When strategic insight meets creative vision, inspiring narratives are born.
I used to work as a global communications specialist for a 9000-employee organization. Like many communicators in that situation, I juggled multiple roles and responsibilities.
A typical day for me would involve receiving directions from one of our internal clients regarding a message that needed to be shared throughout the company. Once I had the information, I would develop the story or campaign plan on my own, ensuring that it aligned with the objectives. Next, I would write the content and wait for approval before handing it off to our designer, who would make it visually appealing and consistent with our brand. Finally, I would take the finished product and post it on all relevant channels, effectively disseminating the message, and then move on to the next task or directive at hand.
Does this sound familiar? If you’re nodding your head furiously as you read this, it’s probably because your day looks a lot like this.
We already know that effective corporate communications are essential for organizations to thrive and even more critical during times of change or transformation. Communications teams play a crucial role in disseminating information, encouraging alignment, and nurturing a positive corporate culture in a timely, interesting, and precise way. And, while I loved my job in communications, a world of excellence and influence, it was exhausting to wear all the hats while trying to find the time to bring an elevated level of strategic thinking and creative execution to the table for the larger organizational initiatives that came across my desk. In my experience, when it came to bigger campaigns regarding a fundamental transformation, we didn’t always have the bandwidth, resources, or skillsets available to develop the type of inspirational campaigns required to bring about meaningful change in the organization.
So, when I left my role in global communications to work as a writer on a creative team, I was excited to discover that I would partner regularly with a strategist. I knew that this was the opportunity I needed to make my work more impactful and engaging— to truly inspire change.
In his influential book about marketing, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, Luke Sullivan describes the strategist as "a cultural anthropologist who studies a brand’s customers looking for insights that drive their attitudes, opinions, and behaviors." In employee/change communications, strategists bring a higher level of thinking, bridging the gap between a business problem and a creative solution. They unlock a door for their creative partners to think big by enhancing their understanding of the audience, enabling effective measurement, and laying the groundwork for meaningful engagement in communications—ultimately leading to more creative and impactful campaigns.
My first exposure to this relationship came early when my visual counterpart, my Art Director (an uncommon role in most organizations), and I sat down with our strategist to go through a client presentation we were developing. With relentless curiosity, the strategist proceeded to poke so many holes in the work that it ended up looking more like Swiss cheese than a creative presentation.
I was predictably taken aback. Creation is inherently personal for us. We pour our hearts and souls into our work. But in a matter of minutes, it felt like my strategist had undone all our beautiful work and that we were back at square one.
As I gaped into the void and questioned my career choices, my seasoned creative partner—who was well-accustomed to the strategic feedback process—simply nodded and smiled, “That was great feedback,” she said.
And she was right; a few weeks later, we delivered incredibly strong work, work that fills me with pride to this day. It was during this experience that I learned my first lesson about the dynamic between Creative and Strategy: embrace humility, welcome scrutiny, and implore them to poke holes
Know Thy Audience
When an integrated strategy and creative team is assigned to a project, they ensure that the challenge or change is going to be picked up and examined from every angle, opened to reveal its inner workings, and re-configured spectacularly. An integrated team guarantees that the right people, with the right skill sets, will be assigned to tackle different aspects of the challenge, working together to deliver well-rounded, high-quality work that hits the mark, generates results, and has a longer-lasting impact.
Effective communication begins with a deep understanding of the target audience, and strategists are the ones who lay a solid foundation for the creative work by researching and gathering insights about the organization, essentially becoming subject matter experts for the span of the project. “Strategy drinks from the firehose when they are getting to know a client’s business and then they distill it down to its essential elements and nuance for creative,” says Judy Corupe, VP of Creative at Livewire Communications. “They know what is happening in the world of those leaders and understand what they need and what the audience needs.”
“We understand that as human beings we need two-way connection, to communicate and to be heard and understood,” affirms Robin Gibson, VP of Strategy at Livewire Communications. “Strategists seek to understand the business opportunity and the importance of what leaders are striving for, but they also understand that employees need more than information about company goals. They need to be inspired to play their part in helping to achieve those goals. That requires understanding who they are and where they are relative to any change or initiative in an organization."
By providing valuable insights into the audience’s needs, preferences, pain points, and communication channels, strategists enable creatives to tailor their campaigns effectively, thereby maximizing campaign receptivity and outcomes.
The Love is in the Data
To ensure the most effective campaign possible, data-driven decision-making is paramount. From the start of a project, strategists establish clear objectives and identify appropriate metrics for measuring the success of each tactic in a communications plan. These metrics provide valuable insights into audience behavior and content performance. By tracking engagement through pulse surveys, open rates, and other metadata, strategists can provide data-informed recommendations to the creative team and leaders to understand what is working and what could be better . Embracing this research, creatives are well-equipped to construct campaigns and creative platforms that will reach their intended audience, minimize cost of consumption by using their time and energies more efficiently, and leave an enduring impression.
The Head and the Heart
While no one is truly a left-brain or right-brain thinker (this familiar notion has been debunked), like the hemisphere of the brain, we all have our specialties. And strategists and creatives do approach the work from different directions. For example, when strategists sit down with a client, they listen for tangible facts, alignment between leaders, and cultural and business insights. When creatives sit down with a client, they listen for themes, common denominators, and vulnerability. We often come out of the same meeting with surprisingly different takeaways. However, where the two connect is how they zero in on the pain points that are key to unlocking the authentic human element at the crux of successful communication. This is the alchemy of it all.
We rely on our teammates to complement our skill sets to develop well-rounded work: work that is innovative, unique, and inspirational. A lot of creative work can be based on instinct, and we look to our strategists to do the upfront foundational labor that gives us the freedom of imagination while still maintaining alignment with the goals of the campaign. By leveraging the analytical capabilities of the strategist and the inventive strengths of creatives, communicators can foster a well-rounded approach to problem-solving, decision-making, and content creation that inspires and creates results. Essentially, to achieve our strategic intention we must be creative; to develop creative that works, we must be strategic. When an integrated strategy and creative relationship are in tune, it's like a symphony: strategy is the conductor, and the creative team are the musicians. Each member brings their individual talents to the table, but they cannot bring the music to life—and give clients standing ovations that drive change—without one another. When they approach each other and the collaborative process with openness, trust, and mutual respect, they create perfect harmony.
Riding Into the Sunset
Now that I have spent time outside the world of corporate communications, I would be reticent to go back to a role where I had to play every role instead of being able to leverage my individual strengths with a partner who could do the same. By embracing an integrated strategy and creative approach, organizations have an opportunity to unlock the full potential of their communications initiatives, driving true engagement and inspiration and delivering the kind of results needed to see employees through their larger corporate initiatives.