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Flipping the strategy script

Two of Codeword’s best and brightest discuss how to take strategy from a rigid framework to a vibrant, creative practice.

May 6, 2024

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Brandon Carter & Dominique Middleton

Ever wondered how strategists develop their approach at a communication design agency? In this conversation, Brandon Carter, Strategy Director, and Dominique Middleton, Strategist and DEI Committee Chair, delve into the world of strategy not as a rigid framework, but as a vibrant, creative practice.

Brandon and Dominique explore how their unique perspectives and diverse backgrounds inform their approach to solving complex challenges. From finding insights on TikTok to the power of a good walk, this interview unpacks how personal experiences drive successful creative solutions.

What’s inside:

Strategy as a creative act

Excited about our conversation today! A few weeks ago, as a strategy team, we were talking about strategy as a creative practice — when people think of strategy, particularly at a communication design agency like ours, they probably think about the way strategy not only enables creativity, but helps creative teams of writers and designers with research and market insights and strategic one-liners that help outline the parameters of what they’re going to make.
But we really started to think through strategy as a creative act in itself. That process of going out and doing research and trying to synthesize that into something that is actionable is a form of creativity.💯
I would love to dive into that today and start with that question: What does taking a creative approach to strategy look like for you?
That’s a great question. I’ve always been a creative person who can look at something and say, “This doesn’t make sense.” I don’t know why it doesn’t make sense yet. But I’m going to figure it out and we’re gonna fix it, although it may not be a creative fix — yet. [Laughs]
It just needs to make sense. One plus one needs to equal two.
Two of my former jobs were marketing positions in hair salons. I realized we weren’t talking to the right people in the right way, and we weren’t on the right platforms. How do you fix that? Luckily, in the salon industry, there is more leeway to be creative and experiential and write a poem about hair or whatever you want to try. So, that’s kind of how I got my start.
I never knew strategy was a practice until I got to Codeword and I was an account manager. I met Jordan (Leschinsky, VP of Strategy at Codeword) and said, “I want to do what she does.” And I didn’t exactly know what she did either. [Laughs]
What struck you about what she did that made you go, “Okay, I think this is my lane?”
Whenever she was in a meeting, whatever she said made sense. Everybody was like, “Great, that’s the direction we should take,” or “I didn’t think about it that way,” or “Let’s try that and see what happens.” I realized that’s what I’ve always done in previous roles and I remember saying to myself…
“I don’t want to see the work from the sidelines anymore. I want to do the work.”
I had a similar realization. I started out as a writer, but I had this feeling I wanted to be a little closer to the decision-making on what we’re going to make and the rationale for doing so.
Strategy seemed like a natural fit for me. It’s just good old-fashioned problem-solving, right?
It’s the ability to notice a problem or something that’s a little off, and you’re going to play detective and try to figure out how to solve it.
How can I start to hone in on what’s off and then bring forward positive solutions, but in a collaborative way? It doesn’t always go over well if you just say, “Here’s what you need to do.”👍

Fostering collaboration

If you come off as someone who thinks they know everything, it’s less likely that people are going to approach you to actually collaborate. They have to want to work with you.
I really think collaboration is about being a cool person at the end of the day. [Laughs]
I love that.
I think we sometimes overestimate how we work with clients, and maybe underestimate how we work with our own creative teams.
We should come to them with the same energy we would bring clients, because technically they’re our clients as well. 💯
We’re trying to inspire them to go in a particular direction with their work, which of course, they’re the experts in. We have to find a nice balance of give and take.
Totally. I think of agencies as a creative enterprise, like a movie set. I feel like the strategist is a little like a screenwriter on set. Does the screenwriter need to be on set? Probably not. But if they are, the director and the actors and whoever else have a resource they can bounce ideas off of, or ask questions about what’s on the page that will empower them to work their magic.
I guess in this metaphor the creatives are the actors. [Laughs] They’re the ones who have to literally deliver the action and carry the story. Also, the screenwriter starts with a blank page, and so does strategy in a way.
Yes! It’s us!

Finding inspiration

Maybe this is a good time to talk about where inspiration comes from when you have a brief for some problem that needs solving and you’re the person on the team who has to take the first step. Where do you typically start?
Inspiration for me comes from my own life. I don’t go searching for inspiration, per se. I truly feel that if it doesn’t come to me in my bed through my phone or on my walk with my kids, it ain’t coming.
Here’s an example: We’re doing a positioning statement for a client, and I don’t know where to start. So, I started going through all these positioning decks to see which framework I want to use — nothing sparks. After work, I get back to planning a girls’ trip for my birthday. Of course, I’m on TikTok, where there’s a trend of women talking about if the group trip will “make it out” of the group chat.
That made me think, “Maybe this is what the client does. They get their customers “out of the group chat.” That led to messaging around ease and relaxation that we were able to use.👍
Yeah, it’s hard to arrive at “the answer” when your research is limited to the internet. It’s more like, you’re out for a walk or watching something on TV or talking to your sister and then something catches in the web of your brain that just pops, and it strikes you as being true.
You can do all the research in the world, but if the insight doesn’t feel true and make you nod your head, you probably have some work to do.
That’s so good. I always tell myself, if I can convince myself or our strategy team [of an insight], then I at least feel like I’m on the right track.

Keeping track of ideas

Something else we talked about a few weeks ago was how to keep track of ideas and inspiration, and we were talking about the value of having something like a strategy journal. I’d love to hear more about what you do to make sure you don’t lose track of a great idea when it comes.
My notes app is my life. It’s one of those things where I tell my friends, if something happens to me, grab my phone and delete all my notes. Everything is in there. [Laughs] It’s my secret cave. I definitely document everything.
I think there’s a lot of value in opening your journal or notes app or whatever you use and scrolling as far as you can go and just stopping and seeing what’s there.
I have a handwritten journal, but I also use digital means, like Keep. I’ve always struggled with going back and accessing my notes later, so I like doing it digitally through an app or something. Or sometimes it’s taking a picture with my phone, if it’s something I encounter in the physical world that I think might be useful later.
I’ve definitely had several ideas over the last six months for clients that I would have totally lost if I hadn’t thought to capture it in the moment.

Getting out of a rut

I do want to hear what you do when you’re faced with a blank page and you don’t have any ideas.
Well, if I’m truly stuck, that’s usually an indication I don’t have enough information yet.🔥
I just haven’t done enough research, or, let’s be honest, there’s no substitute for talking to real live users, whether they use your client’s products or they use something similar. It’s always good to have those folks on speed dial if there’s no budget to do that kind of qualitative research.
I think the hard part is synthesizing all that information into concise language, like a strategic one-liner or a brand POV that really just nails the guiding principle for the program or campaign. That can be hard. I mean, I fully expect to write 50 versions of that one-liner or POV, and hope a few start calling to me.
At some point, I do just need to walk away and go do something else. My brain subconsciously is working the entire time, though. It’s searching for that right turn of phrase. But yeah, I’ll just walk away and go do something else. What’s great about working at an agency is that you can’t really sit there torturing yourself all day over one thing, because you have other clients to take care of. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Totally.
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