Going Beyond Briefs & Roadmaps

I guarantee the answers you’re looking for aren’t under your roof.


James Lanyon
VP of Strategy and Innovation T3

Tell us a bit about yourself, what do you do?

I’m currently the head of the strategy and innovation program at T3. I oversee a team of incredibly smart and talented individuals with skill sets ranging from e-commerce to consumer insights to business analysis. Additionally, I oversee emerging technologies for clients and internal projects.

What did you do before your current role and what led you to where you are now?

My previous role at T3 was the dream job everyone talks about - Director of Innovation. My charge was to come up with outlandish ideas and work with talented people to bring them into the world. As the discipline grew so did my responsibilities which led me to the role I have today.

How would you define the role of a strategist in your agency?

There are a lot of metaphors strategists use to describe what they do. The way we talk about it, developers build code, engineers build machines, we build the case. It’s our job to offer empathy to our client’s business, translate that into goals and make the case for not only how you get there, but why they should have faith in your conclusions. It’s a combination of the why and the how. And I think that’s what makes our team different. The vast majority of strategy organizations tend to be one or two dimensional in nature focused on consumers to develop briefs or on digital to develop roadmaps. Strategy at T3 is increasingly multidisciplinary so we can work at multiple levels inside the business at the same time as a manager, VP and C-Suite level covering off on a variety of topics.

How have you seen the role of a strategist been evolving since you first began?

When I started, being a strategist was one of the coolest things a person could aspire to. It was really undefined but in reality, it was mostly dressed up brand planning with the mock turtlenecks to match. There was a lot of fanfare and strategists had these really long runways to do tons of expensive research along with a sort of intellectual license when interpreting the results. Over the last ten years all that has changed. Great strategists have to be significantly more efficient with little ego and bring leverageable expertise to the discussion as a category or subject matter expert. Clients are less inclined to divert funds from data projects to fund market research and are also more comfortable with an 80% confidence level via your expertise.

In your opinion, what are the greatest barriers an aspiring planner/strategist encounters when trying to start their career?

Strategy is such an abstract term and as a result, there’s no real track or navigable curriculum. I am a huge fan of ongoing learning and try to get a certification a year from a resource like Coursera or EdX. When you go onto the platform you don’t see a strategy track as you do for Data Science, Machine Learning or even Design. But I think that’s only because there hasn’t been a convocation of various strategy disciplines into a singular voice - marketing, digital, consumer, data, business, social, media and the like. I encourage any aspiring strategist to go in eyes wide open to the full portfolio of strategy disciplines. And I encourage them to read books like McKinsey’s “Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick.” If you handed that to a brand planning candidate at VCU they’d likely look at you like you were nuts. But organizational and business strategy is as much a strategy as brand or consumer. Having this wider view opens up so many possibilities and opens you up to expanding your strategic repertoire over time.

In your time, what have you noticed are the key skills and traits that separate great strategists from the mediocre?

I think this is vitally important, the need for people and presentation skills has grown substantially. Reading rooms, quickly pivoting via feedback and adapting conclusions is critical. The same is true for owning the room when you’re selling your ideas and point of view. That’s a huge miss for many strategists - presenting - and I think it’s one of the things that separates the good from the great. Also, writing. Writing, writing, writing. I can’t stress this enough. As a strategist, you are a storyteller. You can have the greatest insights in the world but the people you’re communicating to see a billion slide decks and hear a million different data points. You have to engage them. It’s a mistake to assume the facts are the facts. Study novel and fiction writing. Every work of fiction is based on the same arc - conflict, action and resolution. This formula has worked since Dickens for a reason.

How do you avoid getting stuck in a cultural bubble and stay informed on the needs and desires of everyday consumers?

I never assume I know what’s going on in another person’s mind so I try to get out and interact when I can. For one project I just hung out in a Staples watching people for two straight days. Talk to people, even if they’re your friends or coworkers. Take trend reports like PSFK and Trendwatching with a massive grain of salt. Don’t Google answers unless it’s the option of last resort. And get out of your office. I guarantee the answers you’re looking for aren’t under your roof.