I was blown away by this talk with the fantastic Rachel Mercer of RGA. Like many of us in strategy, Rachel came from a different discipline; in her case, design. She discusses what she learned in design that she brought forward in her strategy work and some of the bigger lessons she’s learned and taught.

*NOTE: Some joking comments Rachel made at the end of this episode about the change to English planning spurred the topic for the next episode of The Strategy Inside Everything with our guest Gareth Kay of Chapter. Tune in to hear the spiritual sequel that was recorded the next day.*

Listen here: https://specific.substack.com/p/rachel-mercer-still-thinks-like-a-ebe?r=n6j6&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=copy


Adam Pierno: All right. We’re back with another episode of The Strategy Inside Everything. I feel like every episode I say, “This one’s been a long time coming.” Our guest today is Rachel Mercer who is the Executive Strategy Director at R/GA. This one really has been months and months. I think we met in June in the summer?

Rachel Mercer: Yes. I think it was right after I’d just started. I didn’t even know where the conference rooms were, let alone where we were supposed to meet and anything like that.

Adam: That’s funny. You were brand spanking new but this one is actually, I think I had even reached out to you before that. This was even longer time coming. Rachel, thank you so much for joining.

Rachel: No. Thank you so much for having me. I’m really, really excited that we were able to make this happen.

Adam: Thanks again. You are currently at R/GA, would you give people a little bit, a snippet of your background and how you got to the place that you’re currently working because that’s [unintelligible 00:01:26] to our topic for today.

Rachel: Yes. Absolutely. I think I’ve given this padded history a little bit before but I originally came up as a designer in this business. I’m much more classically trained in graphic design. It was because when I saw ads, I thought the only definition of what an ad was, was what I saw at a bus or a subway station. I was like, “I want to do that or I would like to design album covers or any of those sorts of things.

I had a hodgepodge of jobs early on, working at an architecture firm, designing things like carpet patterns and way-finding for things like Disney Dream Cruises. I worked at a couple of local advertising agencies. I grew up in Texas so all the great things about that but always really dreamed of working at a big agency. At the time, I was reading quite a lot about Alex Bogusky and the nine inch diet and things like that. I was like man, this is about [unintelligible 00:02:31] on the cover of Fast company, of course, I don’t even remember what it was at the time.

I was like this guy is changing the business. I got my very first, what I would call, I guess big ad gig at Crispin, very much working as a UX designer, worked on the team that did part of the Domino’s Pizza tracker and those sorts of things and helped do products and services there. They were very much at the forefront. They were the ones who helped create things like small business Saturday and MX Open forum. They had a fully built out tech team at a very early stage.

I got very excited by the prospect of potentially working for this guy named Bud Caddell. I’d been one of those people who’s always just incredibly enthusiastic about the internet. I’ll find and follow people very deeply for a number of years. When I did a call with Deutsch, honestly, hadn’t heard of them but I had heard of Bud and a couple of my former Crispin bosses were over there designing a new thing.

I was really excited about the idea or the notion of invention because I love the internet. I always felt like there was so much potential on how it could change our relationships with different businesses. I think we’ve start to see that come to fruition now. I was there. I worked in this weird hybrid role that was half like teach creatives and our clients what the internet is and how it works and how can we make every project just a little bit more digital. The other half was very creating products or services or different ideas from scratch. I got to work across a great array of clients from Target to Taco Bell to insurance. I loved the category and Volkswagen of course was fun too. From there, what I was very frustrated by, again, I’m sorry. This is too long of the history part.

Adam: No. This is good. Was it like still in a UX role? Because that’s what you were doing at Crispin or at this time had you transitioned into some strategy role?

Rachel: No. It was very weird. Bud had very carefully cultivated this group of what he liked to call ‘Misfit Toys’. [laughter]. Any one of us, we were supposed to be a digital SWAT team. One of us was much more strategy oriented. I brought a design and creative technology background to it. There were two other members of the team who were also either very creative and tech heavy or tech and UX heavy.

Together the four of us were essentially supposed to be able to if we wanted a prototype and build a thing, in theory like make that happen as quickly as possible for our clients. We very much started bringing things like the agile and the sprint model to the agency world. We were very much like, “Oh yes. We can absolutely crack a brief in two weeks because it doesn’t take that much time and we can put something in the hands of our clients.”

It was while I was there that I think I very much started to realize that, where does work actually come from? It tended to come from briefs. They were the ones originating the direction that the rest of us were going in. I was very excited about that process and very much decided that I wanted to be a strategist. I think I’ve told this story before but I actually asked Bud, I was like, “Can you train me in digital strategy? I would really like to be a strategist.” What he did instead was made 140 slide deck and put it on the internet for everyone else to do it. I was like, “I appreciate that but I really wanted to selfishly have all that for myself.” It was good because I still have something to refer back to when I want and he made the internet a better place in the process.

Adam: I have benefited from that deck as well. Thank you for asking for that.

Rachel: It was great but at the time I was definitely like a bit of a petulant child about it. Then I felt like we were trying to make lots of products and services but weren’t actually, again Deutsch was very much, had started transforming at the time into an integrated advertising agency. It had been very traditional and was moving to be much more digital as evidenced with things like Volkswagen.com and the work that ended up happening for Taco Bell.

I was looking abroad. I had spoken to Tim [unintelligible 00:07:33] a couple of years before and a role opened up at Made by Many and again, it being the internet and me constantly being a bit of the fun girl of things was immediately emailing Tim being like, “I just saw this opening. Is there any possibility?” He said, “Yes, absolutely.” I loved it when we first met. I was very excited to go there and, again, get trained up in a bit of a strategy role and then immediately because Made by Many is such a small shop.

Adam: How big is that shop because the work they do is big. It’s harder from the outside, I know it’s not a huge shop but it’s hard to know how big is it or how big was it then?

Rachel: It was a transition for me because Deutsch at the time was something like 400 people and Crispin also was quite large. Going to 35 to 50 person shop and we were fluctuating at the time at Made by Many, was such a huge transition because suddenly you don’t have your very specific swim lane anymore. You have to wear many hats and do a little bit of everything. That was definitely a little bit of jumping off the deep end for me.

Adam: Do you thrive in that environment of wearing more than one hat or do you, now that you’ve found your role, do you like being focused in strategy or do you still play in different areas?

Rachel: I think that my time at Made by Many was such a foundational and touchstone moment for me because of wearing those many hats I have a much better business acumen. I understand the production side of things. I’ve had to write scopes of work. I think that helps me be a better strategist especially in my function now and a leadership function because then I not only can help steer the work better, right, because if you even think about me wanting to be upstream with strategy and guiding the work and setting the vision for what we do, in a lot of ways, at certain types of agencies, the account team does that when we establish what our scope is with the clients. I definitely think that I now wear many more hats than just strategy and I’ve carried that through from my original role at Made by Many, if that make sense?

Adam: It makes a lot of sense. What parts of the design background that you started with do you still carry with you today if you have a new project or a new problem to solve for a client, what tools do you notice that you keep using that you picked up during your earlier career as a designer? Then what I want to do is walk through the career and see which parts of which jobs you still use?

Rachel: Absolutely. I think there’s a couple of things that you get taught in school very early on that I think are just generally quite helpful. The first is that a fundamental part of design school is always the critique. You have to pin your work up on the board.

It’s been like blood, sweat, and tears for a number of weeks to fulfill an assignment. You basically have 30 of your peers tear down and nitpick any single thing that’s up on the wall. I think that was a really foundational and helpful thing for me to learn because, in this business, 90% of what you think of or come up with ends up sitting on the cutting room floor.


That’s much more of a soft skill at the end of the day but I think it did help me build quite a bit of resilience and tolerance for feedback and flexibility.

Adam: I don’t view it as a soft skill because, for the creative team, you’re right. They get critiqued to within an inch of their life every project but a lot of times the strategy is on a sale. It gets written, it gets shared with the strategy team maybe or with a couple of other key people and then it gets presented but it doesn’t get obliterated the way creative does where somebody could go through four or five, six, seven different iterations of an idea before the account team even sees it.

Rachel: I mean, I feel like you’re getting a far better end of the stick than I am because [laughs] I still feel like I go through a good seven rounds. Maybe that’s just me being my own worst critic at the end of the day too but before we get to a final approved strategy on my end.

Adam: [laughs] Do you think that is the creative team at R/GA and the strategy team has the same amount of critique on the work, on their individual work product?

Rachel: I don’t know if I’ve sat enough with the R/GA creative team but I think there are similar levels of interrogation. They’re just happening in different circles. We have what’s called a strap pack. We have the strategist, the connections planner and a marketing sciences person that tend to sit together.

You naturally have quite a lot of inputs at any given time. Even if a deck isn’t like fully baked, you haven’t come to me with your mostly realized babies and then I’m suddenly killing them. It’s much more of like many paper cuts process if that makes sense.

Adam: [laughs] It makes a lot of sense. You benefit from it though because you have processed how to take that critique to make the work better and not fall apart when a connections planner is pointing out some media information that you hadn’t had access to or just hadn’t occurred to you to think about.

Rachel: Absolutely. I think too there’s also a constant state of being inspired or challenged by the people around you. I think it helped keep me a little bit more open-minded [laughs] not just around that feedback but sort of like wide-eyed about what everyone else was doing as well if that makes sense.

Adam: It does. Are there areas that you have younger strategy people explore from the design side of things? Things you learned from design that you still try to teach as you’re training younger staff?

Rachel: Yes. I think there’s a couple of principles that I’m starting to bring through. One thing that you get taught very early on in design that seems quite basic for a strategist is quite a bit of empathy. It’s empathy and also hierarchy. For example, when you’re thinking about, again I’ll use a print design component but we would have to design bus ads.

There’s such a thing as a 20-foot view and a five-foot view. You have to think about how you convey that information in both the 20-foot view on a five-foot view. When you think about something like a brand or a messaging hierarchy or those things, it’s very much falling into those similar principles, but that you’re also putting yourself constantly in the shoes of the viewer and thinking about how they’re experiencing it, how they’re taking in all of those things.

I think constantly reminding ourselves of who those human beings are and how they’re going to be consuming what you’re putting in front of them. Which I think a designer ends up doing a lot more deliberately at the end of the day is one of them. I think too is also like a very specific approach to storytelling. I think Ellen Lupton who’s written some great books on Thinking with Type and other things. Also recently just published a book called Design is Storytelling.

Some of it comes through and that hierarchy of messaging and those things but also you have to think about when you have that moment or that impression, how are you bringing that individual along the journey with you? I think as strategists, that’s also really important because we are at the very beginning of that process. We’re supposed to have again that vision or understanding for the brand and set that mission and the plan for how to get there.

Then we need to bring all of the troops along with us and if we fail to do that, then we’re all just marching in a direction relatively aimlessly or we end up having a little bit of a Cassandra complex where we tell everyone that Troy’s going to burn down but nobody listens to us.

Then we all burn in the fire. [laughs] To use my best metaphor as possible.

Adam: That was a really unexpected metaphor. I salute you for that.

Rachel: [laughs] Thanks. I try.

Adam: Now the way you just explained those things, they seem 100% intuitive. Part of a toolkit that makes a lot of sense to me to the young strategist that you introduced that to, have they heard that before or are they scratching their head and saying what does that have to do with this?

Rachel: One of the things that my team tends to tease me a [laughs] little bit about is I have a tendency to give drawn feedback rather than written feedback. This is where it starts to become a bit more concrete for them because I’ll be explaining for them as I’m drawing out how a deck should flow or how we’re going to bring someone on that journey with us.

Did you see how I’ve taken you through every single step of this story in a very deliberate way? By drawing it by hand and making it also the simplest and easiest thing to follow. I think what happens to us, and this is just a far more natural inclination of anyone who grew up on the Internet as we go straight into our slides or straight into a briefing document or a briefing template, and we haven’t necessarily thought through exactly what we want to do.

They’re starting to pick up on it a bit more. I think they’ve been much more excited about it. It’s only recently that I feel like I’ve started to see and understand the value of my design training because for awhile I’ve mostly felt self conscious that I wasn’t enough of a strategist.

Adam: Welcome. I think that’s how we all feel.

Rachel: [laughs] All of us Americans who didn’t get the great grad schemes that happened in the UK.

Adam: [laughs] That’s amazing. Well, that leads me actually to your idea about drawing things out. How much do you actually put pen to paper? When you are introduced to a problem, do you start by sketching relationships and drawing it all out in ink and paper or pencil and paper before any words go down? Take me through what your process is that. What I’m interested in is how much it really does relate to wire framing or how much it really relates to creating a user flow where you’re funneling people from one step to the next.

Rachel: Again, to go back to design school a little bit, one of the things that you’re always encouraged to do is what they call gesture drawings, or even if you’re doing logo designs or if you’re doing wireframes, you start out with those sketch prototypes. It’s so that you can quickly go through a bunch of ideas or a bunch of exercises and then you’ll, eventually, after you do 30 or 40 or 50, feel like you have one or two that are really starting to stand out for you. At very early stages in your design career, it ends up being like a bit of a volume game because you have to really push yourself through the obvious ideas to get to the ones that feel more exciting. Then, eventually, you can be Paula Scher and draw this bank logo on a napkin at a bar.

But what I tend to do is, as I’m listening to– there’s a couple of different ways that this manifests. If I’m in a client meeting and they’re describing to me what their problems are, I’m using drawing typically to help me visualize all of the different factors at work, especially, in that system. For example, one client that we have bombards their core customer to death with cross-sell messages. I’m very quickly trying to see and understand what’s the volume of each of these things and how is it impacting the core.

But another maybe more tangible example is whenever I write out a deck, I tend to– I don’t even go into slides, I tend to go straight into white index cards and I’ll write out or draw out the effect or the point that I want every key slide to make and I’ll lay them all out on the table. Then, I can move things around or add or subtract them but then I also have a thing that I can go to people with and test out if the story is working. Because, again, if you’re not following my story or if you’re not on board with it, then it’s all a little bit for naught. I think that helps me get a much clearer frame of thinking before we get into all the notions or all of the details or what this type looks like on a screen or how big should it be on a slide or anything like that.

Adam: That’s not as important. How much sketching then do you have to do before you can get to– you said if you were doing it with InDesign with logos, you do 50 to get to two that are special. How much sketching do you have to do in strategy before you get to a place where you feel that it’s special or in the right area or something that you can go to the deck and start building out slides? Is it still a volume game for you or do you shape it from the cards?

Rachel: I mean sometimes to– I don’t think it’s as much of a volume game but probably because I have to produce a lot more than I used to– part of why I couldn’t handle design was that there’s also then a lot of the detail work required after you’ve arrived at your concept, like, “How can I refine it into like a really shiny gem?” I’m very bad at the– I don’t have the patience for the refinement process, I didn’t really have, I feel, the craft skills. But, for me, I tend to have a much quicker draft in a deck phase.

Even talking about the event that I was at yesterday, I think I was in a meeting and I had to– I wrote out my first 15 slides, I turned them all into a deck, and then I rejiggered it once I was in there. But that was all maybe an hour and a half in total.

Adam: Yes, I find I’m always tweaking the deck up until the last second. I mean until the thing goes up and we’re presenting it, I’ll keep on reorganizing it and tweaking it and taking out slides and moving them back and editing it right up to the last second.

Rachel: Yes. I don’t know about you but I’m always a little bit of a worrier, I’m always trying to refine it up to the last second. Because there’s always one slight way to do it a little bit better.

Adam: I’ve noticed that if I don’t feel somewhat nervous or worried that I’m about to get [unintelligible 00:24:30] . I’ve just figured out that if I don’t go in there feeling a little bit uncomfortable, then it’s probably not ready yet. First, I know that might not even make sense, but the first draft I always feel like, “Oh, that’s great,” and then I take a day off of it and I think about it more and I say, “Oh, no no no, that’s terrible,” I’d have to start over and redo that entire thing.

Rachel: Yes, I think I was talking to Camilla Grey, who’s a strategist in London about this before, but we both can worry quite a lot over the quality of the product. Then, someone will say, “Oh, it’s great. Don’t worry quite so much,” but there’s some point in time where actually the worrying is what makes it good, so I don’t really know when I’m going to not worry.

Adam: Yes, I’ve stopped fighting it, I’m comfortable with the worrying.

Rachel: Yes, yes. We’ve accepted it.

Adam: Yes, that’s the drive, that’s what makes me check it again. Because you’re dead-on with the index cards, if I present them out of order and the person I’m telling the story to doesn’t follow, we’re dead and everything that’s [laughs] going to come after is also dead.

Rachel: Well, and again, it goes back a little bit to that 20-foot view and that 5-foot view, right? When we’re reviewing a deck on a screen, we’re viewing it one slide at a time, so you’re expecting that everybody else behind you or with you, as they’re reviewing it, has the whole and complete story held in their head in the same way and actually understanding if you’re hitting all the beats or if you’ve covered all the context that you need to cover. It’s hard if you don’t also have, again, that 20-foot view.

Adam: That’s a great example. My favorite feeling, tell me if you can identify with this, my favorite feeling is when we’ve worked hard on a presentation, we sit down with a client, or sometimes doing a talk or something, and somebody asks a question about what’s about to be revealed on the next slide. I’m always like, “I set it up perfectly, I nailed it.”

Rachel: Yes, yes. No, that’s absolutely one of the favorite– because it means that, again, to get back to the user empathy or putting yourself in the user’s shoes, it means that you have absolutely anticipated what they want to know in that process. That’s always great.

Adam: Let’s talk about levels, let’s talk about multiple levels of thought and multiple levels of problem-solving. Because you’re creating content to be consumed by someone in the agency or someone at the brand, so we have to have empathy for them, but, on a greater scale and a greater level, there’s users or customers or consumers or people that are going to be in the tens, dozens, thousands or millions that have to consume the end result in this. Sometimes balancing those things to present ideas that are relevant to that end consumer of the final information, versus the person in the room who’s the initial recipient, have you found challenges balancing that? Because, as a designer, that can be a challenge where you’re not the audience for this.

Rachel: Yes, I think it’s one of the hardest things about our business and I also think that Martin– I don’t know how to say his last name, Martin Waggle posted a really great talk about this recently right, about, “Viewing people in focus groups is like viewing dolphins in captivity, it’s not necessarily the same thing.” What happens with us is we get so caught up in all of our jargon back and forth that we forget that these customers, or these people, are just human beings scrolling through their feed, it’s stuck between a dog photo and the latest shitty piece of news. How are we going to at all stand out in that category?

I do think that, again, being a designer and also one that had to work at an architecture firm when you think about things like wayfinding and how does somebody find their way through an area or space or then, eventually, as a UX designer, through a system, it really helps me clarify that thinking until, again, much simpler messages or stories [unintelligible 00:28:53]. It helps me simplify more than anything else, which I think, in our business, can be one of the harder things to do.

Adam: Well, the world is spinning more and more wildly out of control, we’re still trying to hold it all together for people’s attention when– you’re right, if I’m creating an ad, I have to compete with that dog photo, I have to compete with their boyfriend posting something, I have to compete with news from their kids’ school, who the hell knows what the president just said, and now, it’s like– and also care about this new headlights on the brand-new Jeep Wrangler. It’s really hard to keep all those things in check.

Rachel: Yes, it’s definitely one of the things that I’m constantly pushing either our clients or ourselves for which is– it always breaks them out, just for a moment, where they remember where I’m like, “Yes, you guys absolutely do this most amazing education program or corporate-social responsibility campaign.” As we’re talking about like kids and cages, how can we stand out a little bit more or have like a more meaningful thing to say than just like, “Oh, look what a good job I’m doing.” Sort of endless process at any given time and it does help our clients wake up for a moment to realize the space they’re in.

Adam: Yes and they live in that brand world, that company world. It’s important to get them to snap out of it but you triggered a question for me, going back to design and you’ve referenced print a couple times and out of home. Those things are 2D, they’re constrained. A bus side is a really good example of something that’s on a traveling piece of sheet metal that is driving through town and you cannot control the context around it. Digital stuff when we think about brand safety on YouTube or what the context that I’m going to see this programmatically purchase banner ad next to some terrible piece of news or some video from an extremist group or God knows what.

That’s one thing on the creative side. How does strategy– strategy is never static either. I mean, it’s a snapshot of a moment in time but how do you handle presenting potential? This could happen or this could happen and this is how we’ve accounted for those potential outcomes.

Rachel: I wish I could talk about a specific client example right now because we have a couple of really relevant ones but I just don’t know. I’m trying to think if I can actually– I don’t know if I should. I don’t want to get into any trouble. I think one of the nice things that we have at least our GA which is like to me is such an amazing thing because we have a big marketing sciences group, we have access to all of these incredible tools. It’s usually reasonably easy to paint a picture of what that potential is using some sort of historical data.

If we go out with this message in this place, here’s like three ways that other brands have performed in that relative category, and they think clients too tend to forget a little bit that. Like standing for something means standing against something or having a message that’s meaningful often means you have to actually say something rather than just go straight down the middle and so accepting that there’s going to be some tension in any good breakout messaging.

Adam: How do we better prepare brands to understand that? I don’t feel like there’s a lot of surprise when those things happen, when something dynamic changes out in the marketplace or we partner with a Content producer and they do something or there’s a story next to your ad or next to your piece of content. How can we work better to prepare them well? I feel like in design and creative side we do a much better job of saying, “Okay now, if we choose this path, we’re locked in this way.” Do you have that challenge in strategy?

Rachel: I don’t know if we– And maybe this is just my circumstance right now, but I don’t know if we have as much either patience or opportunity in order to make that happen because a lot of the job of strategy is to again, set what you think that path should be as clearly and directly and as focused as possible. I think when sometimes with clients, they don’t really want to see what all the potential paths are at the end of the day because sometimes they just want the answer and again that could just be a very–

Adam: Do you map the alternative paths out for yourself as a thought experiment?

Rachel: Yes, absolutely. Going back to more design frameworks but I tend to be– I think I very naturally follow like a Double Diamond approach as I think about things. Go on a very broad discovery path, narrow it down to a few areas of opportunity and then go back out again with the creative process or ideas and even in a brief where you would normally think that the brief is at the intersect of those two diamonds.

It actually ends up following a little bit into the ideation as well because again, having come up at Crispin. A good brief also has a little bit of the creative idea baked into it as well but I feel like I trailed off actually on that one. I got very excited and then I forgot what your original question was.

Adam: Well, I was asking if you met out multiple paths but it sounds like you start with a really broad exploration and you zero in on a single path over time as you’re researching or thinking through it.

Rachel: Yes, I definitely still have like there are ignored paths in the back of my mind with a strategy but again, I feel like I have to be very much more comfortable with letting those go as we go on. Because again, it’s at the at the cutting room floor so I tend to leave some quiet alone.

Adam: You can’t play the what if game on every single project. When you were a designer, were you one of those people that would do, pre-digital when you were designing print and carpet patterns and things, were you one of those designers that was doing hardcore customer research to figure out what world they lived in and create personas either formalized or informal to really understand what would make them react or were you more technically designing and just following process to get to the best solutions you could think of?

Rachel: Well, I think there’s a very– It’s funny because I think there’s a lot of things that I did that were natural, a little bit naturally strategy so like four C’s. I would go out and I’d see what everyone else is doing in the category because you often don’t want to create a color scheme or a pattern necessarily based on anyone else or you want to stand against it. There was one time I think, we tried to make an argument for making the band-aid box red because everything in that category is blue or something like that.

That ends up being like one part of it but two, definitely a lot of user research trying to put in your mind exactly where that person’s being and wayfinding you actually have to sketch out how that person is moving through that space so you’re able to to have that much more clarified.

Adam: Which area do you think is the most in need of empathy? Wayfinding is a place where I always, when I’m lost, I feel like these people had no fucking idea what I was going to be looking for when I was standing at this intersection here.

Rachel: Yes. I feel like wayfinding was definitely the one that had to be the most precise and the most thought through. I think in any part of design like in advertising it’s very easy to be lazy on certain components so it’s easy to think about a logo and design a logo on its own, but thinking about it as part of a larger design system, so how does that carry over into business cards or headers or the website or those things like required quite a bit of systems thinking and some user empathy too because you need to think about where the most important places to a person that this is going to be showing up to make an impression.

Again, I don’t think they taught that necessarily as much in school was much more the quality of the mark, how scalable it was, those things. Definitely, some of those foundational elements tend to.

Adam: When you talk to people that you worked with as a designer, are they surprised that you’re in strategy? I have a feeling not.

Rachel: I don’t talk to enough people that I went to school with but I do think a lot of them did end up naturally transitioning into much more of a UX field than let’s say a branding field. A lot of them now are product designers and UX designers and things like that. I think that’s quite a natural extension and you do end up doing, especially if you work on a product side or brand side on any of these things, you end up doing a lot of the strategy components yourselves too because we’re the only crazy fuckers who have strategy as a title in an advertising agencies or maybe like the McKinzie folks every so often.

But at Google there’s no such thing as a strategist, there’s a UX researcher and a product designer on the team and maybe a program manager, but between the three of them, they’re owning the strategy for what that ends up being.

Adam: I mean–

Rachel: No I don’t– I was just going to say I don’t think anyone’s really surprised, but I do think it’s been also the natural evolution of the business.

Adam: When you said UX and product managers, seeing the shape of strategy today that’s just where people went, a lot of people that were copywriters are now content strategists, and then the designers move towards product and UX. How much do you care if someone’s title is strategist or has some version of strategy in their title? Agencies have been adding strategy talent and strategy titles across the board.

I just came from a talk where somebody was explaining that there should be one in six people in an agency are strategists and I was thinking, “Do we really need one in six people to have the title of strategist, or do you just want everyone to be thinking strategically and get in to the same outputs?”

Rachel: I think that I would much rather the latter, because every great creative, I think is very much a natural strategist at the end of the day too because they’re coming to their own raw insights that makes that creative work, seeing, I think some of the best account people that I’ve ever met are very natural strategists too because they see and plan how everything is going together.

Again, it’s easy for me to not be precious about it, because I’m not a classically trained British planner. To me, like I’ve decided to call myself a strategist and that’s what I’ve become in the process [laughs]. I’m not that precious about it, but I’m sure there’s people out there who might be a bit more.

Adam: That’s true. I guess, if you were born and raised on the discipline of account planning, or brand strategy from the other side of the pond, there’s a different perspective on it then. Maybe I’ll have to find someone and have someone from the UK on the show to correct me on that.

Rachel: Yes [laughs]. All of that being said, I don’t think that anyone can necessarily just be a strategist out of sheer will. There are some characteristics that are common and shared between all strategists. There’s a constant curiosity that absolutely can’t be taught at all, and I think an interest, again, that empathy to being open to other things.

Like, Yes, you can be a very good strategist about the music business, if you love music and you know it like the back of your hand, but there’s a certain– Again, flexibility and empathy that helps put me in the shoes of a Midwestern millennial evangelical mom, just as much as a 50-year-old dude who’s just bought a car as much as like a Gen Z teenager and being able to put myself in those shoes. I think again, it’s a difficult thing to teach. It’s almost inherently known.

Adam: It’s [crosstalk] you can do it or not. You can you can get better at it if you can do it a little bit, but if you can’t do it’s a hard thing to learn.

Rachel: Absolutely.

Adam: All right. Rachel, this was fantastic. Thank you so much for making time. We got started a little bit late. I don’t want to keep you. Thank you very much. Where can people find you? Where are you online and what do you have coming up?

Rachel: Oh my gosh. First off, thank you so much for having me on. It’s always a supreme pleasure to get to chat. If you’re looking for me on the internet I’m pretty much @Rachel Mercer on every single platform. Right now I’m working with the R/GA team to develop a bit of a craft syllabus for strategy, and help us be the next school of thought or training ground for creating connected brands. Hopefully, you’ll see that out in the next few months.

Adam: Love that. That’s awesome. If I could get a sneak peek of that, I would love it.

Rachel: Will do.

Adam: All right. I love it. Thank you again. I really appreciate your time.

Rachel: All right, thanks so much, Adam.

Categories: Podcast