The key to making it as a top strategist, reckons new Deutsch CSO Andrew Dawson, is to have some good stories to tell. Weekend side-projects and off-track adventures push you out of the adland bubble and expand your understanding, leaving you with insights to apply to your projects and yarns to share with clients. And Andrew has a fair few stories of his own. An ill-advised attempt to break into tech (turns out carefully ironed khakis were not a look Andrew was willing to rock), a five month sabbatical round West Africa (where he learned French and explored Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Senegal by motorbike), and that one time he became the very first employee and CCO at high end headphone brand Master & Dynamic. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Andrew… and left feeling the need for some adventure!
LBB> You recently joined Deutsch as CSO – what drew you to the agency? And what vision do you have for it?
AD> Deutsch had always been like the girl next door. I’ve done various freelance projects over the years at Deutsch and always had a blast with the folks at the agency, but had never really considered full time with them. This time around, I could really feel the energy changing, and the invitation to help set a new direction with a great group of partners was incredibly compelling.
In terms of vision, our goal overall is to evolve the model serving our clients so that we can do better work; and how we execute is key. We know expanding our strategic abilities and adding a more robust technology offering will be table stakes. My specific vision with strategy is to transform our offering into more of a consultancy-like offering, with a range from brand planning and campaign strategy to innovation and org design work – allowing us to be a far more robust ‘business partner’ rather than limiting our creative abilities to communications. I’ve already starting hiring folks from start-ups and with consulting in their backgrounds.
LBB> I know it’s only been three months, but what sort of projects have you been working on? Anything that’s been particularly exciting?
AD> Initial projects have been getting up to speed on all clients and really working on structure and process. How the department should function, how to accelerate and utilise all our talent, identify gaps and push existing work and clients as we prepare for pitches with a strong new team. I’ve been working on some innovation projects with a large beverage company that have been amazing, we started with a new liquid and did positioning, packaging, brand strategy and design. It was a blast and has led to other new projects with the company.
LBB> Prior to joining Deutsch, you worked on adidas Originals at Johannes Leonardo helping reposition the brand. What did you learn about marketing to style-savvy young people (I hesitate to use the word ‘millennial’!)?
AD> Originals was an absolute pleasure to work on I must say – some of my all-time favourite clients and work. In terms of style-savvy youngsters, we did some amazing research with whY-Q, who recruits some of the coolest kids around the globe, literally into casual research groups. We had designers, influential streetwear kids, DJs, musicians in key cities around the globe, and they helped us figure out where we needed to fit the brand into culture. It was less about the individuals, and more about figuring out what the role for a streetwear brand is in that culture today; and it’s more about making a contribution and taking creative risks – that is what truly builds their respect and inspires them, showing creative courage as a brand and as a creator.
LBB> You took a five month sabbatical in West Africa! What motivated that?
AD> General burnout, and that I had never extensively travelled solo. I proposed to my wife at 2am the morning before I left to Senegal, so – to a degree – it was the perfect and last time for me to have a youthful travel experience on my own. My motivation to go to West Africa was a matter of strategy to a degree; I wanted it to be a summer climate, somewhere non-western with a language I wanted to learn, and preferably where I could also learn surfing. To top it off, a Swiss friend of my mother was going there, so I cruised over with him and then stayed on after he left a few weeks later. It was an amazing trip.
LBB> On a more general note, how does getting out of the advertising bubble and immersing yourself in a different culture change your perspective when you get back to work?
AD> Getting out of advertising was refreshing and accelerated my learning as a strategist by 1,000 per cent. Having worked at several traditional and digital agencies, I often felt two things: the ability to truly affect a client’s business was limited to receiving assignments versus being given problems and that, and as a result, many agency solutions and ideas were simply too naive to address how businesses really work. That naiveté, once you work more closely with clients as consultants or on your own business, makes obvious a lot of what the agency blames on clients with no creative vision etc. when often the ideas just make no sense for the business.
LBB> You co-founded Master & Dynamic headphones – how did you get involved in that?
AD> I owe that introduction to Richard Kirshenbaum and his then partner Miles Skinner. Richard met an entrepreneur who wanted to get into headphones; he had an agency and they had been speaking to me about helping with strategy. They were able to do branding work, etc. but there was no business vision or plan at that time, so they called me in. I formulated the whitespace, a product architecture and pipeline, and the key product and brand insights so we could start building the company together.
LBB> And did the experience of creating and launching a product give you a new perspective or insight into the business problems of clients and their worries/concerns/experience?
AD> Every single day. There was a point at which I switched from being a consultant on the project to becoming the first employee. I then ended up managing all the agency partners who were essentially my peers, and learned how difficult it is to give great feedback and set great direction with multiple teams while managing the accelerated business demands of a start-up. It’s quite intense and humbling. Being a ‘client’ forever changes your perspective. I think everyone should give it a go at some point.
LBB> How is the role of the strategist evolving?
AD> More than ever, I think the strategist has to be a multifunctional consultant, one who can identify business needs, ranging from perceptual to experiential to cultural, and be able to formulate a brief and set direction for any task. They have to be more aware of a client’s business than ever, as well as how the systems of distribution and sales work along with the consumer path.
LBB> As data becomes an increasingly big part of the industry – what impact has that had on your role?
AD>The more data the better as far as I am concerned. It’s only dangerous when used incorrectly. If you know how to read data and transform it into digestible bits, it can be everyone’s friend. Poorly understood, it can be an incredible source of mediocrity.
LBB> And traditionally, strategy has always come at the beginning of the process, the foundation that work is built on. In the age of data/programmatic and constantly evolving digital projects, do you find you (and your team) are working more dynamically?
AD> I think the pass-along model should have never existed. If a strategist doesn’t stay involved in the work through the end, I think you rarely get strategically sound work. I also tend to evolve the brief throughout the process, constantly adding clarity or rethinking how something is expressed, or creating new frameworks if it helps the team’s work. I try to continue to make the ‘ask’ more specific as the project rolls on if as new information becomes available. Plus, as a strategist, your hit rate is statistically not going to be 100 per cent, if I come up with a better strategy the night after I brief, I redo the whole thing and call a meeting in the morning to see if people are down with a new direction. I have no problem tossing my previously best thinking out the window for something better.
LBB> How did you first get into the industry? Was it something you’d always wanted to do or was it a bit accidental?
AD> I always loved advertising, but never thought it was going to be my career. After I graduated college I thought, I might as well do some informational interviews in advertising. I tried to get into a sizable tech/software company at the time and I think I wasn’t a cultural fit – my khakis had no crease.
LBB> And what advice would you give to any aspiring strategist or planner in their first job in the industry?
AD> Get your hands on as many people’s projects as you possibly can – beg, borrow and steel your way. Don’t worry about being the best strategist, worry about being the fastest and least ego-driven learner, and that will help you be and stay the best. And, make some cool shit on the weekends as a side project. The one or two amazing things you do per year become the stories you tell. Sometimes they are client projects and sometimes they aren’t – just make sure you have a couple of awesome stories to tell every few years.