Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable

To take one step is courageous;
to stay on the path day after day,
choosing the unknown, and facing
yet another fear, that is nothing
short of grace. 

—Excerpt from Sangha, by Danna Faulds¹


Believe it or not, about 15 years and 30 pounds ago, I used to run marathons. Yes, the 26.2 mile kind of marathons. The crucial part of training for marathons is the weekly long run. Each week over the course of a 4 month training period, you add one more mile to your long run than you ran the previous week. Near the end of your preparation for the race, you’ll probably have logged three runs of 20 miles or more. The rationale of this type of training—or madness, depending on your point of view—is getting your body used to being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. After all, there’s really no way to avoid being uncomfortable at some point during an endurance race that covers 26 miles.

Two cases in point. During my first marathon in the Fox Valley, we were treated to 40 degree temperatures and a 20 mph tailwind for the first 18 miles of the course. At mile 18 we turned back into that cold wind, at which point my entire body immediately cramped up—with eight miles to go. Uncomfortable is not the word. Excruciating and soul-destroying come to mind. But I eventually finished the race and was given the customary finisher’s thermal foil sheet, medal, and long-sleeve t-shirt. Two years later at the 1996 Grandma’s marathon, I absolutely cruised for 25 miles, until I hit a complete power outage. But with only 8 minutes of exertion left, I knew I could easily gut out those last moments of discomfort to get my finisher’s medal.

Uncomfortable circa 1996

Now that I’m older, I run much shorter distances, but I’m still faced with many days when it just feels flat out uncomfortable. I have to actively remind myself in those instances that eventually this feeling will pass, and I’ll be better conditioned because of it.

So what does this have to do with what we usually write about on this blog? Okay, confession time. The last three years have been the most uncomfortable period of my professional career. Allow me explain.

In late 2008, I decided I had enough with advertising. I had done everything I wanted to do. Got in all the important award annuals, won multiple best of shows, and worked in Minneapolis for an agency I had always admired. But I didn’t love what I did anymore. In fact, it had become boring and tedious. Campaign after campaign after campaign. Telling clients we actually affected their business, but what we really did was just delivered was marketing materials. Great ads with great thinking, but in the end they were ads.

There were still things I liked about my profession. I loved design, more so than ever. I had discovered a design blog called Grain Edit, and I started tinkering with the simple “mod-style” of illustration that Charley Harper and Saul Bass pioneered, and that shops like Invisible Creature carry on today. I loved thinking and strategy—I just didn’t want that freedom of thought to be limited to ads. I had gotten my first taste of digital, and loved all the moving parts, and the need for collaboration that was talked about often but rarely put in practice at traditional shops. I had an idea for a creative school for special needs kids. I had ideas for businesses. And I really liked this thing called social media. But what was I going to do with all that?

With no finish line in sight, I pushed myself to be uncomfortable. I admitted what I didn’t know. I was willing to learn, in exchange for sharing the valuable things I did know. And I was willing to give up a position of respect in an industry that I had worked in for over twenty years, in exchange for something unknown, for psychologically starting over. There are lyrics from an old Yes song that say “don’t surround yourself with yourself,” and that’s basically what I did. All I had was experience, guile and my work ethic.

I was really good at making stuff like this. And then I walked away. (sorta)

Nothing would come easy. I moved back to Milwaukee from the Twin Cities (something I swore I would never do—heh) to work for Fullhouse, which at the time was a fast growing digital shop. It appeared to be a good match. They were interested in my experience developing creative and working on brand strategy. I was interested in taking that and applying it to digital, and learning as much as I could about digital, social, and technology.

I tell this story often. Having been spoiled by some of the strategic and creative minds I had worked with while in Minneapolis, I doubted I would find that back in Milwaukee. Call it snobbery, but when you work with some of the best, your expectations are forever changed. On my first day at Fullhouse, I was put in the third floor conference room with @deziner. I remember 15 minutes into that meeting I caught myself wondering about her: “What on earth are you doing here?” She belonged in New York or Minneapolis or London. I knew in a 30 minute meeting that Cindi Thomas was someone I wanted to work with and learn from for a very long time. I got the chance to work with a lot of other really smart people there as well. Perhaps some of you have heard of guy named @augieray who went onto Forrestor, and is now VP of Social Media at USAA. There was also @cullenob, still one of the most driven professionals I have ever met, and the wicked smart digital strategist @gkalantzis. I’m not sure what was more amazing about James Newell—his front-end development skills, or his ability to remain so centered with all the talent and intellect he possessed. I often commented it was a little bit like working at NASA in the late 60s. There was a similar attitude of just figuring out how to do things.

If you haven’t heard, things did not work out at Fullhouse. Ironically, ownership could not get comfortable with being uncomfortable at a time when the industry landscape was changing for everyone. Twelve months after I started, Cindi and I along with Andy Wright, left to start Translator. Within the span of just over a year, I was not only back in Milwaukee, but I was back to being involved in a startup agency. Add to that I felt a bit like an insect in mid-metamorphosis. I was completely out of traditional, but still not embraced by digital.

Translator got off to an unexpected slow start—a large local client that promised to bankroll our first year if we left Fullhouse, backed out after we quit. This was financially devastating to the three of us, to say the least. (See mile 18 of Fox Valley marathon above). The immediate setback challenged why we had started the agency in the first place. Was it the promise of money, or our belief system?  In a variety of rather surprising situations, my abilities were second guessed. This led to a stunning loss of self-confidence, something I hadn’t experienced in over 15 years. After only five months, we went through a partnership change at the agency. This contributed to us losing control over the product idea Translator had created—Meet-Meme.

When work finally did start to come in, it wasn’t a trickle, it was a flood. The zero to 120 mph pace led to more issues. I was left thinking, maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I’m too old for all of this. Maybe I can’t change.

It was all extremely uncomfortable.

But at the same time, progress was also being made. Through our former Fullhouse colleague (and all-around good guy) Micah Eberman, Cindi and I got a chance to work on a huge project for R/GA, an agency we both greatly admire. The work we did was extremely well-received, and it provided validation for the type of thinking the two of us had been collaborating on since we first met at Fullhouse. That style of thinking—what I would describe as a mash-up of the Diageo brand essence wheel, user-based behavioral research, and creative storytelling—is really the key to our current success. It results in complete stakeholder buy-in at the highest levels, and is what continues to attract new clients to Translator.

polish moon

Mod-style illustration and packaging hits the shelves soon.

We started to have success. My confidence came back. Not only in myself, but in delivering on the vision that Cindi and I had for what it meant to be a modern “agency.” We executed in what we believed in, even if that was outside the defined norms of what it is to be an agency. The compliments we receive from our clients are not ordinary. “You took what was in our heads and finally made it clear and actionable.”

Earlier this year, we were fortunate to be recommended to Brendon Thomas, who had an idea for a crowd-powered music booking platform. Shindig is about to launch in beta, and today we are closing on first round funding (w00t!). The hard lessons we learned on the first product partnership didn’t stop us from trying again. This time around the partnership was built upon mutual respect, and the experience has been vastly—and pleasantly—different.

We’re funded. Dig it.

My old ad colleagues ask me what Translator does, and when I explain it to them (without getting into deliverables), they say “I still don’t get what you do.” And that’s okay. We’re not defined by our work. We’re defined by how we think. Our clients—who are often C-level or company founders, are drawn to that and like it that way. Our approach to idea architecture and experience design is focused on transforming their entire business—not just their marketing.

In addition to morning lab sessions, we started the Translator XSMKE series. Rather than start or join yet another local committee to try promote creativity, we just decided to do our own thing. So far we’ve put on 5 events this year, including a live performance for the launch of Nineteen Thirteen’s first EP, a screening of the documentary Miss Representation, and a live staging of The 3six5 with @LenKendall. We’re interested in promoting and cross-pollinating all forms of creativity, in art, music and technology. It has nothing to do with being a typical agency—and everything to do with being us.

It’s often said about marathoners and professional endurance athletes that there’s no talent gap between winners and losers; rather, it’s the mental trait of not accepting your limits that decides who wins. Whether it’s growth, progress, innovation, change, none of it comes without a price. It’s human nature to stay away from things we don’t think we can pull off. Failure is embarrassing. And so we stick to doing what we know how to do. It’s safer that way.

Not that long ago, I seriously thought my best days were behind me. This weekend, I will turn 50 years old and I am here to say I survived being uncomfortable. I got through it, and I love what I do again. I’m better now than I was at 40, plus I can do a lot more things I never thought I could do. And what’s best, is that I especially love the people I work with everyday at a single long table we all gather around at Translator—Cindi Thomas, Kirsten Corbell, and Ben Leisch.

Yes, some days are still uncomfortable. That’s part of growth. As with running, I try to remind myself to breathe, ask myself why it’s uncomfortable, and remember that I am on the path day after day for a reason. When I stick to this the sky is the limit, and there’s never any finish line.

I’d love to hear if you have a similar story, or maybe if you’re going through the trials that come with being uncomfortable.


¹Special thanks to my Kripalu Yoga instructor Heather Burkart for reading this during class on the night of November 2, 2011. Roughly translated, Sangha means a community with common goal, vision or purpose.

As @deziner has taught me, there are no coincidences. None.

Answers Not Needed

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend the pilot session of the “SisU Bootcamp: Your New Mission in the Sisterhood of Success.” The event was ran by the [email protected] and the entire session was amazingly beneficial. But one activity stood out for the applicable lessons it taught.

We ran “forums” in groups of 4. One person presented a problem for an uninterrupted 5 minutes, while the other 3 group members listened. At the end of the alloted time, each of the 3 forum members had 3 minutes to respond to the problem shared. The groups were supposed to wait for the timers to move ahead from one step to another, but being the overacheivers they were in the room, many moved right into the response step without waiting for their timers. Good thing we all did, because here is where the real lessons exposed themselves.

Are answers really the answer?

When the presenter’s 5 minutes were up we were directed on what our response could/could not be. This was not an opportunity for us to advise. Our role was not to direct how to solve the problem. “We all have a mother, we don’t need another one” was our directive. (Absolutely no disrespect to mothers out there, but of course we all knew what she meant!) Instead, our role as forum members was to share “In my experience…” To pull from our own lives and engagements and share those rather than prescribe a solution. That directive changed everything.

We changed direction and readjusted our conversations. As we recapped the experience at the end of the activity, the impact of that one refocus was revealed. Those that had moved ahead, all expressed that their immediate response to someone’s problem was to advise them on how to solve the problem. Every one of us felt that to be helpful and make a difference for the person sharing, we had to tell them how to fix the problem. When the nature of the conversation switched to sharing personal experience, the atmosphere and impact of the conversation was dramatically changed, for the responder and the presenters as well. Sharing your own experience forced a level of connection and empathy merely telling someone how to fix a problem could never do. We were forced to seek the underlying aspects of a challenge shared, not the surface picture of it. It personalized the conversation which allowed for more open discussion, and trust, between parties. And the presenters walked away with not only details and ideas on how to approach their challenge, but that they weren’t alone in dealing with it, which made the problem seem much less personal and more digestible.

I couldn’t help but think of the application of this lesson on how we conduct ourselves with those we are responsible for engaging with in our businesses. So often we approach our discussions and work with others from the “let me tell you what to do, that is what you hired me to do” mentality. And while ultimately we all need to deliver on that, what would be different if we changed our dialogs, our approaches to the work we do to solve those problems, to utilizing this model? What if most of our exchanges were based in an exchange of experiences that require empathy, understanding and leveling rather than Q&A?

The lesson I took away was that truly addressing a challenge doesn’t simply require an answer. Being told an answer requires a leap of faith that it will work. But a related solution inherently brings along a validation and why it will work. It is grounded in similar, sharable experiences and addresses more than surface commonalities.

Try it. Next time you sit down to design, to address a customer complaint, to talk with a co-worker, to write a proposal, start the conversation with “In my experience…” See if it changes your thought process, your approach to the work or answer. But most importantly, pay attention to what gets lost. What is taken out of the equation when we lead with empathy rather than expertise? I’d be interested to hear.

Note: If you aren’t familiar with The Hot Mommas Project, you should really check it out. It is worth it, they are doing some really good work.

Dear Apple, What Happened?

I am an Apple superfan, I’ll own that. It takes a lot for me to admit that the mothership can do any wrong, even when they do. But I have to admit, the magic UX/UI team over at Apple seem to have missed the mark regarding the keyboard on the iPad.

iPhone vs iPad

Functional usage, not merely consistency, drives viability of a design.

Now, I have not conducted any formal, (or informal for that matter) research to support my stance here, but it seems to me that the keypad or keyboard that migrated from the iPhone interface to the iPad has been a point of disappointment for users. I was intrigued by this, so I spent a little more time with apps and activities that required data entry to see what the issues were. It seemed obvious why the two keyboards were the same; familiarity of process and UI eliminate barriers to usage, given learned and familiar visual and functional experience. It’s a cornerstone of UI design. So why does it seem the same keyboard on these two different devices doesn’t work?

Well, I think in this case, size does matter. Now, now… don’t go there. But do think about how the simple increase in real estate and pixel size of the same keyboard changes the utilization of it. Typing on our phones is primarily done with single fingers or thumbs. The size of the screen doesn’t allow for much else. And while the keyboard structure follows suit of its offline predecessor, the constraints of size forced us to learn a new input mechanism. We reverted back to pre-typing class days and to hunting and pecking with 2 fingers. Brilliant.

Fast forward now to the iPad. The keyboard is the same in all aspects except size. We expect to use it in the same manner, but the size of the keyboard doesn’t support our primary, learned mode of use. It’s too big to use our thumbs. In fact this simple increase in size reverts our usage tendencies yet again, but this time to that of our offline keyboards. You would think this would be an easy transition, since it is back to something we already know, right? But not exactly. While the size makes us default to our learned typing skills, the experience of the flat screen vs. physical keys plays a big role in changing the experience. A change big enough that it becomes more of a frustration than an easy, familiar experience. For part of our traditional use of offline keyboards relies on the tactile feedback we get by pushing of keys. There’s no such feedback when using the iPad keyboard. Couple that with trying to use our learned muscle movements of typing on a keyboard whose key placement is not in synch with the offline tool we learned on. Result: It’s clunky and frustrating and uncomfortable.

Now, will we adapt to new modes of input on the iPad keyboard? Yes. Just like we did to typing words through our number keys on our mobile phones, and eventually a flat screen. The point being though, it seems so odd that a core component of the interface, and an important interaction method such as the keyboard, appears to have been simply lifted and replicated from one device to another, with apparently little attention. I think it is a good lesson for those involved in all aspects of digital design. We can’t not question what may appear to be even the most elemental interactions when implementing them across platforms, devices or experiences. That’s why best practices must always be leaned on with a bit of caution. Sometimes it’s just not that simple.

So dear Apple, I am still a superfan. And perhaps this perceived oversight was actually a calculated brilliant plan. I will never know. But I thank you for teaching me a valuable lesson about the design of experiences. You are good. :)

A site visitor’s plea

Perhaps this post may be a little to close to @MarkFairbanks rant post about ads before ads, but I just must. Why? Because this is ridiculous.

Seriously. Stop with the “Do you really want to leave this page?” popups. Honestly. Really. Just stop.

We’ve all seen them, right? You click a link and there it is. You pay attention becasue they are designed to look like warnings, and well, who doesn’t pay attention to warnings? I mean, ok. I guess I can appreciate the sentiment behind the warning. I mean, I’m an eternal optimist and can postulate that you are really trying to look out for me. I can hear the conversation behind the closed doors. The debates about “well, let’s circumvent user error… because honestly  anyone trying to leave our site just doesn’t make sense. And besides, you know, we might as well try one last time to give them the opportunity to continue listening to us.” Thank you for your concern and focus on user needs. But at that moment, I need to go to another site. Respect that please. If you are offering content that is relevant to me, I will return, I promise. It’s not like leaving your site in that moment means I’m mad at you. Maybe I just need to refill my wine glass, or let the dog outside (if I had a dog). Stop being clingy and desperate. It’s very unbecoming. Trust me. Find a little posture, will you?

I am one of 14 bazillion people in the world on the internet. It most likely doesn’t matter when I say this, but if you jump in my way when I am walking out the door, I will not return. I’m a big girl. I know when I click on a link or type in a new URL. I can’t remember the last time I “accidentally” left a site.

If I ask nicely and say please, can we promise not to do this anymore? Because I’d really hate to end a relationship on such a tactical technicality. But I will.

So… please?

Thank you.

The door is wide open. Where’s my iPhone?

On a recent evening I had a very scary, yet very enlightening experience arriving at my house after being away for a few hours. Before I get to the story of what happened, let me share the summation of my epiphany:

The deep integration of, and reliance upon, technology and digital engagements is being constantly overlooked, and grossly underestimated.

I know that sounds silly. I mean, we’re bombarded with stories of the importance of digital every day. Oh sure, we read about the number of people who own iPhones and Blackberries. Statistic after statistic is shared and devoured regarding the adoption of this social platform, or the prevalence of that given technology. The whos, the whats, and even on occasion the whys of this world are widespread and assumingly comprehended, weighed and applied to bigger and better strategies for living in the digital age. But I challenge that we, those of us that consume those statistics with fervor, are missing a level of understanding of what is really going on. Just how ingrained these digital touch points are becoming, if not have become, in and to our daily lives.

Here’s where this fateful evening’s story comes in.

Underutilized as weapon of choice: the iPhone.

I arrived home from a night out with my family at AJBombers for dinner. (What? Me at Bombers? Noooo… heh.) When my boys and I walked in, I immediately noticed that my back porch patio door was wide open – both doors. Initial reaction: panic. First fear: is someone in the house? Single coherent thought: Where’s my iPhone? I needed to canvas the house, check all the nooks and crannies to make sure no one was in the house, and unsure that it was us, not someone else that had opened that door. Task accomplished, iPhone in hand.


I didn’t reach for a baseball bat, or a weapon of any sort to protect myself in case I did happen to bump into someone that should not be there. In fact, that option didn’t even cross my mind till much later, when it actually dawned on me that I reached for my iPhone in the situation. Why on earth was that? Upon further personal examination, I came to this conclusion: it is my default. If I need anything, I reach for my phone, or my laptop. And this tendency is now ingrained; not even a conscious thought.

Our reliance on digital is ever increasing, and  the ease and level at which it is integrated into our core default tendencies is deepening. The reason? We are getting better and better at designing digital experiences to be a natural extension of our inclinations. And conversely, our digital experiences are shaping those inclinations. It’s an interdependent relationship, push and pull. The line between non-digital and digital is quickly not only blurring, but being erased. Luckily for us, the result is synergy.

But what does this mean? It means we have to pay attention to not just what we do in the digital realm, but how it works with all the others. We have to think beyond our projects and look at how what we are designing and creating is intermingling with how people act, and think and behave. And it also means that because of this interdependency the spheres of influence and expectations are always evolving. What we knew about how our friends think and engage and act in the digital space will change from interaction to interaction, and from project to project. Best practices in UI may not cut it as a guideline anymore. We’re shaping a species.

Let’s just hope this new world doesn’t involve a smoke monster though. I would hate for @MarkFairbanks to be right.


Running, digital, and running a digital agency

Sara Santiago wrote a great little post (a love letter, she calls it) last week about dailymile. For those not familiar with dailymile, it’s essentially an unbranded descendant of the groundbreaking Nike+ site created by R/GA a few years back. dailymile has taken the concept a bit further, allowing not only runners, but anyone actively training (cycling, swimming, strength-training) the ability to track their efforts and share it with other members of the community.

“Methinks that the moment my legs began to move,
my thoughts began to flow.”  ~Henry David Thoreau

It’s amazing how well digital has connected the dots for runners, but that’s always a matter of identifying key user insights. Based on my own personal experience, there are a couple of givens about runners. First of all, the majority of us are fanatics. Why else would anyone go out and run all those brutally monotonous miles? Runners are also obsessive (no surprise) about keeping track of personal progress. The mileage. The pace. How did today feel? All those endless miles, all those hills, all those repeats become a body of work. They become a story of individual growth, an epic on a personal level. They are the equivalent of the most timeless of stories: the quest.

Fig. 1: An off-line running widget, circa 1996

The beauty of digital is that it not only allows for users to tell their own story, but it provides tools to make their pursuits easier. Read this great post by Gerry McGovern which deftly states the need to focus on tasks versus goals in experience design. dailymile understands users have a goal—an upcoming race, weight loss, fitness—it’s why they joined in the first place. They make it easy for you to perform some of the tasks needed to accomplish those goals. Back in the day when I was training and running in marathons, I spent a fair amount of time in the car mapping routes and mileage. See, I had this off-line widget called an odometer. Today, digital tools make this task ridiculously quick and easy. dailymile has a nifty utilitarian tool that allows you to map and save routes. What used to take upwards of 30 minutes driving around (and burning gasoline) in your car, can now be accomplished in a couple of minutes in front of your laptop. I now have a dozen saved routes, and add variations regularly.

But tools are only one part of the story. The daily experience of running is very often solitary—I compare it to a secular monasticism. Just do it after all is essentially a zen mantra. There is a rhythm to the endless miles that produces an inner meditative calm, and a certain cleansing that accompanies the sweat. (Okay, I realize maybe only runners will appreciate this.) But anyone who is a runner will recognize that sites like Nike+ and dailymile have provided a digital monastery for us. It is here where the temporal tribe congregates to provide support and encouragement, as well as to faithfully document their daily efforts. Many days the only motivation to get you out the door is the desire to perform the final act of documenting the distance covered. To say, “Yes, I ran.” Now add to that the benefit of a fellow runner’s pat on the back, and it’s no wonder membership is growing.

Rear view of a young woman running up a curvy dirt road in the rain.

Training for a 10k? Meditative stress release? Mea culpa for a lunchtime burrito?

Faith is something that is essential to a runner. Some days are effortless. Some days feel like drudgery. And other days are down right excruciating. In fact, one can experience all of these feelings in a single 5 mile run. That, in part, is the draw. The overcoming of adversity. The sticking with it when your rational brain tells you to quit. The parallel between this and running a business is noteworthy. Some days are exhilarating. Other days the work piles up and you wonder how it will all get done. And some days, you question the sanity of ever wanting to start your own business in the first place.

Ask yourself: “Can I give more?” The answer is usually: “Yes.”
~Paul Tergat, Kenyan professional marathoner

There’s a lot of great philosophy around the pursuit of running. The philosophers go by the name of Prefontaine, Sheehan, Bowerman and Salazar. Whether it’s a desire to regain a previous level of fitness, the renewed obsession of posting a few miles on dailymile, or the perspective the road provides for dealing with the trials of business ownership, I find myself running a lot more these days. I’m older, slower, and I stop to stretch more often. But nonetheless, I’m out on the road once again to see if I can give a little bit more.

The day that strategy died

Last week I sat listening to a sales pitch. The subject: document handling. The young woman giving the sales pitch had all the prerequisites: friendly, articulate, earnest (great shoes, too). But something unnerved me. Throughout her spiel, she kept using the term strategic to describe how her company approached document handling versus the competition. And all I could think was, if strategic is used to sell document handling, what meaning does it have left anymore?

When the copier salesperson becomes a document strategist, we’ve got trouble in River City.

In all fairness, maybe a document handling company’s approach can be strategic. As a start-up, we’re not in the position to buy a strategic solution, so I was naturally a bit detached. I guess buying a copier, laser printer, scanner, and phone system separately would be considered tactical. But does buying them all from one source make it more of a strategic purchase? So while sitting there in my chair, sipping ice coffee and nodding attentively, I had a brief out of body experience. I found myself thinking: Is this what the majority of the digital industry has started to sound like? Liberally sprinkling the words “strategy” and “strategic” like salt on cured meat because consultants have told them this is what clients are looking for? Mouthing the words, but with little comprehension of what they mean? Or the talent and commitment it takes to truly back it up?

Just sprinkle the word “strategy” liberally to preserve your client relationships.

It all points back to human behavior—which of course, drives business behavior. If Forrester, or a consultant, or a book in the airport bookstore tells you your clients want something, then all you have to do it is say it like you mean it, and <poof> it becomes reality. If I move aside the cobwebs in my brain, I remember a time when I was employed in traditional advertising. Suddenly, branding was what clients wanted. And in Pavlovian fashion, that is what we started saying in capabilities presentations, whether we understood it or not.  Hell, we were slapping print ads and storyboards on a wall in front of them. If this was now blessed as branding, so be it. It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially when it involves chasing dollars or protecting existing business. Our inclination is to stretch and say we can do things we either can’t, don’t completely understand, or at least have very little experience doing. But for those of us who do have experience thinking and doing work that’s strategic, what happens when the word becomes devalued? Not only by direct competitors in our industry, but by anyone believing it carries a competitive advantage? I passed a truck for a freight company on the freeway yesterday that listed three services (with some vague strategerie attached to them) and the word SOLUTIONS in type that was two feet tall. “10-4 good buddy, we got ourselves a strategic convoy.” Someone help me. Please.

“Meow, meow, meow.” Translated: “We beg of you, don’t say the S word.”

So what, you may ask, is my definition of strategic when it is applied to digital? I would describe it as this:

  • A fundamental understanding of a client’s vertical and business objectives
  • Complete immersion in—and appreciation of—brand essence, positioning and messaging
  • Understanding of competitive landscape driving insight into opportunities, threats and risk
  • User and vertical centered research which provide insight into user behavior, needs and solutions
  • Establishment of a clearly defined measurement plan including goals/KPIs, baseline metrics, conversion points, and conversion forecasts
  • A comprehensive experience brief that demands exploration of all possible on-line (and off-line) touchpoints, the solutions that make them possible, how the application of recommended solutions will fulfill a client goal, how solutions align to audience/market insights to drive results, and how solutions align to goals/KPIs for measurement
  • Uncompromising experience design that begins with search, but encompasses a holistic approach to overall digital marketing objectives based on insights gained
  • Iterative development fueled by sustained program management and analytics insight

That, to me, is what strategic means. If you hear the word used and it is not supported by this, it is something less than strategic. Buyer beware: a soothing sales pitch can easily turn strategy into a box that gets checked without any deeper investigation. The trouble is there are a lot more salesman out there than there are great strategists. Just as much as digital agencies want to say strategic, clients often are too eager to want to hear the word said by them.

But strategy is not talk. Strategy is a discipline. It is a belief system. It takes a fundamental understanding of what it actually is, how it works, and why it works. For every Razorfish or Digitas, there are countless other digital shops now adding “strategic” as an adjective to how they approach their work. Some will even bring strategists into their fold, a tactic that generally fails, largely because bringing strategic thinkers into cultures that have been built on execution and technology is a difficult proposition.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some brilliant strategists, both traditional and digital. I get to work with @deziner everyday. Then there are those I have worked with including @gkalantzis, @faithjames, and @jSmerick. And there’s one I still would like to work with @suespaight, but I have to settle for Twitter and the occasional cocktail with her. In the hands of these people, strategy will never be dead. It’s just that for the time being, the meaning has been diminished for me. Which leads to my current state of second-guessing: how often should the S word be used in front of a client? Because suddenly I fear that every time the word strategic is used, somewhere a kitten dies.

Your point-of-view, as always, is welcome below.