With consultancies continuing to grow within the strategy space and providing new opportunities for strategists looking for their next move, we spoke to Abel Sim, who made the move from agency to consultancy. He discusses how the roles differ and gives advice for others looking to make the move.

What role does a creative strategist play in a consultancy, and how has your move to a consultancy been eye-opening? 

Firstly, while it is easy to say that it’s hard not to get excited about working with extremely smart people doing exciting projects across the entire business spectrum, for me, the thought of the transition from agency to consultancy was terrifying at first. It is also seriously intimidating when you first start to navigate the sheer scale and scope of the types of game-changing and transformational work we have the mandate and challenge to deliver.

As creative strategists, we are part of cross-functional and multi-disciplinary teams, which means having an amazing opportunity to work with a great mix of exceptional specialists from many different fields such as growth and business design, experience technology strategy, data orchestration and brand construct and delivery. These all come together in running, designing, building and communicating experiences with an integrated goal of identifying differentiators for sustainable business growth. From my own experience, this rich breadth and depth of expertise is something that you don’t typically have operating together at this level of depth in an agency environment.

How does the role differ from the agency role, and have you faced any challenges or opportunities in making the move?

What really helped is that, crucially, from an organizational level, the approach is shifting from how to layer in brand and creative outcomes and expand the scope of engagement with companies, to integrating a brand-led point of view that can enhance and deepen the effectiveness of the existing business solutions we offer. For me, this basically means the agenda for brand strategy (how it can be used to define a business outcome in tandem with all the other moving parts of a business blueprint) is as important as the creative brand execution.

What I’ve found to be a great learning experience, as someone who’s moved from agency to consultancy, is the stage that you enter with clients – especially when you’re working with the senior leadership of businesses as they plan and craft strategies (that have a significant influence on branding and creative executions down the line) rather than being handed them later as parameters and guard rails of a campaign brief.

Given your career move, what are your expectations of the future of the planning and strategy role?

Personally, I have always felt that the focus has shifted away from looking to be ‘disruptive’ and more towards greater, seamless integration. Taking technology, data and analytics and adding design thinking into the process, there is a unified approach to smoothening fragmented experiences into a cohesive and measurable solution. At the same time, we have borne witness to planning teams growing at a furious rate with dedicated specialists across brand, content, channel and social – and the list is growing. The question is not going to be how or who is going to be responsible to then consolidate all these streams of strategic thinking. Ambitiously, I think the question will be about the context of the problem that planners and strategists will be solving. There will be less about the KPIs expected from stand-alone executions but more about how all the precious thinking and insights rally around organisational goals, purpose and being more granular – the customer experience regardless of loyalty or frequency.

What advice would you share with planners and strategists looking to make the move?

The task of connecting insight to opportunity and establishing a direction remains. It helps to see how brand and creative outcomes are part of the overall organization business experience, for example reimagining industries and their value  propositions, products and services and even operating models.

Don’t over think it! Over the span of my agency experience, the biggest significant change in the role of planners and strategists has been the ever-deepening engagement with clients and brands. We are sought out by them early in the process and there is an emphasis placed on making sure there is an agreed strategy and direction before embarking further creatively. Naturally this means we get a deeper immersion in the business, its context and breaking it down so we can really leverage this insight to create something magical from their brand DNA.

This experience is so damn unique and special and also one reason why we are set up for success if you do decide to make the move into a consultancy environment. I mean, come on, in terms of business and commercial design, they have perfected the art of wrangling the proverbial bird in hand but I’d like to think we are the ones that make it sing…with some soul!

Future of Strategy 2021

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