The thing about strategists is that we’re united by a common personality type, not by a common skill set. Strategists are, generally, introverted, contemplative, analytical and inquisitive. As William Gibson says of his brand strategist protagonist in Pattern Recognition, “She learned it’s largely a matter of being willing to ask the next question”. And we are willing simply because we cannot help but search for patterns and seek order in the chaos.
Unlike other professions, there’s no specific training involved in becoming a strategist. The strategists I know found their way into it via degrees in english, art history, political science, international law, graphic design, sociology, economics and philosophy, or from early jobs doing a bit of everything in small, independent companies. You can see the 20+ responses to my tweet asking other strategists about this here. In my case, I studied American Studies (yup, that’s a thing), before getting my first job as wholesale manager at Rococo Chocolates.
So, there’s no wrong or right way in — strategists seem to be born not made. This is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it’s somewhat of a calling, which gives one a fantastic sense of purpose. But also a curse because simply self-identifying as a strategist doesn’t give you any hint as to how to get started. So, having spent 8 years in agencies and nearly two years working as an independent consultant for start-ups and established companies, here’s a few hints from me:
Don’t apply for jobs
The sad truth is that it is almost entirely impossible to get a job by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Even more sad, is that those inboxes are either rarely checked, or entirely ignored.
The even sadder truth is that, while hiring protocols are starting to shift in a more egalitarian direction, most companies still recruit according to provenance, privilege, and personality. Especially, it seems, amongst strategists.
In fact, and in my experience, the pecking order, when it comes to work experience, internships and graduate jobs in strategy it often goes:
- Friends and family of company founders/directors/c-suite
- Friends and family of the client
- Graduate scheme superstars
- Oxbridge graduates and those with MBA’s
- Those with recognisable surnames
- Friends and family of existing employees
- Young, award-winning “influencers” and entrepreneurs
- Jazz-hands and show offs who send cupcakes with their CV
- Those in the right-place, at the right-time
- The politely persistent
So, if the first 7 don’t apply, and cupcakes just aren’t your thing, then finding out how to be in the right place at the right time is critical. Which leads me to…
Go to parties
Events and meet-ups put you at the heart of new ideas and discussions, and gets you in the same room as future employers and colleagues. The creative and tech industries are awash with regular events, many of which are free to attend and often also have free pizza and wine too. When I first started my career I went to everything and anything — many of the people I met at the likes of Glug and Protein Gallery remain friends, colleagues, and peers.
So, go introduce yourself to people, be active on social media, write up the event afterwards — basically do what you can to meet people in real life and show you’re on the inside saying ‘hi’, and not on the outside sending emails to the inbox of doom.
Show your thinking
To get hired, strategists need to demonstrate how they think, look at the world around them, and break down information. The best way to do this is through writing. Writing is a wonderful way to ask and answer the questions that interest you. It forces you to articulate a thought and point of view and, with practise and perseverance, enables you to develop your own style and distinct voice.
I set wannabe strategists a writing brief and offer one round of feedback, with a view that they can use that piece as a calling card along with their CV. All of those who’ve been set and completed the brief, and responded to the feedback, have gone on to get a job within 6 weeks.
Show you’re thinking
Junior strategists are generally tasked with research-related projects. This may be assembling background information on a client and looking into sector trends for a pitch, or it may be finding relevant stats and facts, analysing market research and data, or preparing customer research for an existing project. Or it may be doing background research for marketing and branded content for the company or client.
Line managers (the good ones) want to see young strategists actively thinking about the company or the client, and will nurture and mentor those who go beyond the job description. Juniors who’ve been working on their writing and who stay plugged into things in their own time, often feel more confident and comfortable not only taking on research tasks, but are also more likely to push their work up the value chain into analysis, insight and, ultimately, strategy.
Play by the rules
Spell-check everything that leaves your inbox. Say ‘thank you’ to people who give you their time. Take notes. Take feedback. Take set-backs. Be punctual. Be patient. Be nice. And don’t expect anything to be handed to you. Get people cups of tea and hold doors. Basically, behave like your grandparents would want you to and work as hard as they did during the war/down the mines/while waiting for the internet to be invented. And do a side-project on something you really give a shit about and is fun. It creates something else to think about when work is boring and tough, and will probably get you your next job.
Break the rules
Have a go at everything. Focus on the work, not the job title. Chat to the CEO. Say what no-one else is saying. Ask what no-one else has asked. Pay attention to things that don’t fit the pattern. Collaborate with people who aren’t like you. Read widely and weirdly, then save and tag it all on Pinboard. Ask for what you want. Know your value. Don’t work for free (even if they can’t pay you, make sure you get a LinkedIn recommendation, an introduction, or an interview for your next writing piece). If you witness bullying, sexism or any kind of aggression, say something! If you really, really hate a place, leave it behind and try something new. Make sure that side-project is controversial and forces you to be brave. And don’t listen to advice, you’re going to be just fine.
If you would like me to set you a writing brief, please get in touch via my website.
If you want to say ‘hi’ in real life and meet lots of great people working in digital design, come to the next Design Club.
And if you want to join a community of people like you, check out Open Strategy — the ultimate destination and resource for today’s strategists. Join their Slack, and meet them in real life too at one of their School of Planning events.