How a passion for being nosey, a pack of Post-Its and a good Sharpie marker helped me unlock a rewarding career as a digital strategist
[Originally Published 13/07/2020 on the 383 blog https://383project.com/blog/digital-strategist/]
When I was a kid, it was a long-running family joke that my mum could get in a lift with a stranger and have their life story out of them by the time they reached the third floor. Whilst I definitely inherited a bunch of stuff from my dad (hello male pattern baldness), I got lucky and acquired the chatty gene from my dear old Mum.
And honestly, I think a curiosity for people, a keen ear for listening and a passion for spinning a good yarn have been the fundamental skills that have got me to where I am today — a digital strategist at 383 Project, working with some of the most recognisable brands in the world.
So what exactly is a strategist, what do we do and how do you end up being one? Well, the answer to all three of those questions is probably far messier than you might think — and even as a seasoned pro, I’m still figuring a lot of this out on a daily basis.
Curiosity skilled the cat
Let’s start with the what. The term strategist can mean a whole range of things depending on the company you work for, the areas you specialise in, and the team you’ve got around you.
At 383, our strategists work with clients to figure out how to make powerful products, features and services that their customers will love. It’s a role that spans several disciplines and one that requires a bunch of different skills.
In one respect, we’re business analysts, looking at a company’s goals and frictions, crunching data, and navigating corporate cultures and politics. In other ways, we’re futurologists, scouring the competitive landscape, spotting trends, and gazing into crystal balls to figure out what’s coming over the horizon. To a large extent, we’re also designers, helping to dream up and shape innovations and solutions that will improve people’s lives.
But mainly, and this is where Mum comes in, we’re professional nosey parkers.
A good strategist loves to talk to people, to listen to what they have to say, to delve down research rabbit holes, and to play detective like a modern-day film noir gumshoe.
The crucial thing is to pair that passion for investigation with a strong instinct for pattern recognition. By accumulating reams of qualitative and quantitative data through our research, we create a hell of a lot of chaos. It’s then our job to turn that into order again by spotting the big themes, patterns and insights that will act as a guiding star, both for our clients and our colleagues (who then have to go and actually build stuff based on our recommendations).
A day in the life
What does all this look like in practice? Well, the best thing about the job is that no two days are ever the same.
A huge part of my role sees me immersed in 383’s product development and rapid prototyping activities. Here I typically divide my time between doing in-depth interviews with stakeholders and customers, conducting desk research and field research, facilitating creative workshops with clients, and working closely with the design and engineering teams to shape concepts for new product innovations.
These projects can range from meaty friction mapping assignments spanning several months to intensive design sprints that take us from blank page to user-tested prototypes in as little as four days. What’s more, the clients and projects are hugely varied, spanning anything from automotive, utilities and hospitality to finance, education and even funeral care.
At other times I might be helping out the commercial team on new business support, conducting sector research, attending client meetings and pitches, or creating marketing content (like this webinar on user insight sprints). I might also be running training workshops, giving talks at events or cranking out presentations on Keynote. I end up spending a LOT of my time making pretty slides.
And what about wrangling all that chaos? What does that involve?
Typically a mountain of Post-Its, a fistful of Sharpies and a migraine. By the end of a big ‘synthesis’ exercise on a project I can fill a room or two with little neon squares and illegible scribblings. You know that bit in cop dramas when they’ve got a bunch of notes on a cork board all linked with strings and then one key photo ringed round and labeled ‘prime suspect’? Think that but with a product idea instead of a murderer. Usually.
How did I end up here?
So, how on earth did I end up in this role? Did I toil away on an MBA? Did I spend years in product design school honing my portfolio? Nope, I mainly spent the best part of a decade staring at photos of warty penises. Yep, you read that right.
Prior to my role at 383 I built a career in broadcasting, at first as a TV researcher and then as part of the digital team for the Channel 4 medical show Embarrassing Bodies. Here I helped to develop a lot of the interactive tools and online content that went with the show (and also spent a lot of time gazing at wonky body parts, obvs). Whilst the role was definitely in the digital arena, most of my day-to-day life was immersed within the language and culture of telly.
When I decided to make a move into agency life and digital product development, a lot of the tools and terminology were really new to me and I faced a pretty steep learning curve. Luckily, it turned out I absolutely had a lot of the skills for the job. I just didn’t really know it at the time.
This is where 383 were awesome. They spotted my potential, gave me a chance and supported me to grow into the role. I quickly realised I actually had loads to bring to the table, including lots of invaluable skills, insights and experiences that weren’t all that typical within the industry and which really helped me to stand out.
And that’s really the point of this blog post. If you’re an employer, don’t just fish for talent in your industry. Look beyond the obvious routes — there’s a whole world of potential out there waiting to be tapped.
And if you’re someone looking to move into this type of work and you’re not from a digital or agency background, don’t let that hold you back. Tools and processes can be learned. It’s the natural talents and ‘soft’ skills that are the real gold.
Trust me, if you like solving problems and can talk the hind leg off a donkey, a career in digital strategy could be for you. I love my job to bits — the creativity, the challenge, the ability to work with amazing brands and awesome colleagues at the top of their game. It feels like this is what I’ve been gearing up for my whole life. Thanks Mum!
If you ever happen to share an elevator with me I’ll tell you all about it. I just can’t guarantee you’ll be getting out by floor 3.