustainability of the plans.

As a strategist, what tasks or focus areas take up the bulk of your time?

One of the key tasks a strategist needs to play is justify solutions against the market challenges that are put across. This involves a lot of factual understanding when a problem or a brief is disseminated. So a bigger part of my day’s work is about gathering more and more data and insights in all levels of context.

This could be understanding the consumer we are trying to talk to and/or even the campaign idea we put across. Making information available to complete the task is where I spend the most time, along with chatting with clients and running through brands etc.

I always ensure 20% of my time is allocated for reading and learning about current developments in my domain. Strategists should always lead the team with insights and the plans should be practical and well accepted by the client.

How do you define the discipline of marketing strategy?

Over the years, the subject of marketing has evolved dramatically. The current shift in consumer behaviour to digital has made certain industries change gears on marketing strategies altogether.

In the current context, having planned communication touchpoints that can be more relevant to the audience is a crucial discipline that a marketing strategy should have. If the message is communicated to all the audiences in the same way, not many are going to relate to it. Hence a marketing strategy that talks to the individual is important.

By having this as the base of a marketing strategy, brands can build love towards them and build loyal advocates. So, really relating/messaging to your audience differently in your strategy is KEY!

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

Finding clients that are open to test new ground, especially in the digital space, is quite limited. Building a mindset to achieve this amongst the clients is something I would wish for. And taking time to guide the clients and help build their brands survive the next decade or so.

From a client’s perspective, financial provisions for digital strategic initiatives should be planned. This is vital for faster growth, as well as to reap the full benefit of the strategic targets.

Structured data on key areas should be properly recorded, irrespective of the size of the company. I sometimes see a challenge in the local SME sector where the business data record is not properly kept. Data is key for faster growth, so the culture should be built within the business’ ecosystem.

What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years’ time?

In the coming 5-10 years, I would still want to be in the agency side of things because when you are a part of an agency, you get to experiment and try new things almost every day. It also gives you the opportunity to play a brand’s role since there is a lot of understanding that needs to happen.

As for my career growth, I would want to pursue taking on global marketing strategies, working with international brands across markets. I see this as a way of broadening the knowledge on certain cultures and respective behaviours that could help widen my view as a strategist.

Last but not least, data and analytically driven strategies are some grounds which I want to keep a strong footprint on!

Where do you see strategy going in the next 10-15 years? How will it evolve?

The role of a strategist will be vital in any company looking at the next 10-15 years.

Being more data-driven in the strategies would be a key task of a strategist.

Judging the decisions based on facts and data will be what most clients would request for.

Having said that, making sure a mindset shift happens, to explore understanding different behaviours/industries backed by data that are being refreshed more frequently, is what needs to evolve to stay relevant.

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.

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.