5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 5: assimilation

This is the 5th and probably final part of my series on craft skills of the digital strategist.  I say probably because I will no doubt think of some others which I might squeeze into an also-rans article at a later date.

Anyway, here it is.  And it’s a biggie.  And it’s perhaps the most under-rated skill of all.

5. Assimilation

When was the last time you ever heard of ‘assimilation’ as being a skill?  Well, someone once said to me that it was the most important thing a planner should be able to do.  At the time I said, ‘Oh yes, I can do that,’ and then I had to look it up in a dictionary.

Definition of assimilate in English:

VERB

Take in and understand fully (information or ideas): Marie tried to assimilate the week’s events

1.1 Absorb and integrate (people, ideas, or culture) into a wider society or culturepop trends are assimilated into the mainstream with alarming speed

(Of the body or any biological system) absorb and digest (food or nutrients):the sugars in the fruit are readily assimilated by the body

Regard as similar; liken:philosophers had assimilated thought to perception

3.1 Become similarthe Churches assimilated to a certain cultural norm

As I understand it, I think that for strategists, assimilation means a few things:

  1. Being able to use the available knowledge about a subject, decide what is relevant, and really understand it – and by being the expert on something make sure that everyone else on the team understands the important information too – e.g. the significant bits of the context, the direction, the vision, the challenges, and so on.  Get everyone on the same page, in a smart way.
  2. By being the expert as described above, to be able to truthfully and wholeheartedly put yourself in the shoes of the target audience, the client or even the brand.  Like method acting, it’s method planning.  Be your customer and ask, ‘why do I care about this?’  Be your brand and say, ‘Does this suit me?’
  3. Thirdly, assimilation is about making connections between all the bits of information, knowledge and insight – the more interesting connections you can make, the better chance you have of coming up with something that will be interesting to your creative teams, to your client, and most importantly, to your target audience.

This skill is not really something that can be taught.  It is something that comes with practice if you know what to practice, and it’s likely to be a thing some people have a head start on because that’s the way their imagination and understanding works.  It’s probably therefore the hardest skill for some strategists to learn, and for some strategists, it’s probably something they do without even knowing it is a skill.

I’d agree though, with the original point that person made to me quite a long time ago, that being good at assimilation is perhaps the most important thing that identifies a great strategist/planner.

Do let me know your thoughts on assimilation.  Do you think it’s a skill?

And please do also give me any feedback you have about the 5 skills I’ve talked about this week.  Can you think of any more?

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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 4: presenting

Here’s the latest in the series on the craft skills of the digital strategist, and it’s probably one of the few that just doesn’t come that naturally to many of us.  Partly because it doesn’t go with all the other ones, which involve a lot of researching and analysing and digging around, and partly because, well, it’s just hard.

4: Presenting

Like I say, I found presenting very hard for years because I am a bit shy (although this probably comes across as being snobby or standoffish) but practicing has made things a lot easier.  I no longer think my heart is going to burst out of my body or that I am going to lose the power of speech, but I still take a bit of time to warm up and I am still guilty of using my Powerpoint slides as a bit of a crutch.  I’d love to turn up at a pitch without any slides, to be so confident in what I was saying that people would just listen to what I was saying, but I am definitely not there yet.

So here’s a couple of things I have learnt along the way.

1. Write your story before you start

Back when I was an intern at Lowe, we were taught about the Logic Train.

What’s a logic train?

I just googled Logic Train and I couldn’t find anyone from the industry talking about it. I guess it’s a trade secret.  Oh well. I’m going to talk about it now but perhaps I won’t tell you exactly how to do it.

The closest I came to it was something about computer programming procedures.   Which essentially, is what the Logic Train is.  It’s the logic of your whole argument.  The backbone of your pitch.

To be ready to write your logic train, you need to have done most of the work.  You need to know the beginning, middle and end of your story.  You need to know that before you write your presentation.

That sounds really obvious but a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to write their presentation in powerpoint before they have done all their thinking, and thinking in powerpoint is very time consuming and confusing.  It’s better if you have your story written down on a piece of paper, in like, 8 or 10 bulletpoints before you start making slides.

Then you can probably write your presentation using about ten slides instead of a hundred.

It also means that if you lose your laptop on the way to the meeting, you know what you’re going to say anyway.  And it means that you can circulate the logic train to everyone in your team if you’re collaborating on a presentation and they all get what the story is about too.

2. A picture paints a thousand words

So you’ve got your ten slides and you’re ready to put things on them to provide extra depth to what you’re going to say.  If you use lots of bullet points, people read those instead of listening to you.  So think of nice visual ways to tell your story instead.  Diagrams and nice photos and things.

3. To sell, you need to be ready to buy

Strategists’ presentations are generally where you are convincing your client that you know that what you’re selling is going to work because research says it’s what the people want, and it’s going to work for their business too.  If you don’t think you have a convincing argument and don’t really believe what you’re trying to persuade your audience to believe, they’re not going to buy it.  So put yourself in their shoes (both the target audience and the client’s) and ask, if I’m the buyer, would I buy this?

4. Stand up

Most presentations I go to people sit down and it’s all meant to be relaxed and formal but I think that things get missed.

If you go to presentation skills courses they always tell you to stand up to present.

I’ve tried standing and sitting and I always feel stupid standing up at the beginning but it’s actually better, especially if the other presenters want to sit down.  But if you stand, the energy in the room is better, it feels like you have got people’s attention better than if you sit down.

5. Watch lots of great presentations and think about what you like about what they do

We’re so lucky to have video streaming these days and there are a gazillion presentations on YouTube, great TED talks and industry things.  The best presenters don’t rely on powerpoints at all, or they use them to make particular points, or as a bit of entertainment.  Here are some great storytellers who also happen to be presenting too.

Rory Sutherland…  I didn’t know what heuristics were and I thought it sounded boring till I saw an hour long video where he talked about behavioural economics.  I can’t find that video, but here’s a similar TED talk.  He’s a fantastic presenter, a natural storyteller.  Very good at making complicated things seem simple – and that’s what good strategists do.

Russell Davies…  The self-styled ‘maverick’ planner gives a great presentation.  He uses jokes and interesting tangents balanced with a bit of (but crucially not too much) self-deprecation, as well as jokes about powerpoint in his slides, but doesn’t let his point get lost.  I saw him recently at the APG Big Thinking Conference and he was very entertaining around a simple presentation about the government website’s design principles.  Here’s a typical example of one of his presentations.

And finally, back to my first point, Susan Cain…  On the power of introverts, Susan Cain shows you can use the right timing to tell jokes and props to ensure that your story works.  And she’s great at pausing – when she pauses you can tell people are waiting to hear what she is going to say next.  That’s learned confidence – most people when they are nervous talk quickly just to get it over and done with.  But if you’ve done the hard work, and prepared a good story, you need to take your time in order to share it effectively.  And there’s not a powerpoint slide to be seen in her talk.

My final piece in this series will be published tomorrow, and it’s about assimilation.  Is this the most underrated skill of all?

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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 3: wireframing and sitemapping

So yesterday I said I’d treat you by talking about how I do some things that designers do – but I do them badly.  Why would we do anything badly?  Well, read on if you’re interested.

3. Wireframing and sitemapping

Some digital agencies have UX and IA people who just do wireframing and sitemapping, and sometimes this is the job of the designers in an agency.  However, strategists should understand this stuff and be able to do it (even badly) in order to a) visually explain what they think should happen (since designers tend to be quite visual) and b) because it helps us to understand how designers think and c) therefore brief them better because we’re on the way to proving the theory is correct by beginning to put it into practice.example wireframe

If you understand how designers think, you can communicate with them better.  That means they get a better brief.  And you’re more likely to see a product you know will match your users’ (and the client’s) requirements.

At Equator, our strategy team uses Balsamiq Mockups for wireframes.

The thing is, you’re looking at the mockup on the right, and, you’re thinking, that’s crap, and you’d be right.

Wireframes aren’t meant to be nice.  They should look crap, and that’s kind of the point.

Then the client knows it’s just a sketch, which means you can discuss the principles of the user experience and the layout and the exciting ideas you have rather than whether the design fits the brand guidelines, and your designer can laugh at your incompetence and do a much better job than you ever could when it comes around to designing the thing.

We also use xmind in our team for sitemapping.  It is a most infuriating user experience.  If you know of a better sitemaps software that doesn’t cost too much, let me know.

Anyway, tomorrow, we’re going to talk about something completely different.  Presenting.  Presenting is a really important and surprisingly underrated skill.  It’s something that strategists are expected to be born able to do, and, since we’re largely introverts, who like thinking a lot and not talking to large groups of people, it’s not something that always comes that naturally to us.

 

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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 2: Qualitative analysis

So yesterday, we heard about why getting to grips with data is vital for digital strategists.

Today, it’s all about getting away from your computer and talking to real live people in real life:

2. Qualitative analysis

Probably the most important thing digital strategists need to do is ask ‘why would the consumer care about this?’ and yet all too often we don’t spend as much time with our target audiences as we should.

Ad agencies do, as their clients pay for them to hold focus groups, both to look for insights and to test their creative work.  Digital agencies tend to be seen as further down the food chain (although not always) and are supposed to just make things without questioning them too much – but we should be doing the same as our advertising counterparts and starting from first principles: what is the insight? What is going to work for the people who are actually going to use this?

Qual research is an art form and it doesn’t just mean focus groups, although moderation of groups is possibly the hardest and most pointless or useful qualitative thing you can do (depending on your point of view.)  I’ll probably write more about moderating at some point.  I kind of love and hate doing it all at the same time.

The good thing about groups is you can see what ‘real people’ say to each other about something – in a good group you can see real conversations about the topic unfolding in front of you.

The bad thing about groups is all the things people say are bad about focus groups – there’s always one opinionated person who biases the outcome, they bully everyone else into agreeing with them, people are on their guard and don’t say what they really feel, and so on.  You don’t get the truth in a group blah blah blah.  I don’t think groups are right for all digital projects, but they can be right for some things, for example, getting to understand the basics of what people think about brands, and to test different routes and territories.

Maybe you get better results from an online panel but so far I’m yet to be convinced.  No one seems to turn up for those, and they take forever.  You don’t get the immediate response you get in a real room.

I agree that interviews and user testing are more useful than groups for certain things, e.g. understanding how people use websites and for gathering detail.  But focus groups are useful and they should never be discounted altogether.

A skilled moderator will navigate the dynamic of the group pretty quickly, and stay on top of things.  They’ll tease the insightful stuff out of the quiet people and make sure the opinionated people feel heard but don’t dominate the chat.  A skilled moderator goes in and stays open to what people are saying all the way through.  Above all, you need to be a good listener and be aware that sometimes the subtext is more interesting than what people actually are actually saying.   Those are the skills digital strategists should have.

Maybe the strategists who are skeptical about groups just haven’t had decent research training.

Tomorrow, let’s have a change of scene and talk about why it’s important for digital strategists to think like web designers and have some of the skills – but be quite bad at them.

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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 1: Quantitative analysis

The role of the ‘digital strategist’ is a hard one to define, because it takes many forms, depending on type of agency, client, location, and a number of other variables I can’t think of right now.

Anyway, that’s already been written about quite a lot* and basically what being a digital strategist is, is what being any other kind of strategist should be, i.e. someone who understands their clients’ objectives and target audience needs and knows how to make the two meet somewhere usefully and beautifully in the middle…

I’m not talking about the kind of person you have to be, to be a digital strategist either.  That has also been done.

Instead, I decided to write about the types of skills that come in useful when you are being a strategist in this so-called digital age.  I came up with so much stuff and it ended up being so long, I’ve split it into 5 parts, which I’ll run all this week.  I’ve probably not nearly covered all the skills, there’s such a variety of people who are ‘strategists’, but these are the skills valued by the strategy team at Equator.

So here’s part 1, which is all about

1. Quantitative analysis

Back in the day, as a junior planner in an ad agency, I got all trained up in using TGI and running data to understand and segment my target audiences and look for interesting correlations and so on.  Do they still do this in creative agencies?  I know media agencies still do. (I’ve not done a TGI run for about 6 years since I gatecrashed Mediacom on behalf of a mutual client.)  I hope they do.  Hopefully the questions are keeping up with technology a bit faster than they used to.

No matter, the point is more that digging around in data is really important.  Not only do you find things that are interesting about the people you want to engage with, you also learn to ask lots of different questions in order to find the best route in to your strategy.  You also obviously have facts and not just hunches to inspire, or back up your strategies.

For digital agencies, there’s not that much point in signing up to TGI, but there’s plenty of other useful data sources out there.  The obvious ones are Google Analytics and Comscore, and then there’s nice bespoke ones agencies like People Pulse that MRY/Digitas LBi have (very jealous of that).  YouGov profiler is a nice free one if you’re just looking for a view on who your ‘average customer’ is.

I was once told in an appraisal, a long time ago, that my love for digging around in data was killing my creativity…  So a bit part of this skill is always staying on top of the detail and not getting too hung up on the numbers either.  Like I say, they can lead to the insight that leads to the route, but sometimes you’re better going into the data once you have a hunch and trying to prove that instead.

So there you are.

And hey, I haven’t mentioned ‘big data’ once.

Tomorrow,I’ll talk about qualitative analysis.  You know, focus groups and that kind of thing.

 

*The role of the digital strategist has been the subject of debate across a great many other blogs for quite some time now, and if you’re interested, here are some articles you could read:

Why the role of the digital strategist needs to evolve // Jinal Shah (Pretty comprehensive overview of the role, with very interesting comment discussion on the role too.)

The no-bullshit strategist // Matt Daniels (A thought provoking response to Shah’s analysis.)

Why the world doesn’t need another digital strategist // Mark Pollard (Pollard says, we actually do need digital strategists, just not the way you think we do.)

 

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What’s it like doing strategy in Glasgow?

I’ve been inspired to write about what it’s like to be a planner in Scotland by Northern Planner’s post about being a strategist in the North.  I was also asked to guest blog about it earlier in the year by Simon Hopkins and totally failed to do anything about it.

My excuse?  Well, I have been very busy lately, with work and parenting and house tidying and so on.  But something else was holding me back which I can only really say was a bit of a stubborn chip on my shoulder which I have recently shed and which means I am embracing being a Scottish strategist with gusto.  I might write about that in another post, it’s quite an epiphany.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Northern’s post because it was positive on the whole and I nodded my head vehemently at many of his points, e.g.

While there are less big TV campaigns, there are lots of really interesting, more integrated projects. You’ll need to be good at getting how channels fit together and creating strategic platforms for IDEAS, rather than advertising ideas.

This is totally true.  I moved up here and had to get good at ‘digital’ and then found that digital was actually everything except big TV campaigns, which I’m actually not that bothered about anymore.  Doing content, brand, and UX and comms strategy is very satisfying, particularly when you know it’s being rolled out nationally, internationally.  You also know that at least half of what you do is actually useful to people and you can measure the impact it has on your client’s business.  It means, as Northern says, you don’t think in silos and you get a chance to change how your clients do business and not just think about their communications.

You’ll have to prove yourself. More than someone about from around here. No one will take your word for it about anything. But good places will give the chance.

This is the truest thing. You do have to prove yourself.  I failed to prove the value of strategy at three Scottish agencies before I started work at Equator and by jove I have worked hard to prove it at Equator too.  Still am.  I’m in no danger of getting complacent or too big for my boots.

Northern mentions a ‘lack of sophistication’ which I feel is more a reluctance to intellectualise in the same way as the Oxbridge graduates I felt inferior to back in the Big Smoke, and both Scottish agency people and clients are reluctant to disappear up their own arses when it comes to talking about work – they just want to ‘get it done’ a lot of the time, and they want to know what they are paying for.  Which is fair enough.  I’m working towards a nice balance of thinking and talking more about the important stuff and then getting down to making nice work.

I am sure that in the 7 years I’ve been back up north people have thought I’m a terrible snob about what I do and I’m a right pain in the bum a lot of the time because I keep asking ‘why are we doing this?’ and ‘Why would the target audience care about that?’ and ‘Can we just start using the language of brands for a change?’ but it’s more that I am trying to keep the principles of what I do secure and not waver from what I believe to be the right way to do things.  I’m driven to do things properly.  Because it’s fun and I think it leads to better work.

In 7 years I’ve barely worked with anyone who’s experienced life in a London advertising agency and this means that I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people without this frame of reference that ‘my way’ is the right way.  When what they’d been doing until I came along was working pretty well and all I did was annoy them and criticise them.

4 years ago a ‘good place’ did give me a chance and I’m still there, now with a 5-strong strategy team, which consists of people who weren’t planners when they joined but had the transferable skills to become planners.  In training them Equator now has a lovely diverse group of strategists who want to find out what the client’s objectives are before defining the solution, think deeply about user behaviour and collaborate with our designers, creatives and marketing specialists to develop joined-up routes to transforming our clients’ businesses.

I hope you can tell, I’m very proud of them.

One thing I don’t think I agree with Northern on is this:

What you need to prepared for, in general, in the creative side of things at least, is that you just won’t get the same kind of clients and do the same kind of work.

Now…  This is a really big misconception a lot of London types have.  It depends what agency you work at.  Work is what you make it and we beat big London agencies in pitches quite often, and a lot of our business is outside of Scotland.  Geography is a bit irrelevant.  There are some fantastic creative and strategic minds up here – the fact that we’re fewer in numbers could mean that we’re easier to find.  And we are all seasoned Easyjetters – we see our clients wherever they want to see us.

On the whole, being a strategist in Glasgow is great and I don’t think I’d want to work anywhere else now.  (Never say never obviously.)  Glasgow is known for its cool music and arts scene, it feels like things are happening here.  Being here means you have a 12 minute cycle to work, you can buy a nice flat or house near your friends and the centre of town, mountains and things are about an hour away, you get to work with nice people who want to make good, effective products and content real people want to engage with.

This year there’s been a feeling that it’s the best place to be – the summer was very exciting. And the winter ain’t that bad.  Just take vitamin D supplements and have a nice walk along the Clyde at lunchtime.

If you’re thinking of a move up north, we’d love to have you.  Look! A vacancy with your name on it.

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Want to go to San Francisco?

I haven’t written here about it (yet), but in May I went to San Francisco with TRC’s Cross Creative course.

If you would like to go too, I’d strongly recommend you get an application in here:

Cross Creative info

It will change your life!

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