“I’M LOSING MY EDGE TO BETTER LOOKING PEOPLE WITH BETTER IDEAS AND MORE TALENT. AND THEY'RE ACTUALLY REALLY, REALLY, NICE”. That was how I felt after reading up on Zoe Scaman, I can’t front. After successful stints across the world, Zoe now provides original answers to difficult questions from London.
In between business trips, Zoe made time to share her views on strategy, being business minded and and the value of presentations.
“I loved it because it was more than just an advertising campaign”
Q: Given that some members of our community might not be aware of the(evil)genius that is Zoe Scaman, I have to ask: is the Facebook ass tattoo campaign your most inspired work so far?
Zoe Scaman: I'm amazed that you found this but I love being reminded about it, it makes me laugh every time.
I’m not sure it was my most inspired project but it was certainly the most amusing. Rather than repeat the story, those who wish to find out more can do so here (warning, some images NSFW).
When it comes to client projects I’ve been a part of, by far the biggest and most exciting was Share A Coke.
It originally launched in Australia and New Zealand but due to the unprecedented success, the idea was used in both the UK and South Africa the following year.
I loved it because it was more than just an advertising campaign, it was a system wide collaborative effort involving upwards of five agency partners and every key department within Coca Cola to execute it.
For me, it was my first big insight into the operations of behemoth businesses such as Coca Cola, which subsequently sparked my fascination into the wider field of marketing and organisational design.
Q: You started out as an Account Manager and then switched to Strategy. How has being an Account Manager made you a better strategist?
We ask this because many graduates see AM as a step back instead of a great position to influence and shape strategy.
Zoe Scaman: To be honest I was a dreadful account manager. I wasn’t very good at the day-to-day administration and running of a big account, I was far more interested in the decisions they were making, interrogating their briefs and questioning the role of communications in the mix.
My mind would wander regularly and my incessant curiosity got in me in trouble on many occasions for overstepping the mark, but I didn’t let that stop me.
I suppose what I did learn, other than that account management really isn’t my forte, is that advertising occupied a very small space in my clients minds.
The conversations they really valued were the ones that ranged further afield and that could make a significant difference to their respective brands and businesses (not to mention their own careers).
Therefore, I quickly learned that to add value I had to immerse myself into their world and to become just as much, if not more of an expert on the market and category than they were.
After a while, this earned me my seat at the table when bigger conversations were taking place and I elevated myself from simply running an account to leading it.
Q: One of the biggest changes in how we think about advertising, in the last few years, has been through the work of Byron Sharp and the Eherenberg Institute. How has their work influenced you?
Zoe Scaman: When I first entered the world of advertising and communications, I was daunted by how complex and confusing everything seemed.
From Brand Wheels to Brand Onions to the buzzword bingo that so many people default to in meetings without truly understanding what they’re saying. For years I thought I’d never be able to wrap my head around it all.
It was only when I was into my third or fourth job that the fog started to clear and I realised that it was all smoke and mirrors.
To me, a truly great strategist is one who can simplify seemingly complicated challenges and create a clear and logical route towards a successful outcome, without the need to over-intellectualise or add unnecessary pomp and ceremony.
For this reason, Byron Sharp’s work resonates with me. His focus on ‘market-based assets’ simply makes sense. If the product is available and easily recognisable then it should sell. However, I would now take this a step further.
I recently went along to a Google Firestarter talk by the brilliant Russell Davies who argues that marketing is the price you pay for having a parity product.
He also (somewhat controversially adds) that most marketing is now ignored and even if it isn’t, the digital world allows consumers to get behind the marketing — no matter how creative your campaign, the real information on your products is only a Google search away.
Therefore the focus should no longer be on wrapping an average product in great but expensive marketing but should instead be a combination of the thinking of both Byron Sharp and Russell Davies:
make the product available, make it memorable but most importantly, make it brilliant.
Q: You are teaching an APG course: “The Fundamentals of Business Strategy — or the stuff you should know before you start Planning”. What experiences have had the biggest influence on the way you think about business strategy now, compared to your time at Naked?
Zoe Scaman: Naked was a defining moment in my career. My time there accelerated my learning and my abilities far more than any other place I have worked.
They nicknamed themselves the ‘brilliant misfits’ and as a collective group, they provided each other with the freedom to explore and the opportunities to push the boundaries.
The clients knew that working with Naked would be unlike anything they had experienced before and as a result they opened themselves up and allowed us to peek under the bonnet.
This led to broad conversations, occasionally difficult questions and the odd uncomfortable truth.
What it gave me was an unparalleled education on how businesses work. I got to understand that being a ‘Yes Man’ was entirely unhelpful and that business strategy is about sacrifice and making tough decisions.
After Naked, this way of thinking was firmly embedded in my mind and I’ve taken it with me and evolved it within my consecutive roles.
I don’t believe that an in-depth understanding of business strategy can be gleaned from a course or a textbook, you can get the fundamentals but the speed at which technology, communications, culture and the worldwide economy are moving means that the ground is forever shifting.
A recent project I completed with adidas forced me to flip some of my thinking and to change my approach, so I’ll happily admit that I’m still learning when it comes to this subject, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing because there really is no formula.
Q: Mike Arauz of Undercurrent wrote, with regards of what a strategist should be/know: “The typical ‘T-shaped’ team member is no longer adaptable enough to keep and maintain their value in a market that evolves as quickly as today’s market does. The ideal evolving skill set for today’s (digital) strategy world is shaped more like an expanding square than a ‘T’.” What is your take on this?
Zoe Scaman: I don’t like to box myself in so I’m not a huge fan of shapes or models, but I do agree with his sentiment. I think the era of the ‘specialist strategist’ is coming to a swift end and that a well-rounded skill set and an insatiable curiosity to keep absorbing as much new stuff as possible is invaluable.
Of course, there will always be a role for specialists in certain fields but a strategist should be able to navigate any challenge or medium.
Whether that makes you a T-shape, a square or an Isosceles triangle, I have no idea.
Q: In his essay on how to build brands in a digital age, Martin Weigel writes: “There is as much to unlearn as there is to relearn”. What are you unlearning and relearning? Why?
“Un-learning: big sparkly ideas
Re-learning: paper based thinking”
Zoe Scaman: In the advertising and communications industry, too much emphasis has been placed on perfectionism, on being ‘right’ and on the ‘ta-da’ moment. It’s taken me a very long time to see that trying to hold yourself to these expectations only sets you up for disappointment.
So I’m actively unlearning that the big sparkly idea is what we should all be aiming for. It’s not.
‘Good enough’ really is good enough and your best work comes when you build it in stages having dragged it through a healthy mix of criticism, tearing it up, redoing it and complete failure.
To compliment this, I’m relearning the joys of paper-based thinking. Too often we start by trying to fill in a Powerpoint (please abandon Powerpoint), or writing a pretty Keynote or a well articulated proposal.
It’s too much pressure, it disrupts your thinking and you’ll spend more time worrying about the aesthetics and not enough time worrying about the content.
I’m often found barefoot, cross-legged on the floor surrounded by paper, marker pens and post-its. I’m quite a visual person so mapping out my thought process in a way that’s fast, iterative and colourful really helps me to focus my mind.
I’ve also found that my clients respond very well to this way of working too (not necessarily the barefoot and cross-legged part) and they get far more excited when you involve them in the process and edit your thinking alongside them to build something far more robust.
They get just as bored by the Powerpoints and the ‘ta-da’ reveals as we do.
Q: What should students and graduates, looking to up their chances of breaking into the creative/comms industry, focus on, in terms of skills and topics?
Zoe Scaman: When I’m looking to hire new people, I don’t necessarily look at their degree certificates or if they’ve managed to start their own company by the age of 16 from their bedroom. Instead, I look for passion and genuine excitement.
I have always tried to surround myself with people that are so enthusiastic that they’re bordering on crazy.
Their curiosity and desire to experiment feeds my own inquisitiveness and it makes coming to work each day so much more fun.
Therefore, I’d say that you should try not to specialise in any one field just yet, instead explore every avenue that peaks your interest you or gets you jumping out of bed in the morning.
Seek out and collect as many diverse experiences as you can because it will be these experiences that make you so valuable in the future.
While it’s important to build your professional reputation and to discover what you want to do for the rest of your life, it’s more important to make sure you’re doing what you love.
Q: With the way that tech, design, comms and product development are merging, what would you advise 20 year old Zoe, who asked you where to work: advertising agency, client side, tech startup, something different? Why?
Zoe Scaman: My belief is that no career path should ever be linear and that you can continually change your mind. That’s what I’ve done over and over again throughout my career, and I’ll continue to do.
My advice to my 20 year old self would be the same as to my 29 year old self — do it all.
Thank you Ms Scaman.
“Where the puck is going” is an interview series by GapJumpers. We ask people we like and find super interesting to share thoughts, learnings and more. Whenever we find someone willing to answer our questions, we’ll feature them. Have someone you want to see featured? Add your comments alongside. If you’d like to stay updated on more stories, please follow the collection.