You’re Not a Strategist – You’re a Punk

I’m constantly astonished at how many people looking to get into agencies describe themselves as a “strategist” and think that by doing so, they can now avoid all of the work they don’t want to do. Whether it’s planning and budgeting, client project execution or measuring the outcomes, some people seem to think that by calling yourself something different, you can avoid learning about critical elements of a communications function.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s by doing that that you learn how good programs and strategies work.

I know I’m going to piss a lot of people off here, but in my opinion you can’t be an effective strategist until you’ve got some experience to rest behind it.

Mashable recently published a post that nicely explains my frustration. It’s entitled “What Does It Take To Be a Social Strategist?” Key points:

  1. About a third of companies look for at least six years of experience when looking for a social strategist
  2. 92% of social strategists are manager-level or higher
  3. Key success factors:
    1. Rallying stakeholders across the organization
    2. Leading multi-faceted, cross-departmental efforts
    3. Having a long-term, customer-centric vision
    4. Being multi-disciplinary and wearing “many hats”

Sounds pretty intense, right? So then why do I encounter so many inexperienced people giving themselves that title?

Here’s where I’m coming from: When I started working in communications, after doing a few internships during school I spent four years, analyzing quality assessments of communications plans in the public sector.

Sounds mind-bogglingly boring, right? On the contrary, I think that experience set me up fabulously to succeed later. I looked at poor plans and learned to spot the holes and what doesn’t work. I looked at good plans and learned how they effectively fit together. I did the same for tactical materials, too.

Later I moved jobs, began executing things myself, and learned from my mistakes. I organized a media event that I thought was near-perfect but that had ZERO media show up (sob!). I had drafts returned to me by editors with so much red ink on them, you could barely read the original draft.

On the flip side, I also wrote a release that got verbatim pick-up on the front page of tier-one media (I still have a copy of that paper!), and led programs that delivered great results for clients. In short: I learned.

You can’t just flip a switch and consider yourself a strategist without gaining experience in these other areas. You need to get in the trenches, get your head down and learn.

What’s more – sorry to say it – but there’s a lot more to strategy than just idea creation.

You might be great at putting the pieces together, and have a really great mind for integrating different elements to solve problems, but until you’ve gained enough experience to know (the majority of the time, at least – communications isn’t a science) what is likely to work and what isn’t, be quiet and continue to learn.

If you think you just flip a switch and become a master strategist overnight without gaining the experience needed first, you’re not a strategist. You’re just a punk.

(photo credit: Flickr)

  • hey Dave … thanks for remembering us punks … this goes to the old adage: you can’t be a leader unless you have followed … in other words, paid your dues as a team member …

    • I hear you. Some people talk about “putting in your time” but often come at it from the wrong perspective. I think it’s less about “serving your time in the trenches like the rest of us” and more about gaining the experience you need to have considered, informed judgement. What appear to be great strategies may be hollow without that context.

  • Anonymous

    Yes experience counts. The question I have is how
    important is it to have experience in more than a single industry. e.g. can you
    be a good communication strategist if you have only worked in the communication industry?

    • I’m not sure the “communications industry” really exists beyond market measurements (wow, that’s obtuse). What I mean by that is that working in communications for an oil company, for example, is very different to a consumer packaged goods company. Agency communications, meanwhile, forces a crazy blend of different contexts.

      I do think that working on the client side is very different to the agency side though, and that working on both is a good thing. I also think that moving across disciplines (strategic comms vs issues management vs digital etc) is also a good thing in order to get that broader context.

  • Nice post Dave. Getting in the trenches and learning the craft should be at the top of a Punk… er, i mean Strategists’ to-do list. “Talking” vs “Doing” … I opt for doing (and learning from) real, hands-on experience every time. Cheers.    

  • Nice post Dave. Getting in the trenches and learning the craft should be at the top of a Punk… er, i mean Strategists’ to-do list. “Talking” vs “Doing” … I opt for doing (and learning from) real, hands-on experience every time. Cheers.  js

  • Alexandre Belkowski

    The problem I get as a punk ie someone without experience, who want to do strategy, is how you get experience in the first place ? First jobs in agencies already require a 1-3 year experience… And it’s often worst on the client side. So do you make your experience yourself, like designers making their portfolio themselves on campaign they thought could be better ?

    Please enlight me, and sorry for any mistake in language

    Alex

    • Hi Alexandre — from my perspective, that’s the key thing – I don’t think you can effectively go straight to the point of “doing strategy” without any experience. Lots of people want to, but it’s like saying you want your university degree without studying for it. It comes down to working your way up – to getting your foot in the door in an organization and learning from your experience there.

  • Wait a second. Doesn’t “strategy” include things like planning and executing and especially measuring outcomes? If you aren’t doing all those elements, then isn’t that just ideation?

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  • dita

    Thanks Dave, I really needed to hear that.  I am an experienced PR professional that has worked in the fashion and entertainment industry for several years both from the client side as well as agency side.  Plus, I have an MBA.  But like a lot of PR/Marketing peeps, I have almost ZERO experience in online marketing – social media/SEO – (I made it a point to stay away from it because it scared me!).  Now, I HAVE to learn because its the marketing future.  So  I’m working in an entry level position learning the ropes, doing the most basic work.  Sometimes I wonder if I’m crazy to go back in order to go forward but your blog just reminded me how important it is to work in “the trenches.”

    • Thanks Rita – and know that, IMHO, your experience in other areas of communications is a real asset that will benefit you as you make this transition. Good luck with it!

  • I agree wholeheartedly and yes, let’s pull a Tonya Harding on the punks at large…bullshit titles to sound fancy are just that – bullshit. Yet methinks some of these big corporations need to rethink their math.

    If they want 6 years experience in a social strategist, they’re going to wait until 2012 or hire Zuckerberg himself. Twitter wasn’t even around until 2006. LinkedIn is the only platform that really qualifies with a 2003 inception date as Facebook wasn’t really publicly available outside of the educational world until 2006 (also disqualifying even early adopters until 2012). Then again, I suck at math 🙂 While yes, there are other social outlets (like blogs), social as a strategy hadn’t really taken hold until 2007 or so. Maybe we’ll see some super-qualified ninjas (another word I hate) coming on the scene in 2013!

  • While I agree that you can’t become a “master strategist” overnight, everything else here seems to be polemic for polemic’s sake. At the end of the day, a strategist needs to think on a broader, customer-centric, brand level than someone like a community manager. It’s just different skill sets, not some kind of exclusive club.

    There is a common misconception in this industry that you “pay your dues,” learn things, and the apply them for the rest of your career. But what about innovation? There is such a value judgment placed on experience. The truth is that experienced staff who have been working in the industry for 10+ years have just as much to learn from an intern as the intern has to learn from them. 

    Let’s say your opinion is correct–that you need X number of years’ experience before being crowned a strategist. Then shouldn’t people like you, who are in management positions, be mentoring the younger staff instead of calling them punks? Don’t you have a responsibility teach them the ways of the strategist? If not, don’t you have even a modicum of respect for them?The opinion expressed in this post does nothing to move the industry forward. It shows a lack of responsibility and willingness to teach/learn. It is defensive, reactionary, and based on an old agency model. The view expressed here is childish and, if we are to take your argument literally, shows a complete lack of concern for younger staff. 

  • Well said Dave. I’ve met a lot of people who think they can just jump into doing strategy jobs. Heck, I was even one of them. But the reality is is that it takes time to learn these things. You may think you have great ideas, but ideas are only ideas and don’t ever play out the same way in the real world.
    I think I got really lucky in the way that I got into the industry, but I still take everyday as a learning experience. I worked really hard to get where I am, but I didn’t know everything coming in and I still don’t.
    I think this is a great piece and I’m going to share it with people, because daily I get asked by people who are fresh out of school or people looking to completely change industries and think they can just jump into these top tier sought after roles.

    Cheers,
    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

  • yeap!! i’m punk too!!! punks RULEEZZ!!! 

  • very nice post! i liked it!

  • Having good experience helps you to become a great leader. The more worst your experience are the stronger and skillful leader you can be. We just have to follow and obey our leaders first and we go from there. Thank you very much for sharing this thought-provoking post of you Dave. I like it very much.

  • Casey Mahoney Brad P

    Hi! You have to start at the bottom and work your way to the top.Many people think they have a degree they have the qualifications for that job.You have to know the end and outs of social media.

    You have to learn what is effective marketing and what is not. You do not learn that in school.

    Casey Mahoney Brad P

  • Nobody is cool with the 25 year old MBA who thinks more about his tie than his tie than communications. But I’m cool with the punks if they know how to listen and collaborate. The real strategy is in working together. 

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  • Well, then, I’ll proudly proclaim myself a SM punk. How else would you be multidisciplinary and exciting enough, rather than sticking to your tried-and-true strategies (that are probably going to fail you the next time)?
    More seriously, though, I wonder how one is supposed to get from here (mere punkishness) to there (strategy experience) when the market is crowded by all those already claiming to be the great-poopah-strategists…

    • Same as with any field, I think, Gerald – get your head down, work hard, kick ass at what you do and learn as you do it. That approach worked pretty well for me.

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  • Great post, Dave. And so true. There are a lot of people who mistakenly think they’re strategists. And some of them aren’t punks. They’re experienced people who are good at executing or developing tactical ideas. In my rather lengthy career, I’ve only met a few people who are truly good at strategy so I’m always a bit leery of folks who lay claim to that particular strength.

  • I was 40 before I got my first social media strategist job.

  • I’ve been reading your blog for a long time, but I think you should stay away from the social commentary as you really don’t get it. Stick to the tech stuff.

  • Thank you for making this site very interesting! Keep going! You’re doing very well!

  • Hi, nice post. I have been pondering this topic,so thanks for sharing

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  • Thanks Dave, you really hit the nail on the strategy head. I’ll say it loud, that I’m a punk and I’m proud! I’m learning to appreciate the process of learning and growing within the field. Your post just reaffirmed my belief that everything happens for a reason 🙂  

    • On the contrary, Judy – I think that self-awareness means you’re the furthest thing from a punk – you’re a professional that is looking to learn and grow. The punks are the people who want to avoid that step.

      Cheers!

      Dave