What is a Digital Strategist?

And what the heck do they do?


The concept of the digital strategist’s role within an agency or brand can be a bit of a challenge for some people to wrap their heads around. Speak with ten people, you'll get ten different digital strategist job descriptions.

Look online or speak with a recruiter about a digital strategy role and you'll quickly see that a digital strategist by any other name is often an account executive, social media manager, web analytics manager, media planner, brand ambassador, financial and/or business analyst, business development associate, or any combination of these roles — and sometimes much more.

Gatling Guns and Purple Squirrels

This might be due to pure ignorance in some cases, but it might turn out to simply be a desire to get as much bang for the buck as possible from the hiring budget. Loading up a job description with more bullets than a Gatling gun is what I call the “Purple Squirrel Syndrome”.

I've seen stuff like phlebotomy certification, the ability to tune a piano, and debone an antibiotic-laced, freakishly large-breasted chicken in one piece in some digital strategist job descriptions. OK, maybe not the last one. But seriously, folks, what some of these agencies and brands are looking for just doesn’t exist. Funny enough, the authors of these wacky job descriptions are often people who think “digital” has something to do with a thermometer. But hey, they're in charge, you dig? No questions. Just get it done.

I can hear the comments in the halls as I write this…

“Where the hell are my candidates? Geez, those HR people really suck. It’s not like trying to find a Purple Squirrel, is it?”

The job description might ask for all of the skills mentioned above, plus a few [dozen] more, and often adds to those requirements the need for 32.5 years of experience in the digital space and an MBA while paying a digital strategist salary that’s slightly more than minimum wage. Welcome to the sexy, high profile world of digital strategy and the digital strategist. OK, maybe the gig will pay a decent wage, but you get my point, right?

What Does a Digital Strategist Do?

I've always held that digital strategy was the discipline of working with teams inside the agency and/or directly with the brand to solve complex business, brand, marketing, and technology problems. Pretty simple, right? Basically, everyone in the house and on the customer side is the digital strategist’s client [and just about everyone in the building should be a digital strategist!]

Digital strategists are the people that lead the problem solving charge, helping to connect the dots between the needs, wants, and desires of the customer and those often illusive business, brand, and marketing goals. Competent digital strategists work in a highly focused manner with business unit stakeholders to get a clear and detailed understanding of what the challenges are from a business point-of-view [like a business analyst would]. Of course, at any given time during the engagement, you can swap out “business” with “customer,” “creative”, “technology”, etc. Same strategic approach, different lens.

What’s This Meeting About, Anyway?

Here’s an example: your account lead [you know, the one who’s always got that goofy smile, asks you “how are you?” five times throughout each and every day [but could care less], schedules 57 meetings to talk about the same topic [with no actionable decisions coming out the other side of any of the meetings], and says yes to everything the client requests without really understanding the ask in the first place?] comes to you and says the client needs a new ecommerce platform. On the surface, this could be a slam dunk, since today there are countless ecommerce platforms — SaaS, managed, and otherwise — you can deploy quickly and cost-effectively.

But one or two strategically phrased questions [because face it, you're a friggin’ superstar — and quite attractive, too] reveal something much more complicated than a simple re-platforming. The client wants to take the business from $5 million in ecommerce sales to $50 million in ecommerce sales…and they want to do it in less than 12 months…without disrupting their robust retail sales pipeline and pissing off their retailers, who account for 85% of their revenues to date. Oh, and let’s not forget that we're already four months into the 12 month cycle.

You'd better call those Magento guys back, Mr./Ms. Digital Strategist. It’s going to be awhile before you really have a handle on what your strategic direction should be, let alone the channels and tactics to make what are sure to be some complex business and marketing dreams come true.

The Most Successful Digital Strategists…

The digital strategists who’ll be most successful going forward have a robust generalist’s understanding of traditional and digital marketing and some knowledge of how businesses work. They need to have a solid foundation of what a digital product or service is, how the company would get paid, and everything in between.

What types of skills are we talking about? Well, let’s take analytics, for example. Strategists need an understanding of the analytics landscape, which includes the players in the space, usage of the platforms/products/services, and how to implement, care, and feed same. What they don’t need is deep experience using the platforms/products/services themselves. They need a smart team behind them who can be tactical while the strategist stays at the top of the rain forest — canopy level — and functions strategically. Because in order for a strategist to be more strategic, she needs to be less tactical. A lot less.

It’s about having wide and deep exposure to all sorts of different info, data, platforms, products, services, and whatever else you think will be valuable in your world, and then staying high-level enough to be strategic without being dragged into the mud. Of course, your mileage will definitely vary. It’s not a cookie cutter approach. What the strategists at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia need to stuff their brain with is likely different than those working at Concern Worldwide. The cool thing is that at some point, it’s all relatable no matter the vertical — digital strategists are helping the business solve complex business and marketing problems and very often doing that using digital technologies.

Sadly, most digital strategy gigs today are loaded with tactical requirements and are very light on strategy. That’s where a little backbone comes in handy. Step up and ask lots of questions when interviewing for a digital strategist job. If it feels like it’s too tactically driven, take a minute to point that out and ask your interviewer to define what digital strategy means to the organization.

It’s cool. If they're uptight about your questions, it’s an opportunity for you to decide if you really want/need that particular gig so badly or if you'd rather bolt from the chair and run quickly from the office shouting, “I'm mad as hell about this blurred line between strategy and tactics, and I'm not going to take it anymore!”

What does a digital strategy job in an agency or brand mean to you?

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