The Road Map to Brilliance: IPNY’s Andy Semons on the Role of a Strategist recently interviewed Andy Semons, Founding and Strategic Planning Partner at IPNY, a brand-led digital and direct advertising agency

“Understanding what people truly think and feel, how they express themselves and how they make choices, is a joyful thing for me.”

Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you do?

Hmmm…. Where to begin? I guess the first thing you should know about me is that I’m the third generation in my family to be in the advertising business. My grandmother was a copywriter at a time that very few women worked, let alone worked in this business. My dad was a media guy and from my earliest years told nothing but agency stories. I was hooked and wanted to be part of the advertising world from a very young age.

On a daily basis my role morphs from being a psychologist, to architect to data geek to management consultant. My psychology background helps in finding meaningful consumer insights that allow us to understand our audiences both rationally and emotionally. I turn those insights into strong creative blueprints and help the creative teams nurture their ideas. And most importantly I design research tracking and optimization programs that make sure our work is doing what it’s intended to do.

That’s what’s expected of a planner. But I also take it a step further and help our clients with real business planning. Anything from marketing plans, staffing plans, procedural governance – whatever they need assistance with.

That’s the day job. By night, I’m a partner and part-owner of IPNY. And like all of my partners, I wear a management hat too. I help define our vision and growth goals, develop new business and sweat the details of ownership right alongside everyone else.

What did you do before your current role and what led you to where you are now?

My background as a strategist is eclectic, to say the least. I’ve been at big brand agencies, digital agencies, direct agencies, PR firms, political think tanks and research firms. Before starting IPNY I was actually working as a management consultant, helping Fortune 500 companies restructure their in-house marketing services department.

Each new job brought its own challenges. Seniority at a big agency meant that I had to manage big departments and a lot of people, leaving little opportunity to do the fun work that made me happy. Starting an agency from scratch gave me the opportunity to get my hands dirty again. All of the partners at IPNY work in a very hands-on way. And we love it.

How would you define the role of a strategist?

A strategist’s job is to provide the team with everything they need to get to great work, plain and simple. Understanding of the marketplace. The competitive framework. The behaviors, thoughts and feelings of the consumer. The roadmap which will lead to brilliant creative and hopefully change the face of the category. And the constant marketplace feedback needed to optimize, measure and plan for the future once a campaign is up and running. Beyond that, a strategist is instrumental in selling both the agency POV and creative work to clients. Good strategists partner well with their creative teams, become a sounding board for the development of creative ideas and help build lasting relationships that can impact client business.

If you had to pick one thing, what would you say you enjoy most about strategy?

Without a doubt, the “aha” moment is when you uncover the big idea that will drive consumer behavior and build a client’s business – this gives me the greatest adrenaline rush. Understanding what people truly think and feel, how they express themselves and how they make choices, is a joyful thing for me. Over the course of my career I’ve uncovered interesting insights that guide human behavior in categories as complex as banking or mundane as packaged goods, but I’ve also gained tremendous understanding of beliefs and behaviors in sensitive areas related to health such as illness, caregiving, and aging, along with why people donate to charities and political campaigns. I’m always amazed by how much there is to still learn in my profession.

What’s the most challenging aspect of the job?

For me it is and has always been time. Strategists kick-start the whole creative process. That means we need to engage first – before anyone else. And given the ever–accelerating pace of client deadlines we have little time to waste. Our insight gathering, observations, primary and secondary research and most importantly our analysis all needs to be done quickly so the creative team can get to work developing their ideas. So, the challenge is to be as inspirational as possible and as do it as quickly as possible.

Has the role of a strategist been evolving within the industry?

Yes it has. Brand agencies always held strategists accountable for big consumer ideas that fueled campaigns and were rooted in consumer beliefs. Strategists were responsible for briefs, insights and research – that was pretty much it.

But over the years as digital and direct planning has come to the forefront, strategists have become responsible for far more than brand ideas.

Customer journeys, which now have become the responsibility of strategists, inform a lot of the process, giving the opportunity to mine insights for more “direct” initiatives such as CRM planning. Planners define personas for digital planning and have taken over the role of channel planning, which can help media departments deliver on the “right target, right message, right channel, right moment” imperative. It’s a much bigger field now than it was when I first started out.

For someone entering the industry that wants to move into the strategy/planning space, what steps should they take?

While there are many aspects of planning or strategy one can be involved in, it all comes down to having a fundamental interest in human behavior. If you’re not interested in how people think, what they say and what they do, then strategy or planning may not be right for you. Also, I can’t stress enough the importance of keeping up with popular culture. And that includes the desire to experience cultures other than your own. One of my favorite questions to ask a job candidate (of any age) is “if you didn’t need to have a job right now and could do anything you want, how would you spend your time?” I look for answers that express interest in travel, exploring foreign culture, art, music or some other kind of scholarly pursuit. My experience tells me that people with broad interests are more likely to be successful planners – it gives them a well of insight and understanding that others don’t have. And that’s what leads to making great work. Beyond that, be persistent. Show your passion, have a point of view and be a good listener.

Do you have a dream account or brand you’d like to work on? Which and Why?

Lately I’ve been thinking it would be fun to work on advocacy issues. Things that affect public welfare like education, health, the environment or even something like gun control. It would be wonderful to have the opportunity to use my marketing skills and expertise to change how people think on grass roots issues. Yeah, I‘d like that a lot…