What Makes a Good Strategic Planner
Brad’s path to becoming a strategic planner started as he was driving to a med school interview in Albany, NY. “I looked in the rear view mirror where my suit should’ve been hanging and nothing was there. I had subconsciously sabotaged myself. I realized I didn’t want to be a doctor.” At that point, Brad didn’t know he wanted to be a planner either, much less what one was. He had an interest in healthcare and the desire to help people, plus a Master’s in Public Health.
This led him into the field of medical education, where he picked up marketing acumen from rotations in account management and business development.
It was a path that primed him for his current role as SVP, Strategic Services at HealthEd, where he helps pharmaceutical companies take a unique approach to marketing, driving behavior change using an educational approach to deliver positive outcomes for both patients and the brands they use.
JS: How did your personal career path influence what you look for in strategist?
BA: I look for the ability to 1) hear and understand a challenge by considering all the different facets, and 2) develop a solution that satisfies all the stakeholders. I’ve represented the educator, patient, physician and marketer at different points in my career – sometimes in the same day! It’s important to be able to understand the perspectives of each audience and how they relate to each other. A great planner can intuit the opportunities for the brand, as well as align those with the needs of the audiences.
In addition to being an astute listener, a planner must be a great communicator. You can be the smartest person on the planet, but you have to be able to operationalize your ideas. You must get people with different objectives and needs on board with your vision. You need to take complicated ideas and crystallize them in a meaningful way for your clients, as well as for your internal team members.
JS: How do you evaluate these skills when you interview candidates?
BA: I don’t have a standard question, because it’s hard to evaluate strategic thinking aptitude in 30 minutes. You really have to see how candidates address a challenge to get a feel for how they think. I ask candidates to walk me thru a business case. I want to hear how they confronted a recent business challenge. I like to see how they think, not just what they say. They need to be able to explain their thinking and the benefits of their solution. I’m looking for nimbleness, intelligence and poise.
I also want a read on whether they can move between the big picture and the granularity of the actual marketing tactics. Planners in the agency world are constantly asked to go from 30,000 feet to ground level and back again. They need to think broadly and concretely. They have to hear a client request, like “I want a flip chart,” and consider the objective, rationale, positioning, consumer insights, etc. They might ask, “Is it really a flip chart?” Planners hear and understand needs before they figure out solutions. They’re not content with the comfortable choice. They have the ability to step away from the brand and consider the landscape.
For example, if I’m evaluating a CRM strategist, I’ll ask what [consumer insights] informed the communications plan. I want to know what role they played in formulating the tactics. Did they consider all the points that I would? I’m looking for a humanness and intuition about what our customers are living, not a response to a particular concern or event, e.g. serving up a refill coupon at a high churn point.
I may also ask what colleagues would say about them to get a sense of their collaboration style. A client service mentality is going to make them more effective with agency teams.
JS: What’s your advice to people looking to enter the discipline or refine their skills?
For those looking to enter the field, I would say “why not?” I’m a prime example of someone who came to this career from a variety of different prior disciplines. In my book, there isn’t a right or wrong approach so long as the person has a healthy appetite to understand the “why” behind how people behave and how to align that with business needs. Strategy is detective work and problem-solving.
I’d advise those in strategic planning to broaden their horizons beyond research methodology. Our strategists today are being asked to think broader than insights mining. They need to be business consultants as well. They should be able to use their knowledge to create business strategies for clients and extend research findings to rationale for business approaches. Consumer marketing is evolving and the skill sets of strategists are doing so as well. For example, I value strategists that understand how to use the digital channel for research and for programming, as well as the strategic thinking behind multi-channel/CRM marketing. That’s where we’re seeing the most growth for our agency.
JS: Do you have a tried-and-true framework or approach to the strategic process?
BA: Well, our corporate framework is The Patient Journey. It’s essentially a “map” we develop based on the real life experience of patients, before we consider the brand experience. It starts with insights about our audience – the educational gaps, myths, barriers and motivators that represent opportunities for tactical intervention. Competitive landscape, brand positioning, creative look and feel are integrated in after the framework is established. This Patient Journey is unique, insightful and ownable for our clients’ brands because it’s always rooted in patient insights. When you do right by the patient, you ultimately do right by the brand.
One advantage of this approach is that it helps us to conceive the educational model that will be most successful in engaging patients in their treatment. Our strategists partner with our health educators in developing solutions that help people develop the knowledge, skills and behaviors to better manage their health. We’re constantly evaluating the brand message, competitive advantages and program performance goals thru the patient lens, to ensure what we’re saying and doing [as marketers] has relevance to the patient and healthcare provider. By addressing the key patient barriers and opportunities in the journey, we can achieve better brand experiences and health outcomes for patients.