interview diary 1: reflection on strategy expertise discussion

So. I have talked with two agencies the past several days about a director of strategy position. I don’t think either discussion went particularly well. Okay but not great.

The weird thing is I am pretty good at uncovering meaningful (see “relevant” in a definition somewhere) insights and isolating a strategy that not only generates results … but is open enough to allow some creative output to deliver that insight.

(note: ok … how about other people have told me I am good at this so it isn’t like I stare in the mirror and go “what a handsome man you are” .. although I am tempted to try that upon occasion without laughing as an exercise ..)

I also believe because I don’t have a traditional account planning background my strategies tend to be less esoteric and more practical.

I hate gobbledygook (that’s another word for bullshit) and kind of think developing a strategy is a complex challenge but in the end all about simplicity.

Hey. They didn’t ask me to speak in gobbledygook terms … it’s just that sometimes if you don’t … it gets tougher to talk about. Simplicity just ain’t easy to explain.

Anyway. I believe developing a strategy is very straightforward (or how you go about doing it). What makes it complex to explain is that almost every strategy development challenge is different.

And I think that hurts me in some discussions because some traditional account planner (I use the words traditional loosely) has some high falutin’ process and a ton of strategy documents highlighting a ton of sometimes concise strategy statements (sometimes meaningless) to showcase.

And here is the thing. It is kind of a numbers game. If you pony up enough of these account planner type strategy statement things sooner or later you show one the other person kind of understands and you get to talk about it.

I have lots of examples … but not that consistent P&G one strategy statement philosophy which I think I may need because talking about strategy gets weird if you don’t have them.

So. Why don’t I have that “consistent one strategy statement” philosophy? Several reasons.

I know when I talk about strategy it must seem all over the place. Mainly because the process I have stored in my pea like brain is very very consistent (but no one really wants to talk about the process) but the output (which everyone wants to talk about) is very very inconsistent (and that is something philosophically I believe is correct).

What I mean is that regardless of how simple you want a strategy or an insight … depending on what you arrive at it could be captured in two words (this is an awesome situation until you realize that you still have to write the paragraph after it to share the depth of the insight). Or I imagine it could be captured in three sentences (situations in which people inherently suggest “couldn’t it be more concise” but outside people grasp it quickly and move on to other discussion like “why is the coffee so bad in the cafeteria” or “why are snacks good in one meeting and not so good in another”).

The process I use to get to the varied output is very simple and straightforward (because it is simply a logical way to tear apart things to assess what it is you really need to do).

The output from that consistent process construct is varied.

That’s it.

Look.  I started my career on P&G brand work so I am steeped in that P&G formulaic positioning statement belief. Oh. And because I worked at JWT I am steeped in a strong methodical strategic thinking process (although I was there long enough that our “output statement” changed a number of times as we shifted to whatever the strategic process idea du jour was). Oh. And because I am a student of the industry I am steeped in Bates’ infamous “USP” (a hard-headed insistence on judging a product by what it does, not by how good it looks, a Unique Selling Proposition).

Oh. Maybe that’s the problem. I don’t have one tried & true output I stick with (probably because what I realized was consistency of process dictated that the output may vary depending on the business challenge or situation).

Having worked at a variety of agencies as well as evaluated a variety of consulting & research companies strategy output, not only does everyone have a different process (and while some of the differences are slight they are different) but everyone also has a different “output” form. And I am flexible enough to not worry about those things and focus on what needs to get done.

Agencies like to have an output form (that is consistent). I guess the difficulty I have with that is sometimes it is like putting a square peg in a round hole depending on what the challenge was and what the solution was.

So I guess that makes judging my output (what I have done) a little more difficult because I personally care more about judging the process of how you got to the strategy.  I don’t care if you come up with Oscar Mayer being “capturing the joy and innocence of childhood” versus Marines being “elite warrior” versus SunTrust Bank being “large bank resources with small bank service.”

Maybe I should care. But I guess in the end all I really care about is finding a great insight and help build a great strategy.

Interviewing and discussing this … well … it sucks.

Lastly <because I am on the interview discussion thing>.

Talking about strategy and strategy thinking. I think you get to a point in your experience when it becomes tough to explain what is so simple to you. Yup. It has become just “what you do” and not “something you have to think about doing.”

Oh. This isn’t about having earned some respect because of past experience. That is a completely different post.

What I mean is, for example, assessing research. At a point in my type of career experience you kind of have to know how to interpret research. Not implement a methodology (although we all certainly understand the basics and can probably write and develop basic methodologies) but certainly to review what someone else has completed and interpret the information. We all know how to do it in varying degrees.

Anyway. I admit. I don’t know what to say when someone asks me “can you interpret research” other than “yes” … which is an obvious “F grade” answer. Maybe worse would be if i said … “gosh, I don’t think I could have gotten to where I got to in my career without knowing how to do it.”

By this time I have looked at so many frickin’ tracking studies, omnibus studies, segmentation studies, sales tracking information, MRI computer runs, focus group write-ups, A&U studies, whatever … I think I can pick out how many rum drinkers in multi person households own tricycles for god’s sake (which I actually did by mistake when I worked on Mount Gay rum).

In fact, that may be the issue. Going back to the basics in a professional credibility discussion when you have done so many things you feel like you don’t have to explain it. No. that’s not it. It’s just I don’t know how to talk about it without actually doing it. It’s like talking about breathing. How do you breathe? Shit. I don’t know. I don’t think about it but I sure am good at it.

As for the background credibility discussion (once again this isn’t about respect it is more “belief in what someone can do without having to explain some things”) I guess in my sports interest warped mind I find myself on occasion in these interview type settings saying:

“Hey, I have batted .320 in the national league for 8 straight years. Sure one year I led the league in home runs and another I led the league in doubles and one season I had a boatload of singles and had a huge on base percentage but basically year in and year out I bat .320. So. Even though I am talking to you about playing a season in the American league and I have never batted against American league pitchers what makes you think I won’t bat around .320 again? I don’t know if I will lead the league in home runs or doubles but I can pretty much guarantee I will bate .320. In fact let’s assume if you need home runs I have the ability to do so and maybe we don’t need to talk about how I hit home runs instead of doubles. So why do keep asking me about how I hit? What is my philosophy at the plate? Shouldn’t we be talking about if I fit into the team chemistry and am I the right guy who can hit .320 for your lineup?”

Anyway. Certainly a rambling post but maybe it helps people to know that even with my experience some interview or job discussion experiences can be frustrating on occasion. Explaining things that you have done for years, with some success, can be difficult.

Even the simple becomes complex.

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Written by Bruce