Why I became an experience strategist

A year into planning and strategy internships, I wanted to share what I’ve learnt. Some of the ideas will be familiar to those already immersed but I knew nothing when I started.

(Top row, second from right) A year ago — planning my next move

After graduating from university with an Economics and Politics degree, I knew I wanted to do something that was genuinely creative and unlike the jobs pursued by my friends in investment banking and the like. Advertising had always excited me, and my sights were set on it as soon as I learnt about planning, a job in which you could apply a curiosity in everything and anything into stimulating beautiful creative work (hopefully).

Instead of a large agency, I found an internship at London Strategy Unit (LSU), a five-man agency of smart, fugitive planners, now unconstrained by the boundaries of large agency walls. This was an eye-opening experience. Whilst my role was similar to that of a junior planner elsewhere — essentially a Google researcher — the ideas and work going on around me seemed far beyond the realm of a traditional ad agency.

This included trying to create products which we could brand, helping Unilever to develop their products faster and working with other original thinkers like The Pop-Up Agency — alongside more typical marketing work, such as communications plans, for clients of the grandeur of the BBC and Adidas.

Internship 1 — the LSU gang

What I realised was that life as a brand planner within a normal advertising agency would be too limiting. Companies (or brands — I use the two interchangeably) need help — that’s why they hire ad agencies. But ads are rarely the real solution to their problems.

We live in a world of fleeting attention but also much greater knowledge and information. The power of advertising is greatly curtailed in this environment, particularly when it is used as window-dressing.

As a planner, deeply involved in researching the ins and out of the client, its industry and its customers, it might be possible to see how to steer the brand in the right direction. That’s what a good strategy is.

But a campaign strategy is not the same as a business strategy, or is not regarded as such anyway. And if advertising no longer resonates to the same degree (John Lewis aside), then brands need to find other ways of getting people to buy their product over their competitors.

What I now believe is that to continue to stay relevant they have to do the hard work and create great products, services or experiences for their customers. And they need to think outside of what they traditionally consider their territory.

They need to start thinking in terms of what their customer wants to achieve rather than what products they currently sell. To stay in the mind of the customer, the brand needs to become a greater part of the customer’s life.

For example, supermarkets act like people come to them to get food. So they pile up rows and rows of food for customers to sort through. Logical right?

A familiar sight

Actually, many people go to supermarkets with the goal of putting a meal on the table for the next few days.

So why not make this task easier?

When you go into Tesco they could arrange their food by meal suggestions. Before you even get there, Tesco’s app could help you figure out what meals to make according to what you already have in the fridge, and tell you which ingredients you’re missing. After your shop, Tesco could arrange to deliver the items to your door…if you even need to enter the store in the first place.

Only by enabling customers to achieve the real goal for buying their products can companies hope to retain them.

Along with this realisation, advertising planning lost its appeal to me. It seemed so unlikely that a typical planner would be able to dictate this kind of action for a brand.

I sought out a job in brand consulting instead. Although branding is sometimes disregarded as polish, for me these agencies decide what a company is all about. Elements like purpose and values (done well) define the culture of an organisation — something crucial to the fate or success of any business.

As we see with Amazon, Google, Tesla, the companies succeeding now are the ones driven by a strong internal culture and purpose. This felt serious to me.

Google’s purpose is “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, which guides many of their seemingly random activities and projects

What’s more, despite its origins in packaging and logos, the meaning of ‘branding’ has grown to incorporate the whole experience of a brand. How it looks and sounds but also how it actually interacts with the customer.

Starting with defining the purpose of a company’s existence, it is brand strategists who are increasingly defining how companies communicate in all ways. Not just visually, but also physically and digitally, given now digital is often the main interaction a customer will have with the brand.

Finally, I was able to have conversations about a company’s direction and influence a vision for the experience that would entail. I worked on great clients like Vodafone and Jaguar Land Rover and learnt many interesting things, like how to name new products.

After time though, a thought kept nagging at me.

Whilst brand consultancies, and particularly their strategists, understand and of course integrate digital throughout their vision for a company’s ‘experience’, they are largely unable to execute on these thoughts.

Currently within these branding agencies, the newer digital part is not well integrated into the agency’s way of working. Thus digital acts only in its own silo (a few, rare “digital” projects) and doesn’t sufficiently contribute to the output of the firm — much like it does for many of their clients. A brand strategist is left to talk the talk but is unable to walk the walk.

With little experience anyway, I felt unqualified to talk about digital. Here was the area that was increasingly the most important to our clients, and I was unversed in how it worked. I wanted to know more.

I sought out digital companies but ones in which I could get involved in the application of digital, rather than just its implementation, like deciding the wording of a brand’s latest twitter post. To my luck, I found such a position at SapientNitro.

As an experience strategist here, I help to define the customer experience for our clients.

SapientNitro is best known for making digital products like websites, but since this is such a core part of how customers now interact with a brand (how often do you go into your bank branch versus logging into online banking?) this makes our role vital.

The final output could be an app, website or even Chrome add-on (usually its a combination of things that work beautifully together), but the key lies in truly understanding the customer’s underlying, unspoken behaviours and motivators and designing around that.

Therein lies my role — using service design tools and empathy-based research to uncover these current and emerging needs and feeding this into the designers that bring the solution to life.

The value proposition canvas — one of the many tools used to help companies understand their customers

And increasingly, we also help companies to incorporate this kind of customer-centric thinking into their way of working. In this way, we’re not just giving companies a product that will age as quickly as the technology evolves, but we enable them to keep responding to what their customers want.

The work I do at Sapient feels uniquely important. I still think great advertising has the power to completely shift perceptions of a brand. But with people spread over so many media these days, most people will never see it. Whereas a company’s website will be seen by almost everybody researching whether or not to buy their product.

Even more importantly, digital has the power to actually add regular value to people’s lives, not just a brief smile or tear as an advert might.

The Nike+ app is used by millions of people because they all benefit regularly from its useful guidance and feedback about their running or training. And every time I do my job well, I’m figuring out the best way to help a company’s customers — whether it’s a shoe app that helps people run, or a supermarket service that helps people plan and make meals.

I still have so much to learn but will keep you informed of my progress and thoughts along the way.

If you enjoyed this, please follow me, or share it with anybody you think would find this useful. And since it’s my first post, any feedback is great too.