The best piece of advice I have ever received in my career was:
Greg, you are not going to work here forever, two years would be a good innings, you should not want to work here forever, the way you learn and start making money as a strategist is to move around in the agency world, not staying still too long.
That was given to me by the founder of the first of the design agencies I worked at on my third day within the company, indeed my third day of working agency side (having previously done three years client side in financial services).
As you may expect I was a bit shocked but now, six years later, I am looking back and he could not have been more right.
I stayed there for exactly two years before being made redundant, although in truth I had already decided I was going to leave but had not heard back from an agency in New York, then I freelanced for a year at what I know now was a ridiculously low rate but one that meant I started making money as a strategist in my own right.
From there I took one more leap into the full time arena – although I now refer to it as a ‘long contract’ as I was paid well but ultimately made redundant again when the strategy team got culled back to just the head of strategy.
Since then I have been working for myself, on my terms, across a number of different retail design, service design, packaging design and brand design agencies in five different countries. This is the way you start making money as a strategist.
Interestingly though, with each move I have been able to charge more and change more.
The key to making money as a strategist is to work hard, listen a lot, learn a lot, understand a lot, and add a lot (of value). Sounds obvious, right? Well it is, but the one thing missing from that list is to move on. That’s a piece of new career advice that is often left out.
I do not mean move on just for the sake of it but when it is right for you – be it you know you are not going to get much further in a given place, you realise you were sold a dream at the beginning or even if you have absorbed enough to consider yourself, honestly, to be able to make the step up to the next level in another design agency.
Strategy is not all about money – as much as I love my weekly invoice time (I really do, still novel even now it is mostly automated or done on the move from my phone – thank you Pages app on iPhone and iPad) – the one thing that will make you make more money in the strategic function is… passion.
I love what I do, I live it, breathe it, chat about it and rarely switch off from it… for example, when my fiancé and I go shopping she cannot be with me if we are in a supermarket, she will literally go do the shopping whilst I stare at any given category (whether they are a client or I spot an opportunity for a potential client) and take photos, write ideas on my ever-present Post-Its or simply buy an entire competitive set just to analyse it properly when I’m back home.
That is what stands me out from many.
The cash is great, but that conversation is 5 minutes at the beginning of a project – ‘What’s your day rate?’ – ‘£xxx’ – ‘right, how about £xxx’ – ‘well I could do it for £xxx and we are both kind of happy’ – ‘done’ – ‘right, admin over, what’s the detail of the gig’.
From there I submit the invoice to the relevant office or finance manager and just get on with the job, and become one of the team, wearing their badge and trying to get them new business where possible – why? Because I would then be the most qualified to work on that new business.