A designer recently told me, “I don’t even know what you guys do all day.” She was talking about Creative Strategists. She was talking about me.
Breathe, man. Assume good intent. You haven’t worked with this one yet. It’s only been a few months. Keep working, they’ll start to get it.
Or maybe they won’t.
The job description I responded to reads a little like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Our responsibilities – there are two of us on the team here at Red Hat, in an internal agency model – do shift a bit from project to project. So it’s hard to track our activity from the outside.
But let’s be honest: Choose-your-own-adventure novels were pretty great books! Not having the clearest path can be a pretty awesome problem to have. Maybe it means we’re on the front end of a new, exciting, and much-needed discipline.
So if creative strategist is a new job title in your world, here’s what they’re probably up to. And if you’re a creative strategist yourself, and you’re getting weird stares from your co-workers, here’s a little primer for them.
We Help Make Sense of the Mess
Think of business requirements, new opportunities, audience behaviors, and competitive shifts as bright lights shining down on the brand, the business unit, the marketing department, or the agency. Each beam of light…
- Business situation
- Competitive landscape
- Technological opportunities
- Audience insights and pain points
- Content performance data
- Corporate strategy
- Social platform behavior
- Search behavior
…is brighter than the next, crisscrossing, shooting to and from random parts of the enterprise, but pulsing with energy and potential. There is very little separation in those rays – everything looks exciting but too urgent, promising but too chaotic. Messy is good, but it’s still messy.
Creative strategy exists to help make sense of this mess. We take what we know about these light sources and shape them into something the business can get excited about, something the creatives can focus on, and something the audience can act on. Why? Because our creative work goes up against cat videos and Upworthy pieces. We need to be more focused and inspiring than they are. That’s basically our goal, in an awareness play. Beating cats.
We take multiple inputs and shape them into something the business can get excited about, the creatives can focus on, and the audience can act on.
How do we do this? With lenses… special magical lenses.
OK so they’re not magical, but they are highly metaphorical. I recently heard Project Managers described as a “heat shield” between the client/account team (or the requestor, in our case) and the creative. I like that image.
To the degree that project managers are heat shields, creative strategists are lenses. We provide views. Sometimes that view comes from the rigor of a framework (A.I.D.A., S.M.A.R.T., Cascade Goals, King’s Planning Cycle, choose your model). Whatever process you used, it likely ended up as a creative brief to foster idea generation. This lens is a creative exercise – it helps people see familiar things in new ways, or new things in familiar ways. The business people start to see the creative opportunity with more focus. The creatives start to see the business requirement with more spirit. Sometimes we’re a microscope, forcing the business to define the problem. Sometimes we’re a telescope, helping creatives see some bright spots in that same problem.
So… then everything is synthesized into that brief, right? Land on the single insight, prioritize the messaging, fill out the brief, handoff to the team, pick it up again after they work their magic, yeah?
Yeah, no. Opportunities change, new information surfaces, early ideas don’t pan out, … lenses must always get refocused. So those clean handoffs start to become weak links. Good creative briefs are the piece of paper PLUS the ongoing conversations.
In this approach, agency teams look like several specialists coming together to form one giant supermachine of awesomeness. It’s basically creative-as-Voltron. Look it up, young ones.
I’m pretty sure some more traditional creatives think this is invasive. I’m positive some project managers think it’s the end of civilization. But I love the speed, flexibility and simplicity of this approach.
People, not just personas.
I love the data analysis that comes from our web, search, social, and video analytics teams. I love the rich personas that are segmented and updated constantly by our marketing leads. It’s all gold. But I’ve also seen data points used as a crutch for a bad idea. And some reports come from a mythical survey land with perfect conditions where precisely zero people actually live. It’s easy to ignore the fact that we’re making stuff that actual human beings will experience, under imperfect conditions. So while knowing the persona inside and out is key, it’s just a starting place. We build on reports and personas with ideas from divergent sources (i.e. getting out of our chairs and actually experiencing the lives of our audiences), helping to inform the creative work with rich detail and hopefully unexpected approaches.
For instance, while the persona reported on a finding…
Finding: IT architects are more likely to have a developer background than a business background, but they influence the decision maker’s purchase decision more than anyone
…we like to connect findings with something a little more penetrating, leading to some richer ground to explore. For instance, having spoken with an IT architect, I learned the rather forgotten fact that…
Insight: …they are employees. So they often have hard conversations with their bosses. These conversations look nothing like social followers tweeting with thought leaders. In order to make recommendations during business-side conversations with decision makers, IT architects need ammo at the ready, in the form of IT budget numbers the boss can use immediately.
Let’s try another comparison, a few thousand feet higher in the funnel.
Finding: “Digital transformation” is at the top of CIO surveys as the topic most likely to drive interest in creating an innovative IT strategy.
No big surprise there. So let’s do a series of Digital Transformation infographics on LinkedIn. …But wait a sec. Change the lens.
Insight: “Digital transformation” is innocuous language. Interest in it online hasn’t changed since 2011. Approximately four people Googled it this month, and they were all marketing VPs. Boosting performance, reducing costs and IoT are the IT topics that spark online conversation among executives.
Bring the latter insights to a brief, rather than the former data points, and you’re farther along in the creative process than you were before.
Plans, not just briefs.
As the creatives work their magic, our heads are deep into promotional territory. That means surveying the landscape, playing on social platforms, finding white spaces, raising red flags, and making suggestions for what runs where and for how long.
Is this different from agency strategy and planning?
Not really. I think that discipline is waning in numbers simply because automation is driving more decisions, and research & insights teams are expensive. But the more I learn about traditional strategy and account planning from the advertising world (I was an ACD/copywriter over there), the more I want to see a revival in their discipline. It is a creative endeavor that expands our creative vocabulary in every way.
Everyone is still a strategist.
Business leads come up with creative insights just as readily as we do. So do junior copywriters. But sometimes individual contributors haven’t seen all those rays of light that need to go through the lens.
My CS colleague Elisabeth calls this “pulling all the story threads.” Did this business unit know about the natural connection between their event keynote and Red Hat Films’ Open Source Stories documentary series? There’s an opportunity. Did anyone see our competitor’s new Facebook series about their legacy? Here’s why it matters. Is everyone clear on Instagram’s new ad platform? Here’s a new POV. … It’s a lot of digging, understanding the big picture, knowing the audience and their favorite platforms, some divergent thinking, and making clear connections between all of it.
One final word: work without bias.
Someone smart once said: see what happens when you embrace the opposite of your bias. We kill our babies just like everyone else does. For instance, I tend to hate long-ass blog posts. But sometimes they’re just the thing. 🙂