Persuade with logic. Persuade with evidence. Persuade with personality.

Head of Strategy at Isobar, James Caig on the importance of first principles, sales and evidence based thinking and doing.


One of the big challenges for Head of Strategy at Isobar, James Caig, is to ensure that the work they produce responds to this challenge.

In between meetings and briefs James took some time to answer our questions on this challenge, how to prosper in the creative industry and much more.

“One day though, after presenting to a client and their agency, the Client Service Director asked for my card. She called me up and offered me a job. I was lucky”

James Caig

Q: How did you get started in the creative industry and end up in strategy?

James Caig: Pure luck! I moved to London when I was 23. I still hadn’t worked out what I wanted to do (or was able to do), so I did what plenty of graduates do when they have no plan but rent to pay — I got a job in media sales.

I did it for years, way too long. One day though, after presenting to a client and their agency, the Client Service Director asked for my card. She called me up and offered me a job. I was so lucky.

I had no idea what I was doing, of course, but I had my opportunity, was relatively articulate and fascinated by the world that had opened up in front of me.

There was so much to learn and, even better, people to learn from. So I stole, stole like you wouldn’t believe.

Habits, mainly. How to run a meeting. How to persuade people. How to write a strategy.

I copied all the best bits of all the smart people there until eventually I appeared to be one too.

The agency grew quickly so I was afforded a lot of opportunity and managed to work my way into the strategy team, did that for a couple of years and came to Isobar last summer.

Along the way I started writing too. I was a bit cowed at first, blogging. Everyone else was so good at it. It was the best thing I ever did, though.

Writing is brilliant at helping you understand something. You can explore a subject in a different way — ordering your thoughts, explaining ideas and making connections, simply by making the time to do so.

I’ve realized that writers don’t write because they’re clever. They’re clever because they write. You can learn about the way things work by writing about them.

Not only that, it stimulates and accelerates curiosity: writing makes you better at noticing, noticing makes you better at finding connections, and finding connections makes you a better strategist.

Q: You started out as a Sales Manager. How has that experience influenced you as a Strategist?

James Caig: My first job in London was selling classified recruitment ad space for the Daily Express. And no, it wasn’t much of a paper back then, either.

I had to phone companies directly and persuade them to put an ad in the paper. I’m not saying I was any good at it, but it was certainly good for me.

You learn to get to the point. To think about the benefit to the listener of what you’re saying. To have a solid case and make it clearly.

We all sell. Everyday. Dave Trott asks “How can you be in advertising if you can’t even sell yourself to employers?”. I think that is spot on.

More than that, though, we sell to clients all the time. It just doesn’t feel like we do. We sell to them more comprehensively and more consistently than media owners.

We persuade them with logic. We persuade them with evidence. We persuade them with personality, with rapport and with the dream of what we can do for their business. The best strategists know this and harness it as much as they can.

There are huge differences, of course. When you’re working on a brief for a media owner, you build a case for that platform. You start with the end in mind.

It was incredibly liberating to switch a mindset where there were no limits to what the solution might be — except perhaps a client’s ambition and your own ability to convince them.

And as you only control one of those factors, an otherwise misspent youth in sales turned out to be very useful indeed.

Mainly, though, it’s just made me grateful for everything that comes along. We’re incredibly lucky. Smart people pay us to have opinions and make recommendations on what to do, make and say.

That’s quite a responsibility but a really enviable position.

Q: What are some risks and opportunities facing the creative industry?

James Caig: There is opportunity in risk, and risk in every opportunity. Knowing the difference is hard. Making the decision even when you do is perhaps harder. But know and decide we must.

I wouldn’t presume to talk about the whole creative industry, but let’s assume the question refers to world I know — the space in which creative skills in agencies / tech / whatever are brought to bear on the commercial challenges faced by the businesses we work in or for.

Our collective perception of risk is a determining factor of commercial and creative success, I think.

Some see risk in anything new. Some see risk in doing the same old thing. As budgets get squeezed, your philosophical position on that question becomes a tangible, financial reality. Do you future-proof by investing in an adjacent business, or is it a luxury to focus on anything beyond your core competencies?

There is a huge opportunity to create something transformational, where the creative and commercial intersect. That’s what we’re all in it for.

The challenge for the commercial world is to retain its creativity in the face of commercial constraints. The challenge for the creative world is to prove its commercial potential.

The big risk is that, like the British and the Americans, the two sides can remain ‘divided by a common language’. If creative and commercial can’t communicate, neither wins.

Q: New technology has amplified old and created new forms of behavior. How do you decide what to invest time and money in to build skill-sets around?

James Caig: It has to fit with your strategy. I don’t mean to be flippant. Agencies as well as clients often feel like they need to have a mobile competency, a social one, and investments in product, content, data, everything.

They could all be important. But they might not be.

It’s hard not to get caught up in whatever is new and trending. That’s why every brand has a Facebook page but plenty of brand managers aren’t quite clear on its role.

It’s also hard not to feel you should be trying to do everything, too. That’s why every agency, whether advertising, media, PR or digital, thinks it should be doing its clients’ Facebook pages.

Andrew Carnegie once paid a man handsomely for this advice: make a list of the ten most important things you can do, then start doing number one.

That’s it. That’s a strategy — the intersection of what is important and what is actionable. What you need to do and what you can do.

The process of constructing that list forces you to engage properly with the fundamental purposes of your business, and devise the smartest ways of advancing them.

It’s what the most effective marketers do. According to IBM, the best marketers are the ones who can influence decisions across each of the 4Ps.

Their remit is broad but their intent is focused.That broader, more purposeful view should tell you what’s in and what’s out.

Q: What qualities do you look for in a successful strategist?

James Caig: All the usual paradoxical stuff, I suppose. They should be comfortable with cells and numbers as well as concepts and ideas. They should be convincing and firm as well as able to build consensus. Reductive and expansive in the way they think; eager to help build brands but always hungry for the next challenge.

I don’t look so much for a certain background or career history. Indeed, at a team level I think variety can really work. We have a tendency towards group-think in our industry so I love to have a different perspective.

At Isobar we have people who have worked at start-ups, clients, social agencies and media agencies.

I want to make sure, too, that people bring themselves to the work. Of course there’s a job spec, but ultimately successful strategists make the job fit them.

What they find interesting and inspiring is going to make it into their work, so I want them to be interested in and inspired by as many things as possible.

Q: If you were to test a candidate’s skills by giving them a small project, what would you ask them to do?

James Caig: I would ask them to write an annotated creative brief.

I know the brief isn’t everything. In fact, where strategy ends and creative begins is less and less clear these days. That’s a very useful, if messy, development.

But the brief is still the surest test of whether a strategist has really decided what the problem is, and whether they have defined an insightful and imaginative space in which to find a solution.

It’s also a test of how well they can express themselves. The brief distils complexity into something that is simple and clear.

I’d set the annotation test to encourage them to evidence what they write. It’s easy to write a generic brief, sticking together received wisdom with popular phrases and jargon.

Easy, but unhelpful. Solving real problems that our clients face in the real world means real data.

A good strategist synthesizes multiple sources and types of data to tell a story. I’d expect the footnotes to demonstrate that.

Q: What should students and graduates, looking to up their chances of breaking into the industry, focus on, in terms of skills and knowledge topics?

James Caig: Grant McCracken posted something this week where he used a great phrase: “the world is boiling with variety”.

Everything is changing and alive, with new patterns of meaning to be understood and unpicked. He says we can’t tell what will be important to notice. We just need to notice everything.

I love his idea that everything in culture is either a cause or effect, and often both.

If we want to establish brands or businesses or ideas in the world, then understanding the world in this way is essential. Otherwise we’re just middle-lane drivers moving out to the fast lane at the wrong speed.

Of course, people should understand the craft skills, the theory and the practical. There are plenty of sources for that.

But don’t focus on the bubble to the exclusion of all else. Everyone you want to listen to you is outside it.

Q: In his essay on how to build brands in the digital age, Martin Weigel writes: “There is as much to unlearn as there is to relearn”. What are you unlearning and relearning? Why?

A plan should drive what you do, not simply reflect what you’re doing.

Audiences, businesses and agencies are all made of people.

Showing how your activity will work is more powerful than asserting that it will.

Metaphors help to understand, but facts explain (malicious code could once have become known as ‘weeds’ rather a ‘virus’ — I’m still no nearer a technical understanding, but those are very different images).

Always source the evidence for your claims — people will believe more of what you say.

When it’s concerning volume, use less; for numbers, it’s fewer.

James Caig

James Caig: That’s a very good essay. Martin is a great iconoclast — our collective conscience.

He reminds us that as an industry we do stumble from one infatuation to another, like Toad of Toad Hall. From lean, agile, storytelling, paid/owned/ earned, to transmedia.

Unlearning is a good way to describe getting back to first principles.

Here are some things that it occurs to me I am liable to forget:

  • A plan should drive what you do, not simply reflect what you’re doing.
  • Audiences, businesses and agencies are all made of people.
  • Showing how your activity will work is more powerful than asserting that it will.
  • Metaphor helps you understand, but facts explain (for example, malicious code could once have become known as ‘weeds’ rather a ‘virus’ — I’m still no nearer a technical understanding, but those are two very different images).
  • Always source the evidence for your claims — people will believe more of what you say.
  • When it’s concerning volume, use less; for numbers, it’s fewer.

Q: With the way that tech, design, comms and product development are merging, what would you advise your 20 year old self, if he asked you where to work: Advertising agency, start up, client side company, something else?

James Caig: I’d tell him to stop thinking about it and just pick one. Nothing needs to be right forever, but you can learn from everything.

Holding multiple futures in your head, trying to work out which one might be best for longest is futile. You’ll never know — Schroedinger’s career.

At 20, you have less to lose than at any other point in your career. Just start — caution won’t get you anywhere.

Thank you Mr Caig.

“Where the puck is going” is an interview series by GapJumpers. We ask people we like and find interesting to share their thoughts. Whenever we find someone willing to answer our questions, we’ll feature them. If you’d like to stay updated on more stories, please follow the collection.

Since 2012 on a mission to eradicate bias towards identity by 2025

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store