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Hello! So this week was a little rollercoaster of ups and downs, between big-ass campaign report presentations, working out 2020 things for clients, and then a slower pace to get some unstructured thinking time done (but not too much, because that can mess you up). Hope you've all been well? I feel like I don't ask this enough. Right, on with the show.
My interview this month is with Zoe Scaman, Founder of Bodacious. We talk about divorcing strategy from advertising, the problems created by agency overheads, diversified business models and learning to take better care of ourselves. You can follow Zoe on Twitter.

How did you get to where you are today?
It’s been a long and winding road, but I guess the key theme has been that I’ve always avoided following the standardised path and doing things in the way they ‘should’ be done. It’s a rebellious streak that started strong and has mellowed a bit with age, but it’s been a continuous driver of how I approach everything - life, work etc.

I didn’t go to University, I decided to ‘rebel against the system’ and spent my A-Level exam period lying on a beach in Greece rather than sitting the exams themselves. So when I came back from my six month season, I answered an ad in a local paper for an account executive position (£11k a year!) and found myself at a search marketing agency in the very early days of Google and pay per click. It was luck really, right place and right time. They’d developed technology that allowed advertisers to actually track what happened on their websites following a PPC ad click and back then, it was considered groundbreaking. It allowed me to travel up to London and to white label it as a solution for bigger agencies, which opened my eyes to the much bigger world of advertising.

I’d never considered it as a career option or even really understood what it was, but it was a time of ‘bright lights, big city’ and lots of transformation and excitement and so I got swept away with it all and found myself working in a digital ad agency just behind Carnaby Street at the ripe of old age of 21.

About a year later I upped and moved to Sydney, having never been there before in my life (told you, rebellious) and that was where my career really took off. I began at MediaCom as a distinctly average/terrible account director, but luckily for me, the new CEO came along, told me I was dreadful at people management (in my defence I was 22 and had no emotional maturity whatsoever) and that he thought strategy might be the best path. I had no idea what it was but if it meant I could keep my visa and stay in Sydney, I was willing to do anything.

But again, the rebellion kicked in and rather than follow a set-out path to move up the ladder in the world of media strategy, I bolted to become one of the founding team of Australia’s first social media agency. I was told I was crazy and that it was a dreadful career move, but I loved it. Nine months later, the company folded and I also lost my visa, but I bashed the door down at Naked Communications and they finally let me in. Whilst there I had the time of my life, worked on Share A Coke and met an incredible bunch of humans who I’m still lucky enough to call friends today. That was my real introduction into the world of strategic thinking and rather than try to quash my rebellious nature, they encouraged it and allowed it the flourish. To this day, that place is still my spiritual home. 

Now let’s speed up a bit or we’ll be here all day…

I left Naked after I saw it starting to crumble (mergers, holding company politics), moved to Universal McCann for a bit. Moved back to London, worked at Glue/Isobar and then moved to London Strategy Unit, where I realised that ‘strategy’ was so much more than advertising – it could and should apply to organisational dynamics, new product development, ways of working, new business models and more. That was the next turning point. Suddenly advertising strategy felt small, restricted and unbelievably myopic as a path to pursue. I wanted bigger, bolder and to be entirely unconstrained.

I went freelance. Worked at Adidas, Droga5 and a few others, then I found myself at Undercurrent in New York, at the vanguard of organisational design and thinking, which was unlike anything I’d seen before. Again, I’d had to bash their door down for six months, but eventually they let me in (persistence is a virtue). Once there I had major imposter syndrome and had no idea what I was doing, but I was determined to learn and to soak up all the knowledge I could and it was a lot.

Sadly, just like I’d had to watch Naked fall from grace, it happened to Undercurrent too and from one day to the next, the company went under. So back to freelancing, I go with a far more rounded view of the world and what strategy can and should be applied to. I ended up at Droga5 where I stayed for the better part of two years – sometimes full time, sometimes part time (i.e. when I buggered off to Ethiopia to try my hand at an international development project for Nike Foundation/Girl Effect – always pushing myself out of my comfort zone). 

And when I left Droga5, I felt another option bubbling under the surface. I could freelance again, but to what end? To do projects that I couldn’t define in order to build other people’s businesses? No, thank you. And so, Bodacious was born. (Though I did sit on it for six months due to crippling self-doubt and panic that it just wouldn’t work). For me, Bodacious is the encapsulation of all of this experience – work experience, life experience and the realisation that I just don’t fit comfortably anywhere. So the only real option for me was to build something around myself and ‘swiss army knife’ skills.

So far, I’ve been incredibly lucky and haven’t stopped since March last year having been inundated with projects. And they’re fascinating, because they’re complex and multi-faceted and require a mix of everything I know and some aspects I don’t. It’s not the kind of work that I’d find in an ad agency or a management consultancy, because their work tends to be more defined. Mine isn’t and I love it. So fingers crossed it continues in this vein. 

What’s the philosophy behind Bodacious?
Embracing mess and uncertainty and applying strategy problem-solving skills at the broadest possible level. People often ask me to define myself – are you an ad agency, a consultancy, an innovation house – but I balk as definitions, they don’t suit me. I’m all of the above and more. And I’m ok with that amorphous shape. And my hope is that other strategists will start to wake up and feel the same. We keep reading pieces about how the ad industry is crashing and burning and that’s because the problems we need to solve are ever more complex, but the solutions (where the margins live) are always the same, so what do we expect?

Strategists are problem solvers as their core, and that means you should be able to turn your skills to any challenge. The sooner we divorce ourselves from advertising as the output, the better. But if you work in a place that does only that, I understand that it won’t be easy. But with Bodacious, I’m trying to go back to the origin of strategy – not just planning, but strategy. It’s messy, as there’s often no clear delineation between advertising problems, organisational problems, product problems etc. It’s unwieldy. And with these projects it means you need to build a motley crew of people and skill sets to make stuff happen that changes shape every time. Having the freedom to do that is incredible. I’m never giving that up now that I know what it feels like and what it can achieve.

How do you get people to overcome their own egos?
I’m not sure that’s always possible and often I don’t think it’s ego so much as fear of change, manifesting as ego. It’s basic human nature to follow some sort of order, to continue to do what you’ve always done. There’s comfort in familiarity. And when change comes, often people experience discomfort which results in them digging their heels in, trying to avoid it or even overtly fighting against it.

The work I do involves change. So I’ve come across every type of pushback you can imagine; from quiet protest to shouting matches and even attempts at sabotage. It’s normal. But as I’ve solidified my approach through Bodacious (which is about being bold and audacious, get it?), I’ve started to find clients who self-select. They know me and they know I’m the kind of person you bring in when you want a serious kick up the arse or to get shit done, and so they tend to be brave, progressive and strong characters who prove great partners for me along the way. They are disruptors in their own organisations and often they get excited about the role I can play when collaborating with them.

So those are the people who I seek out and in turn, they seek me out too. It just works. 

Why don’t agencies rely on this process of self-selection more often?
The business model. It’s archaic and incredibly restrictive. Most agencies have enormous overheads and so they require chunky retainers and project fees to keep the wheels in motion. To get those means that they need to go after big businesses and easy wins, and to kowtow to clients who tow the line and stick with the status quo. Brave clients are few and far between.

But it’s a shame, because agencies have the talent and the creative firepower to be better, but you can really only push as far as your client will allow and often it’s easier to just agree and get paid, but that means they end up creating stuff that they don’t really believe in.

You did a really good talk at the APG about diversified business models. How do you talk to your clients about that?
Easy really, you start with the brand and what they want to stand for and then you expand from there to help them realise the unrecognised potential. 

Let’s imagine you have a client who’s a sports brand. From a positioning perspective, they want to champion mindful exercise, physical and mental performance. But right now they only make and sell apparel and shoes. Fine, but other than advertising and the odd PR-able stunt, what are they actually offering in the way of services and products that support and build depth to this positioning?

Nothing.

And it’s because their brains are so fixed on their current business model, that they can’t figure out how they could possibly make and monetise other things. So I’ll then create a draft ‘what if?’ product and service ecosystem to show them what they could achieve if they put their minds and their money behind it. This might not result in an increase in sales for their footwear and apparel, but it can start to expand their profit-making potential in a new direction that may not be subject to the same issues and fluctuations as fashion. It gives them more tentpoles and flexibility for the future.

Imagine if they created a different use case for their retail spaces where customers could pay for personalised gait analysis and emotional analysis to improve their runs? Or if they partnered with a technology company to augment fitness trackers to be able to monitor physical, mental and emotional health and statistics? They’re just top line ideas, but that’s all you need to then create 
minimum viable business models to put in front of them, to get them excited and to start conversations with finance and R&D.

That’s the kind of stuff that gets me really fired up. It’s not ‘lipstick on a pig’ end lines or TV ads, it’s real transformational business and brand thinking.

How do you speed your brain up?
One thing people find weird/odd about me is that I don’t think I’ve ever read a strategy or advertising book, like ever. So many people seem obsessed or fanatical about learning different methodologies or frameworks and all that kind of stuff, but in my opinion that’s the worst way to learn. It becomes a paint-by-numbers, box-ticking approach and you lose the magic and the power of tenuous connections that make ideas truly great and that bring them to life.

I read a lot of fiction, it’s how I break my brain open and snap myself out of thought patterns or creative funks. It’s also how I slow down. I love to lose myself in alternate universes or intricate characters; fantastical bonkers worlds are my favourite and I adore and admire the authors who are capable of creating them – Neil Gaiman, Phillip Pullman, JK Rowling, Jessica Townsend (who’s only 34 years old!).

It might seem a bit childish, but at the same time it helps me think in different ways. My main focus is about escapism, new ideas and connections. 

What's one thing everyone needs a little more of?
Can I pick two? Patience and empathy. 

Patience because everybody is running around desperate for the next step. To be promoted, to work on the biggest project, or to fast track their career. I was exactly the same when I was 25, thinking I needed to be a director, but in reality I wasn’t ready for it. Not because I wasn’t good, but because I didn’t have the emotional maturity required to actually be a director. That takes time to build. Give yourself time. Don’t rush. You’ll be better for it. Titles are bullshit anyway. 

And then empathy; an entirely under-appreciated skill but arguably the most important one you can cultivate. Especially when you’re in the business of change. In your work, you’ll come across a lot of people are going to be uncomfortable and scared, and they're not sure what the future is going to be. So you need empathy to understand that change is terrifying for these individuals, especially when their sense of self is predicated on their title, how much money they earn, or their remit within the business. If you take time to understand where they’re coming from, the outcome will be completely different and you’ll achieve so much more. 

But again, slow down, it’s something that comes with experience and maturity, once you’ve finally realise that you are not the centre of the universe. It’s taken me a really, really long time and I’m still learning.

What’s one thing everyone needs a little less of?
The stress that we create for ourselves, due to our productivity addiction. This is especially the case in ad agencies. We’re conditioned to think we should be working really late, contributing to every pitch, always the smartest people in the room, there at the crack of dawn, not leaving until 11pm.

Break the cycle. Get some perspective.

In reality, you’re working on a project for six months that someone is going to skip past in a second on Instagram. Who cares, really? Is it worth sleep deficits, poor nutrition, no social life and damage to your closest relationships? Absolutely not. Learn to say no, learn to switch off. We all need to take better care of ourselves and it starts with rest and balance. 

What gives you hope?
The new cohort of creativity that’s emerging around the world and who are using their skills to make stuff happen. They don’t care about frameworks or best practice, they’re just doing it and doing it really fucking well. 

Look at the student climate activist networks. They’ve got a range of tools at their disposal and they’re just trying new stuff, seeing what works and what doesn’t, they keep going and they don’t waste time looking for validation or worrying about being ‘on brand’.

We can learn a lot from them, but more often than not, as an industry we’re too self involved to sit up and take notice and to recognise their genius. 

Everyone’s a bit mad. How are you mad?
I’m a perfectionist and have serious OCD tendencies, which is pretty obvious when you step into my house. It’s basically a show home. 

I clean before my cleaner comes. It’s weird, I know. But my space is an outward manifestation of my mind. I need it to be calm, relaxing, tidy and beautiful. Then I can feel like I can unwind. That perfectionism spills over into my work too. Everything I touch has to be perfect. I won’t stop until it gets to that point. Makes it hard to delegate though.

Thanks Zoe!
 
Take care,
Rob
“Strategists need to divorce themselves from advertising as an output. We’re problem solvers and there are a myriad of colossal and complex challenges for us to turn our minds to.”
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Salmon Theory · Here · London, Greater London SE10 · United Kingdom