Mike makes magic with words and strategy, not surprising then that he has a B.A. in Marketing Communication and Honours Degree (Cum Laude). Here’s more from him about the world of advertising, marketing, strategy and living life without fear and loving without limits…
What unexpected skills does someone need to be a Strategist?
People in the industry often view strategists and creatives as different animals. But I’ve learned that being a good strategist requires a strong dose of creative thinking and ability – being able to think in terms of new and inspiring ideas.The best strategists tend to be both analytical and conceptual. And of course, great creative outputis usually underpinned by a strong strategic foundation. I often joke with creative friends and colleagues that we’re two sides of the same coin – but the strategist is the “head” of that coin, of course! Some other unexpected skills are incessant (bordering on obsessive) curiosity, being a good storyteller, the ability to pay attention to the “right” details (as it’s easy to get bogged down in analysis paralysis) and above all, adaptability – being able to put oneself in the shoes of a consumer who is often far removed from one’s own personal reality. In a previous job, I once received strategic briefs for beer, credit cards and pantyliners all in the same week! So one learns quickly to move seamlessly from one product category (and consumer reality) to another.
I am very detail-oriented in my work, but have always been able to “think” in terms of the bigger picture as well. The true value of strategy lies in its ability to provide clear, concise direction that inspires. There is a time and place for detail and I’ve learned, with experience, when it is called for and when it isn’t. Back to my point in the previous question, I also believe I possess a balance between analytical and conceptual ability. Lastly, I am an active listener. I’m often told that I’m too quiet because of this! But as much as part of a strategist’s job is to interrogate, sometimes it is necessary to listen and observe in order to understand. I like to think that I’m proof of the fact that the quietest person in the room is very often the one whose ideas and solutions speak the loudest.
What’s a typical day at The Strategy Department?
If I think of my colleagues, the only thing we have in common is the fact that we are passionate about strategy. Other than that, we’re about as eclectic and diverse as a group of coworkers could possibly be.So as the cliché states, there is never a dull moment at The Strategy Department!Even during stressful times, we always ensure that the fun aspect of our work is never lost. There is also a genuine spirit of camaraderie at The Strategy Department and we never shy away from helping out a colleague in need. There is no such thing as a “typical” day for us though, which constantly helps to keep things interesting.
I love the fact that I get to be a “chameleon”. In my three years with The Strategy Department, I have done work for about 20 different agencies and consultancies. So on one hand, I enjoy the variety of clients that I get to work with (and brands I’ve had the opportunity to work on). But at the same time, I’m inspired by the fact that I’ve also had the opportunity to be exposed to many great minds in a relatively short space of time. From a career growth perspective, I often joke that I’ve been able to “job hop” and continue learning and growing at a pace that many full-time in-house strategists are simply not able to attain. There is also great satisfaction in seeing everything “come together” as a strategist:being aware of the fact that your strategic thinking is able to inspire great creative work and actually seeing the end product in the market, knowing that you played a pivotal part in it.One of my proudest moments this year was having a creative agency team come to thank me personally for writing a strategy that ultimately helped them to “crack” their creative concept for a campaign. While we seldom receive the glory as strategists,there is always a sense of intrinsic fulfilment that comes from knowing and appreciating our value in the branding and communication process.
Are you involved in Training and Research at The Strategy Department?
With regards to Training, I’ve been able to work with and mentor a number of interns and junior strategists over the years. I often think back to the days when I was an intern and then an entry-level strategist, and how much it meant to me to have the guidance, support and trust of my seniors. So I try to be the same wherever possible – empowering junior colleagues to do their own thinking, whilst being available as needed to encourage and guide them as strat “newbies”. Then, research is the starting point for any strategic work and I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in a variety of exciting research-oriented projects in the time that I’ve been with The Strategy Department. In fact, I’m currently working on a project in which I played an active role in formulating the research design. I’ve also had several opportunities to work “in-field” for clients as an interviewer and mystery shopper, which is always fun. There is no better way to get close to your target audience and understand nuances that are often lost in the boardroom or office scenario.
As a strategist at The Strategy Department, I’ve worked on projects for brands that operate in a variety of African countries outside of South Africa, including Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana. I was also involved in a massive project for a leading global agency network, which sought out to understand consumer realities across the continent. So I feel that we have an immense role to play in terms of helping to build brands across Africa and despite the common misconception of South Africans being seen as arrogant by our neighbours to the north, I’ve found that our input hasalways been highly valued and appreciated. It is important to recognise that in helping these clients, we are actually being helped as well, since each project is an opportunity for growth and learning – expanding our horizons and being able to empower our own strategic thinking for future projects on a continent which, economically speaking, is one of the fastest growing regions in the world.
How does doing business in other parts of Africa differ from for example, SA or overseas?
I have seen the term “Africa expansion” in countless business plans for local brands wanting to tap into the opportunities that the continent presents. But it is firstly important to remember that Africa is comprised of 54 countries, each with its own culture, customs, consumer realities,and business climate. One of the biggest mistakes that South African marketers often make is treating the rest of Africa as one country and using a “cut-and-paste” approach across markets. This is a surefire recipe for disaster, because doing business in Botwana is markedly different from doing business in Benin, for instance. Even countries in the same region of the continent can have massive differences between them.
So the consumer landscape varies?
Yes, it is also important to remember that the consumer landscape for other countries is often very different to that of South Africa, which is a relatively mature market by Sub-Saharan African standards. However, there is also much talk of the rise of a “New Africa”, alive with growth and opportunity. Part of this is an increase in discretionary spending power, a growing middle class and a rapid technological boom on the continent. As strategists and marketers, we need to be cognisant of this and ensure that our strategies and communication are reflective of the changing realities of consumers across the continent. We also need to break the stereotype of being the arrogant, “big brother” of Africa, trying to save the day. Respect, realness, relevance and, above all, research are the keywords in this regard.
I see an immense role for social media in this regard. I’ve been able to connect with a number of fellow strategists through social media, which has helped to expand my knowledge base and network. As strategists, we are often accused of working in a bubble, so there is a lot that social media has done (and will continue to do) in terms of fostering greater collaboration within our industry and beyond. Then, I once overheard someone refer to Twitter as the “new news channel” for people today and this is so true. Ongoing industry, category and competitor monitoring are keys to success for clients in our rapidly moving and changing world. So I also use social media to keep in touch with what’s happening in the marketplace and leverage the power of social networking to gather quick insights as needed.
Are brands getting social media right?
Well, it goes without saying that all brands worth their salt today are looking to incorporate social media into their audience engagement plans. But the challenge, of course, lies in HOW to use social media; unfortunately, there are many brands that have not gotten it right. Just having a presence is not enough, especially for the younger generation of consumers who are growing increasingly cynical of marketers and critical of content or engagement that is deemed irrelevant to their realities. It all boils down to relevance and authenticity – rather than being present in social media for the sake of presence alone.
What would you change in the local and international ad industry if you could…
Although things are changing, I’ve often found that the role and value of strategy are underappreciated by creative agencies. For many, the end goal (and measure of success) is winning creative awards. So I would like to see greater collaboration between strategic and creative teams, as they often work in isolation. At the end of the day, we are here to help our clients reach their business and brand objectives – and both strategy and creative have a critical part to play in this.
Authenticity is important?
Yes indeed – I would also like to see more authentic South African content and campaigns. There have been too many instances in the past where I’ve had to “force-fit” or back-rationalise global strategies for the local market. And the end result, creatively, is often simply an adaptation of global work. We are seeing more examples of excellent South African advertisements for global brands, rooted in relevant local insight (e.g. Bell’s Whisky’s recent “The Reader” TV commercial). However, I would like to see even more locally relevant communication and no more bad kung fu movie dubbing of international ads, which are often far removed from the realities of South African life!
You seem like someone who takes being fit seriously – is a healthy body and mind connection important?
Absolutely! One of the greatest advantages of my job is that it allows me the flexibility to pursue my other passions. So in addition to being a strategist, I am also trained in Ballroom and Latin American dancing and have had the opportunity to dance at the highest level in South Africa and internationally. I also keep myself fit and active through regular gym training. There is indeed something to be said for a healthy body-mind connection and I strive to keep both aspects in balance. Firstly, there is a sense of discipline that comes from training, which naturally spills over into one’s work ethic – and vice versa. But I’ve also found that the best strategic ideas often come when I have least expected them to. There have literally been a number of occasions in the past where I’ve actually “cracked” a strategy whilst on the dance floor or in the gym, not actively thinking of that strategy at the time! So it is critical to zone out sometimes as a strategist, give the active mind a chance to rest and allow one’s ideas to incubate in the unconscious mind.
In addition to what I’ve mentioned above, I make a point of spending quality time with my family and friends. One of the things I’ve truly come to appreciate in recent years is how short life actually is. So I try to make time for the people who matter most. And also time to try out new experiences. This year has been filled with many of these, including road trips to new locations and a host of things that I have attempted for the first time (such as fishing). I’m a great lover of the outdoors and am at my happiest spending time in nature. I am also fanatical about salsa dancing and salsa music – there is just something about it that speaks to my soul and gets me going every time.
Do you have a life-philosophy that you’d share with us?
I do. My personal mantra for the year has been “Live without fear. Love without limits.” And I’ve tried my best to infuse this into every aspect of my life, including my work. Being a strategist can be daunting and draining, especially for someone who is naturally more introverted. It is sometimes scary to present a new idea and convince a client that it is “right” for their brand; and there are often very stressful times when, as strategists, we have to remind ourselves of the passion that drew us to this career to begin with. So to any fellow introverts out there who are considering a career in strategy, I would say go for it! Strategy has played an integral role in building my self-confidence, getting me to come out of my shell and giving me a platform to live out my passion for branding and communication. Follow your dreams without fear and love what you do without imposing limits! Awesome stuff – thank you Mike!
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