What makes a strategist?

James Caig
Nov 5, 2014 · 4 min read

What is it that strategists do?

I remember wondering about this when I jumped from media to creative a while back. Last week I was reflecting on it again, as I left Isobar to join True. And London to join Bristol.

We all know the familiar rituals of changing jobs. The leaving speech. Drinks in the pub. Goodbyes, both emotional and awkward. And if you’re lucky, leaving presents. This time, though, the presents struck a real chord.

The book of last year’s Bowie exhibition at the V&A. A mug bearing the legend, I am silently judging your grammar. Vouchers to spend at a record shop and theatre in my new adopted city of Bristol.

Thoughtful, generous gifts from a team that had really been paying attention.

The rituals offer comfort when transitional moments like this unsettle us. As strategists, we self-analyse a lot. Moments of transition set us loose from the reference points we otherwise rely on, so it’s not surprising if we reflect on what our core contribution really is. The habits that define our days slip away. We’re not governed by job specs. The clients and output around which we orient our thinking change.

It’s good to have an anchor at a time like that, and a further gift from the team provided it.

It was a book by Sarah Thornton, a cultural theorist who calls herself a ‘sociologist of art’.

The book is called 33 Artists in 3 Acts — it’s a series of mini portraits of modern artists that cumulatively say something profound about the way creative people approach their work.

It’s a book about process, motivation and character. It’s a book about what makes an artist.

I’d gone to hear Thornton speak recently. She was great, and I left intending to download the book. But I recommended it the next day to someone in the team, who remembered how I talked about it and suggested it as a present.

As I wrote an email to the team, hungover, to say thank you, I found myself offering one more nugget of unsolicited advice, prompted by something Sarah Thornton had said at her talk.

Apparently academic colleagues had looked down on her work. They had suggested her books were ‘rather too readable’. As if that was insult.

As if complex ideas should equate with impenetrable, jargon-filled prose.

Thornton knows that communicating with clear, simple language isn’t cheating. It’s actually very hard. Ridding yourself of jargon takes thought, as well as, according to Thornton, ruthless editing. As arts correspondent for The Economist, she has learned what it takes to have ideas understood beyond the closed, jargon-rich art world.

And her MO means there is a lot to edit. She records conversations, photographs everything, takes copious notes. That’s a lot of information to distill.

As if to demonstrate her process, she summed up her ability to do this in one simple, single phrase. It was this.

Research like an academic.

Write like a reporter.

That stuck with me.

Yes, it’s a soundbite. But it’s also sound advice for a strategist wondering how to go about their trade in a landscape that is entirely new: city, agency, clients.

We research problems until we know them inside out. We are rigorous, curious, and open-minded. We want to know why. We ask questions, formulate hypotheses. We seek different sources and counter-arguments. We reconcile and understand.

But understanding something is only the start. We then need to communicate to others: creatives, clients, people. That means resisting the temptation to share the full complexity of what we (think we) know. Quantity of output doesn’t equate with quality of thinking. It may dazzle people, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

No one wants to see how many notes you took. They just want to know what you think about the issue that is most important.

The headlines, the narrative, the conclusion. The audience is your ultimate consideration. Ask, what do they need to know and what’s the most simple way to express it?

The image at the top of this post is by Grayson Perry. He is one of the artists interviewed in Thornton’s book. He is also brilliant at this distillation. You can observe his process yourself in his current series, Who Are You? He captures the essence of one of the most complex things you can tackle — someone’s identity.

He doesn’t write, but he distills what he learns about his subject into something that needs to communicate perhaps even more quickly.

That process of distillation is tough. It’s hard to say very little. To many it feels like sacrifice. But simple is better than complicated. It’s how we connect beyond the closed, jargon-rich world of advertising. Or digital, or marketing, or wherever your immediate surroundings suggest you belong.

So even if those surroundings change, Sarah Thornton’s advice is eminently transportable.

Our job is to observe, learn, and understand.

Our job is to distill, explain and inspire.

Research like an academic. Write like a reporter.

    James Caig

    Written by

    One half of A Longing Look, a music publication on Medium. Writer, consultant, strategist, facilitator.