How to Become a Brand Strategist
As part of our series looking at alternative jobs in design studios, we speak to Marc Solomon, brand strategist at Bulletproof, about how he got to where he is, his day-to-day role and the best and worst parts of working in strategy.
By Sarah Dawood
Design Week: What’s your educational background?
Marc Solomon: I got up to GCSE-level, and did really well, ending up with all As, Bs and a few Cs. As I went into A-levels, I realised that further education wasn’t for me. After a lot of experimentation doing things like driving cars, working on shop floors and in fish-and-chip shops, I managed to land some work experience at an agency called Big Green Door in my twenties, after I took part in some market research for Coca-Cola and then emailed round a load of agencies.
DW: What’s your career journey been so far?
MS: I worked at Big Green Door for five-and-a-half years, starting off by doing work experience in the strategy team, then progressed to junior strategist to strategist to lead strategist. I then wanted a bit of a change. I had been doing a lot of thinking, but I wanted to see my creativity come to life, and see my work on supermarket shelves, billboards and in social media campaigns. I approached a recruiter, who set me up with an interview at Bulletproof, and have now been there as a strategist for a year-and-a-half.
DW: What first got you interested in brand strategy?
MS: The fact that I can’t draw to save my life – but I have a good imagination and am able to problem-solve to get to an answer. I’m quite obsessive with overthinking problems until I get to a solution, it’s how my mind works. I don’t know anyone who sets out to be a brand strategist – it seems to be something people fall into, which is a real shame. But it’s changing.
DW: What does a typical working day look like for you?
MS: My contracted hours are 9am-6pm, but I tend to get in around 8.15am or 8.30am and work until about 6.30pm (on a good day). There’s often work on the weekend – as a strategist, you’ll be constantly thinking. Working in a creative field is a privilege, no matter how stressful it gets.
On any given day, I get in, run through my emails for half an hour or so if I’m lucky, then go straight onto a call with another team, to chat about a client brief. I then spend some time thinking about it and running through methods of tackling it.
I could then have a client meeting and present the first stage of a design project alongside creative directors, which will include research I’ve done around the target consumer. We’d take feedback from the client, then after that meeting, I might spend a few hours planning a brand positioning workshop I’m running the following week.
Towards the end of the day, I could be writing a piece for a client on the latest design trends in a particular category.
DW: What are your main day-to-day tasks?
MS: These are broad. A lot of the job involves writing – it’s about turning conversations into compelling and inspirational stories.
Tasks include writing creative briefs for the design team; creating presentation decks; looking at and analysing visual cues, trends and conventions; making sense of brainstorm sessions with the design team and writing that down in a coherent way; logistics, planning and thinking about where and how you’re going to do a briefing (delivery of presentations can get quite creative); conducting and attending consumer research; analysing consumer research, plus much more.
DW: How creatively challenging is the job?
MS: Brand strategy doesn’t sound like a very creative role – people think it’s quite nerdy, but it’s as creative as design is. People I work with are from all sorts of backgrounds; some studied photography and graphic design, others did marketing or are more digital, having worked in search engine optimisation (SEO).
The job of a strategist in a design studio is underpinning creative thinking with clear logic. As soon as a brief comes in, you might already see the answer, but your job is to pull back and make sense of why that’s the right answer. It’s about identifying a problem, narrowing it down to a solution, then writing a story to justify why you made that creative decision. A good strategist will constantly fluctuate between logic and creativity, left and right brain.
DW: How closely do brand strategists and graphic designers work?
MS: We work hand-in-hand with designers. Once I’ve briefed the creative team on a project, I’ll be checking in throughout the week, talking with them and brainstorming. We’ll be bouncing ideas off each other. We work together to define the problem, come up with the creative and make sure it’s in line with brand strategy.
DW: What strengths do you need to be a brand strategist?
MS: You need to be highly analytical, obsessed with detail and able to make creative leaps naturally. You should be able to take vast amounts of information and cut it down into what it means. You need to be collaborative across different disciplines, but also able to get your head down and grind out a piece of work on your own.
You should be able to write – that doesn’t mean you need to have a degree in English, but you need to understand the personality, tone of voice and character of brands you’re working on. You might need to write on-pack copy, and you’ll be involved in naming and creating brands from scratch.
Every strategist needs to have strong opinions – if you’re not opinionated, you won’t be able to get to an answer. Also, you should be naturally curious and in touch with normal people. You should be the kind of person who can just sit in a Wetherspoon’s pub and observe the world. The ability to understand the punter is important; selling a chocolate bar against competitors is no different from selling fish in a market.
In terms of software, it’s important to understand creative programs, particularly Adobe Suite. This will help you present your work more smoothly.
DW: What are the best parts of your job?
MS: There’s nothing better than seeing an idea come to life – it’s great to walk around a supermarket and think “I did that”. Another beautiful thing about working in the strategy team is that you work across the whole business, you’re a connector — you’re super close with the new business team, the creative team and client services. It’s also brilliant that you get to travel, flying to America and across Europe to pitch ideas to clients. There’s also something great about inspiring the creative team.
DW: What are the worst parts of your job?
MS: The positives far outweigh the negatives – but it is hard work. Thinking about problems and how to overcome them takes up a lot of brain power and space. It can be hard to switch off on weekends and evenings. Also, sometimes it’s so fast-paced that you’ll have only a couple of days to put a brief together, then will have to move onto something else, so you won’t be able to spend as much time on something as you like.
DW: If you were interviewing for a junior strategist, what would you look for?
MS: I’d be looking for someone who is articulate, super curious, slightly obsessive with detail and interested in loads of things. I’d also be looking for someone capable of forming an opinion and moving that on quickly. The ability to talk competently and present confidently, regardless of the seniority level in the room, is also important. You need to be able to stand on your own two feet and convince people that your opinion is the right one.
DW: What advice can you offer people considering a job in brand strategy?
MS: There isn’t really a way you can train to be a strategist – your brain is just wired in a way that means you love both logic and creativity.
If you’re invited in for interview, and you’ve worked in a studio before, bring a piece of work that you’re proud of and talk about it. If you’re completely new to studios, write up a mock brief for a project and present it. Willingness is compelling.
We don’t need to see a 100-page portfolio – we want you to focus in on a project, tell us what the problem was, what your considerations were, and the idea you got to at the end. You could do this in three sentences!
Research as many studios as you can, find the work you love, and write letters to those studios. I would also advise reading into broad subjects like creative strategy, semiotics, visual codes and cues and global design trends. You don’t have to be an expert, but just have an awareness and understanding. This sets you up to have a good conversation.
Always have a clear idea of the studio you’re applying to – look at their work and the brands they’ve worked on. You might be asked about the brands you admire, or think are successful. Show you’re committed, you’ve got drive and, most importantly, that you’re interested. Unlike designers, you won’t have a massive portfolio – you’ve got yourself and your personality, so lean on that.