Creativity meets strategy

Interbrand London’s heads of strategy and creative discuss their views on making strategy and creativity more comfortable bedfellows.

What is your career background – highlights and lowlights of working with creative and strategy?
Simon Cotterrell, Executive Director, Strategy:

I have worked in multinational advertising agencies and brand consultancies, and went on to run my own consulting business for the best part of a decade. Throughout, I have experienced a multitude of different working models that combine strategy and creativity in different ways. I’ve worked in agencies where strategy and creative teams were treated as independent runners in a relay race. The strategists would run the first lap and write the creative brief that they’d then baton-pass to the creative team to turn into finished communication. I’ve also worked at companies where the strategic and creative personnel are much more loosely entwined – to keep the sporting metaphors coming: more ‘rugby’ than ‘relay’.

To understand how strategy and creativity should best work together requires that we first understand the difference between the two mindsets. To simplify things enormously, the strategist’s brain is wired to look at a situation and to ask the question why? “Why is such and such a message important?”, “Why should anyone believe this?” Whereas, the creative’s brain is wired to look at the situation and ask what? “What could this manifest as to make people sit up and notice?” “What would stimulate change?” When you’re able to combine ‘why’ and ‘what’ questions on a brief, you’re much more likely to get juicy answers.

Sue Daun, Executive Creative Director:

With over 20 years of experience working with global clients in a number of brand agencies, across all sectors and channels and with some truly weird and wonderful souls, I have probably not yet seen it all. But whilst it has not always been plain sailing, I have been lucky enough to work with some incredible talent, and this has taught me a lot about the essential unity between strategy and creative. There is a real magic that happens when the pairing is in sync, as opposed to a baton/relay hand off (which unfortunately I have also experienced).

And Simon is right in some way – there is a difference between the brain of a creative and a strategist. But, whilst we are wired slightly differently, we are both asking the same fundamental questions of ‘why’ and ‘what’. Why is someone going to take notice? Why will they care about a message or a visual or an experience?

Having a strategic partner that admires the creative as much as they love strategy is a true pleasure, it makes every piece of work we do exciting and inspirational, from the moment go.

There is a real magic that happens when the pairing is in sync, as opposed to a baton hand off.

The close relationship between strategy and creative is fostered in Interbrand. Has this always been the case in your career?

SC: Every organisation I’ve worked for has seen strategy and creative work together. The difference is in how these two types of brains are organised. By getting the different types of brains involved and going broad quickly can be an amazing way into a brief. This is an approach I’ve endeavoured to replicate throughout my career.

SD: Working in a number of large organisations where strategy is a key foundation of the business, it becomes clear quickly that the individuals on both sides that have the ability to truly collaborate are those that stand out and produce the best work.

It works best when individuals are passionate about each other’s skill set and that when developing ideas and solutions, there is a natural riffing that transcends these skills – simply pushing the ideas forward quickly.

As any brand business will tell you, the unity of strategy and creative is always the goal. However, it is not always the norm. Unfortunately, there is sometimes a divide that creates a ‘weak point’ moving from strategy to creative.

One of the reasons I joined Interbrand was the opportunity to work with exceptional strategists that I could learn from, as well as have the ability and framework in which I could share some creative learnings with an open-minded team.

What are the benefits/challenges of working closely together?

SC: Aside from better work, the main benefit of working together is time – you can crack an idea super quickly when both brains are in the room. But the main challenge to this way of working is also time: it’s more difficult to get this wider group of people together when there are a whole bunch of other projects running alongside.

The other thing to remember is perceived responsibility. Ultimately, most clients see the strategist as the person that’s accountable for the brand proposition, and the creative as the guardian of the creative product. Even if the agency is prepared to blur the lines of responsibility, very often the client, who has grown up on a diet of ingrained agency mal-practice, will need some educating.

SD: The opportunity to learn from each other and the skillset in order to drive more relevant insight and imagination at every encounter with businesses, clients or each other is a key benefit of a close working approach.

And importantly, enjoying what we do – spending time only with creatives makes for a very one dimensional perspective. I am sure Simon would agree from a strategist’s perspective (or maybe not!). It is the debate and diversity that fuels great ideas. When this is encouraged, it opens the minds and voices of the younger teams, driving deeper connections to the work that we do together.

What changes do you both have to make in your teams to make this work?

SC: From the strategy side, it’s getting people to get ideating more quickly. The conventional logic in strategy is to go digging for insight and then to build potential territories, and the ultimate strategic recommendation, up from those insightful foundations. Our strategy team are charged with thinking intuitively: to throw muses into the air with little information to go on and then use the insights they find to bash, build or better what they started out with. If the strategy team can get hypotheses on the table sooner, our creative colleagues can have something to challenge/develop more quickly.

SD: Closed-mindedness and elitism on either side. Ideas and thinking come from all levels and inputs. This not only makes the work better, but the experience richer.

There is also a benefit to feeling comfortable to share ‘half-baked thoughts’, to openly discussing your own ideas. This allows for healthy debate, and creates a sense of shared ownership.


This more collaborative approach to strategy and creativity is no longer a linear process.


What makes a successful client relationship when thinking about strategy and creative?

SC: This more collaborative approach to strategy and creativity is no longer a linear process. In essence, our client teams have to get our clients more accustomed to working in what is inevitably a little bit more of a chaotic way of looking at projects and being just as comfortable with the idea of going backwards along a timeline as we iteratively develop our ideas.

SD: Our ability as a team to demonstrate ‘For what can be’ for the future of our clients’ businesses relies deeply on the strategy and the creative teams seamlessly presenting a single point of view. To understand deeply, in order to positively challenge the brief, to drive and commit long-lasting and impactful change.

How do you bring the right teams and skills together to foster this success?

SC: When I interview strategists, I’m expecting them to come equipped with a portfolio. I want to see their work come to life creatively. The measure of a good strategist is what they enable, it has to be ignited through a profoundly thought-provoking, entertaining and engaging creative vehicle.

SD: When we hire new talent, we look for stretch potential. Whilst it is expected for them, of course, to be experts in their fields, those that stand out are those who are hungry to learn and grow new skills. With creatives, I want the story – ‘The Why’ as Simon outlined at the beginning. But I also want to see the thought process and the learnings from both the successes and the failures.

Equally, within our existing teams, we try to create opportunities where we can learn from each other. We actively put people together that we know will not only match the clients’ personality but also learn to work with a different style. This combination always creates a rich melting pot of creativity.


Executive Director, Brand Strategy
Executive Creative Director