The Difference Between Right and Interesting

Strategic planners are generally viewed as the thinkers of the agency; the people who bring research and rationality to the creative process. While the planners do not come up with the creative “idea”, they provide strategic guidance based on genuine market needs, trends and behaviors. They rely on data, first-hand interviews and wide reading. An insight from a planner could inspire a creative team and steer the entire direction of a campaign.

In an ever-evolving industry, how have strategists adapted to meet client needs? BBH LA Head of Strategy, Agathe Guerrier, took the time to speak with us and give us her perspective on the role and its evolution. 

Agathe Guerrier
Global Co-Chief Strategy Officer TBWA Worldwide

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got your start as a strategist

I am head of strategy at BBH LA, I’ve been here for 2.5 years. Prior to that I was at BBH London for 5 years. I was away from BBH for a year to run my own consultancy before returning. 

I got my start in account management at BETC. Within that role we would write the briefs and handle a lot of the tasks that would typically fall under a strategist. I realized was this is what really excited me. When I wanted to become a strategist there wasn’t a strategic planning team at BETC. There was a consulting team, but they worked on separate consulting projects. Then Mother offered me a strategy position in London, and I jumped at it. 

How would you define the role of a strategist?

We are to be the voice of the consumer, and even more importantly, to be the voice of the business. We are business partners to our clients, although we do still define the message of the comms, more fundamentally we work with our client to show how the communication can impact the future health of their business from a very commercial standpoint. 

The way we talk about the role and what we do continues to change, and always will. But at its heart we use creativity as a tool to drive our clients' business forward. We need to be able to provide the link between creativity and growth, and that’s the role of the strategist if you boil it down. 

Have you seen the role of a strategist evolving within the industry?

I think what’s happened at BBH, like everywhere else is the way we do our job is more complex, but also more fascinating than it’s ever been. And our culture has become much more collaborative. There are less of clearly defined lanes, and departments have become fluent in each other’s languages. Now, a strategist is expected to take more accountability in client relationships, the creative output, and to keep pushing the envelope. 

For our LA office, one of the founding principles was that we would be project based. Because of this, we tend to be more hybrid, faster paced, and better able to blend together the strategic and the creative to the point where you can barely tell them apart. We are more agile in the sense that we don’t have a long strategic phase in which we think in the abstract about how business goals translate into communication goals. 

The US in its culture, and especially in its business culture, is very action oriented. It’s a culture of doing and trying things out. Getting out there and seeing what works. There are less lengthy discussions about your strategy in the abstract than there is in the UK. 

What would you say are the greatest barriers to an aspiring strategist?

I don’t think anyone is taking the time to train ‘baby’ strategists anymore. I remember when I started, all large agencies had graduate programs, and these graduates would move around the departments of the agency and decide which they were most interested in. At the end of the program they’d be put in a junior position with a mentor and a very clear roadmap for growing their skillset. I don’t think these kinds of programs exist as they did before. 

Then there’s the age-old chicken or the egg situation, where nobody is going to let you do anything because you haven’t done anything yet. I myself am guilty of this, when you’re looking at a new hire fresh out of university, you must consider that they could be more of a time suck than a time save for a few months. 

Then what advice would you give to a would-be planner?

My advice, based on experience, would be, get your foot in the door however you can. Take a job as a receptionist, an account manager, or even an intern if possible. Even if it’s not in strategy, it’s still relevant. I think half of the people I’ve hired have transferred from other departments because I’ve seen their potential, their commitment to the agency, and their willingness to be an asset to the team. It shows me that they’re not only willing to roll up their sleeves, but also that they have a fuller understanding of the industry. 

You can learn the theory, and you can learn how to make diagrams, and do a competitive analysis, but a lot of it is based on having done it a few times. Knowing what works, how to tell a story, and a lot of these more intangible skills that can only be learned by doing. 

And going beyond just getting the job, in your experience, what are the skills and traits that separate the great strategists from the mediocre?

First and most obviously, are curiosity and versatility. An interest in the fact that brands, and consumer culture are always changing. You need to be fascinated by that change, able to adapt to it, and you need to always want to understand these changes and the direction they’re going in. 

And the difference between good and great, is the difference between right and interesting. There are those who think in a structured way, can gather and analyze data, and tell you the correct, logical way to solve a problem. Then you have people that can do all of that, but also bring some zing to the process so the answer is not only right, but it’s also interesting and seems even a little magical. That’s the difference between good and great, and it’s something that's very hard to teach. 

Finally, in your opinion what is the greatest misconception about strategists?

Strategy tends to attract those that are more left-brained and analytical. They think their job is just to be right. What I often find myself telling my teams is, there’s no point being right alone.

Your job is to inspire followership and bring the rest of the team with you.  It’s just as important to tell your story in a way that gets people excited and ready to buy into it, as it is to find the right answer.