We sat down at Mortimer House with Anne Kaerst to discuss the psychology of strategy, how to convince clients to be more brave and when it is time to ghost a client entirely.
“I’ve always thought my job is about applying common sense.”
First things first. Can you explain what a strategist does?
There are three parts of my work. The first part is working together with accounts to really get to know the clients and gain exposure to them. This lets me understand their wording and how they are framing the problem as well as allowing me to begin to both challenge and understand their way of thinking.
Then I work collaboratively with all the different stakeholders — the creative, design, tech, and accountant lead — making sure I make them feel involved and consulted in order to get their buy-in.
Finally, I work with the creative team, give them the brief and thought starters and act as their sounding board. It’s important to be like a bow and arrow for them: pointing them in the right direction.
After everything is done I share the work with the client — using their wording and playing back their own language to ensure they feel heard.
What tips do you have for strategists who are trying to help their clients to be brave?
It’s all about testing the water and providing concrete examples that help bring the client along the journey.
First of all I would make sure we are speaking the same language: if a client says they want something that is cool we first work towards defining what ‘cool’ is — because it’s considerably subjective. To do this we show them examples of where you want them to go and iterate based on those immediate reactions.
The next part is is showing them what their competitors are doing (or even going so far as to identify new competitors for them entirely). If they’re not sure of the need to be ‘cool’ then show them why it’s needed by relating it to competitors and then go a step further and give them performance metrics that help back up the decision.
Ultimately, clients are usually very risk averse so you need to provide them with the confidence that the risk is not very big at all (or better yet that inaction is even riskier).
So strategy is a communication role?
In many ways yes, you’ll always be in situations where you have to persuade other people of your beliefs: that could be clients, account managers or creatives.
The key thing is to always give people the feeling that they contributed. People need to feel valued. It’s all about making people shine and feel good about themselves!
When imposter syndrome strikes, how do you deal with it?
I don’t really get imposter syndrome. I had it when I started out as a strategist and started as a senior straight away — everyone was saying I was crazy and that it wouldn’t work. Well, it did and since then I haven’t had imposter syndrome.
If a strategy for a client goes against your own ethics, what would you do?
I would say “fuck you” — and I've done this. I worked for Philip Morris to launch IQOS in Canada — they flew me to Toronto, business class, drinking a glass of champagne when you board the plane, ooh la la!, etc.
But the strategy ended up essentially just being to lie about IQOS being healthy, and every day they were all just puffing away in the meetings non stop so after two weeks I told them that I didn’t like the project, that they could keep their money and goodbye!
Who would you like to work with and why?
I’d love to work with AKQA or R/GA again. I spent most of my time at these two great agencies and they are some of the best places in terms of the quality of work and the talent they have. It was such a joy to work there and particularly at R/GA under my mentor Rob Campbell who is just a very inspiring person and wonderful boss, someone who really cares.
With everyone everywhere talking about tech at the moment, how does it affect your role?
When it comes to technology, it isn’t what the technology actually is rather than what it does to our expectations. Having everything at our fingertips for example changed our expectations of brands in general — the same goes for hyper personalisation.
This is why you should always compare yourself to the best of the best — even if they don’t seem like a direct competitor — because ultimately all businesses have customers and customers gain certain expectations from the deliveries of the best companies out there.
Just look at all the banks — they only started acting when challenger brands within the banking industry emerged — really they should have already thought about serious change when companies like Uber and Netflix began arriving on the scene.
What about in terms of creativity?
I think tech enhances creativity and enables us to think in new innovative ways. I don't think it can ever really replace humans, a beautiful mind and or a kind heart — ultimately technology is a toolset, one that can be used by us however we want.
Do you think anyone can become a strategist?
Yes I believe anyone can be a strategist — I’ve always thought my job is about applying common sense. But of course it requires training.
I often introduce myself as someone who has a 50/50 split in my brain between the creative side and the more logical hemisphere. I studied Psychology with a specialisation in statistics and did an MBA that was focussed on finance — as I do love numbers — so I trained my analytical skills all along the way. Something that is in fact very helpful, kind of needed, to being a strategist — the ability to digest insights, conduct market research qual and quant, and understand performance metrics of clients.
On the creative side — I’ve always embraced living the creative life: I’m painting, drawing, screenprinting, writing, photographing… I can’t recall the exact numbers but I think they think that about 30 percent of your creativity is natural, while the rest is all trained. And what is crucial to being a strategist? It's being curious and eager to learn and explore. It's about having an open-mind and asking “but why?”, not taking things for granted, but challenging the status quo.
Because at the end of the day, it's all about being customer centric, wanting to help them and finding ways to do it.