LEGO Group’s Sonal Jhuh explores the diverse paths strategists can follow after leaving agencies.

Every year that the Future of Strategy survey is released, it comes with warning signs for the advertising industry.

This year the data says only one in four strategists expects to stay on in the agency world.

Sounds like agencies have a problem on their hands, but if you’re a strategist, this very data sings of optimism and abundant opportunities.

The future of strategy is lit

Growing up in advertising, I’ve always seen creative directors become film makers or musicians in their ‘agency after-life’; but I wasn’t entirely sure what was out there for strategists.

A few weeks ago I tweeted a simple request asking to be put in touch with advertising strategists who had found a successful afterlife.

Dozens wrote to me and I’ve spent the better part of two weeks speaking with the most inspiring people.

These strategists work in varied and wonderful areas like crypto, gaming, management consulting, venture capital, political campaigning, coaching, recruitment, Hollywood, social good, brand side, building their own brand consultancies, on the board of football clubs, and own racing teams and even an inn on Canada’s southern-most inhabited island.

Turns out, there are no limits to what you can accomplish with your strategy skills and a fistful of grit.

Kaitlin Maud, freelance strategy director says, “It’s a myth that people need to pursue something analogous to their current career. To me, the possibilities for strategists are only limited by people’s own understanding of what they can do.”

It’s clear that strategists should detach their discipline from their industry when thinking about future career paths.

Here are a few tips to get you started on your journey.

  1. Know your unique (commercial) value

As strategists move outside of agencies and start to work in gaming, management, consulting and political campaigns, they start to see their unique talents appreciated in new settings. But it’s not always easy to understand your value.

Our work is often given away for free in many agencies, leaving us unsure what someone outside the agency world would pay.

John, a partner at James Hammon & Co, an Australian growth marketing agency, says “Strategists are over-exposed to promotions and media strategy. Because this type of strategy is often included or given away for free as part of pitches or when an account is retained, they often don't realize clients won't pay for it.” It helps to work out what you can offer that isn’t easily available with big agencies and can be your niche. 

Additionally, impostor syndrome doesn’t allow you to recognize your value. Perhaps it’s because a strategist cannot always look at a piece of work and see their own contribution in it.

Faris Yakob of Genius Steals offers a powerful message in favour of agency for the individual: “the greatest trick the corporation plays on employees is to tacitly reinforce the idea that individually you aren't a commercial entity, only as part of a larger machine. Don't just become another freelancer, become a company, and brand it.”

Stefano Augello, Director, Strategy Innovation Marketing at Bip, too offers a boost of confidence here. He says, “Do not under any circumstance lose sight of what makes you valuable in the first place. Revealing the nature of a problem and identifying a space for opportunities that is insightful and interesting – that's the one thing you can provide that no one else can.”

  1. Don’t get boxed in

Strategists by nature and training are curious about the world and are always learning something new. Disappearing down rabbit holes looking for answers to consumer behaviour comes naturally to us. We can use this innate curiosity never to stay stuck in one role alone.

I loved Sara’s approach of continuous learning. She’s a Principal consultant, OKR activist at Red Currant Collective and says “Think about what you want to learn next. That’s always a valuable next step – since then you’re not making a big long-term commitment to a career direction, but you can stoke your energy tank with some learning.”

To be honest, it isn’t easy to translate your current role or learning or side project into your next role, but marketing advisor and aspiring VC fund manager, Kyra Baker has a useful piece of advice to offer. In order to best help hiring managers or new industries understand your strengths, speak not in terms of roles you’ve done but in terms of skills you have developed, making it easier for everyone to understand what you bring to the table.

  1. Join the community

Allow others to fan your dreams. Join the strategist community, irrespective of in which industry they apply their skills, and you’ll learn and grow in wonderful new ways. Listen to new voices on podcasts like Breda Doherty’s ‘Sheroes’, join strategy Twitter or discover new paths through the 30 Minute - University of Planning.

Christie Cordes, Founder/CEO of ad recruitment firm Consigliere has long advocated participating in the community and on social and, in turn, opening up interesting opportunities “in entertainment, as movie strategists, working on building brands through fandoms, helping build communities around gaming.”

  1. Chase impact

A modern strategy career is no longer a conveyor belt delivering you to the CSO’s chair. The modern strategy career is where you can make a real impact. I’ll leave you with inspiring words from two wonderful people.

“Companies are willing to pay for the expertise so you don't have to trade lifestyle for doing what you love – they can coexist. There is no better time to start than right in this very moment. Begin surrounding yourself [with] the possibilities of where your greatest interest and passion cross paths with the skillset you have learned in the agency world. It's time to be an agent of your own mission.' – Jessie Gardner, Director of Marketing, Farmer’s Footprint.

As Catherine Miller, ex-strategist now inn-keeper says: “Do good in the world. Run for local government, start your own business, organize a community festival or step into a formalized communications role to help a business your values align with spread their message. I can assure you, the ability to succinctly communicate and execute a strategy is rare and powerful. Don't doubt your worth.”

Future of Strategy 2021

Sonal Jhuj's piece appeared originally in WARC's Future of Strategy 2021 report, which you can read here.