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September 1, 2023
Christian Di Virgilio

What A Strategist Learned At Award School

It all started last year when the AWARD applications opened, and I asked my mentor whether I should apply.

“It’s up to you, but I’d hold off for now. Learn planning first, don’t merge both just yet”. 

It was good advice. As a freshly minted junior planner, I had to learn the rules before I started breaking them. So, I went full planning mode: engaging with every strategy-related book, podcast, course, and networking group I could find. But I couldn’t shake the question – were strategy and creative such different mindsets?

This curiosity led me to apply for AWARD this year. And after 12 weeks of cultivating my creative juice, I discovered that while strategy and creative are different crafts, the best results come when you merge them together.

Strategists are creatives, creatives are strategists.  

It turns out there’s a lot of common ground between strategy and creative. I discovered that both crafts complement each other. They set each other up and work together.

As a strategist, I thought I loved briefing everyone in the most concise way possible. However, the benefit of AWARD was that it prompted me to start thinking about briefs from a creative’s point of view. It turns out I’d still been putting too much into my briefs. Creativity thrives when the brief is incredibly … well brief.

And here’s the paradox, when you use less words in your briefs, you get more from your creatives. It’s hard to explain why, but it’s easy to send a creative down many paths when really, you want them spending more time exploring a single thought. I didn’t truly understand that until I tried being a creative. There is a lot (and I mean a lot) of freedom in a tight brief. There is no freedom in a lengthy one.

Learning how to think creatively has also changed the way I collaborate with the creatives on my team. And after walking in their shoes for 12 weeks, I now have a much deeper appreciation for what it takes to transform a brief into marketing gold, and the pressure that comes from being the final point of contact between a brand and potentially millions of consumers.

The creative process is not all fun, games, rainbows, and unicorns.  

Award reminded me that the creative process is unpredictable and that nothing is set in stone.

As a strategist, I need to be ‘switched on’ to tackle a brief. But during AWARD, I noticed that my best creative ideas came when I was relaxed either in the shower or midway through a game of Zelda, after I’d spent hours trying to crack the brief. As if by magic, a better idea than any of my conscious and deliberate attempts would pop into my mind, almost by accident. It’s as exciting as it is annoying.

My takeaway is that creatives need time to think about everything, then time to think about nothing. It’s infuriating how irrational the process is. We all wish that you could input a bunch of information and get a great output on demand. But creativity doesn’t work that way.

For example, on submission day I was hours from deadline when an idea struck. I was obsessed with it, and I was confident it would stand out. But I didn’t submit it, and instead went with my original idea because I learned that time reveals the quality of an idea, and time wasn’t on my side.

This experience helped me rethink how I set timelines for my creatives. You can’t industrialise creativity as a resource in the same way as other skills. It’s a craft that requires a more open approach and when strategists appreciate the creative process more broadly, we can harness our team’s creativity much more effectively.

AWARD is about limitless thinking. In the real world, not so much.  

In order to thrive at AWARD, I had to unlearn, or at least put aside, my instincts as a strategist. The tutors didn’t care how effective my idea was or even if a brand would actually use it, they just wanted to see how far I could push my imagination. Effectiveness wasn’t the goal.

AWARD is like Disneyland for creatives, and I think that’s the genius of it. If the school was filled with realistic briefs, you wouldn’t get the same outcomes. It forces you to break the rules and think outside the box in a much bigger way.

Back in agency land however, there is always a midpoint between creativity and the client, and my job as a strategist is to hold that line. The benefit of my AWARD experience however is that it’s given me more confidence to sit down with a client and push them a little, if I think there’s value in going bigger and bolder with an idea.

I now have an ability to look at my work through two different lenses. I can get caught up in the excitement of a cool idea and then two minutes later my brain will ask “Well, what's that going to do for the brand? I mean, is it going to work?”

Although it takes discipline to switch gears between strategic and creative thinking, it’s one that is helping me drive better outcomes and collaborate on projects much more effectively.

The AWARDs I’m taking home. 

  • Strategy is no longer just strategy.
  • Creativity is no longer just creativity.
  • No more silos.
  • And of course, The Diamond Pencil

I’d highly recommend AWARD for anyone working in the industry, regardless of your role. As strategists and creatives, there is a lot of value from leaning into more hybrid roles and I’m really excited about how more effectiveness in our industry could be driven by the dynamic combination of creativity and data.

Bill Bernbach first put art directors and copywriters together, and I've always been really jealous of that. During AWARD I craved having someone who I could bounce my ideas off and the whole experience makes me wonder if we’ll ever see pairs of strategists and creatives working together? It sounds like the perfect marriage to me.


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