Strategy Is Your Words: A Q&A with Mark Pollard, CEO of Mighty Jungle NY

We recently held a Q&A with Mark Pollard, Strategy CEO at Mighty Jungle in New York. If you don’t know about Mark, he’s a clever strategist, prolific writer and self-confessed artist whose words on Twitter and LinkedIn inspire hundreds of strategists every day. He also runs the highly regarded Sweathead group on Facebook and a Skillshare class on strategy. Here’s a summary of our conversation.


WHAT HAS STOOD OUT LATELY IN RELATION TO THE INDUSTRY?

I can talk more about the North American experience, but have spoken with hundreds of people in South America and Europe as well. It’s a bit of a shitshow out there. In North America, strategy’s main role seems to be to help agencies to get access to new revenue, budgets, “a seat at the adult table”, but the reality is many planners have little to no training and aren’t always able to be effective. Many people hit their mid- to late-20s and wonder if they should jump ship.

Lots of people don’t know what strategy is. And it’s not important to know what it is in some absolute way, but it is important to have a point of view on what it is at an individual or company level. And how to do it.

There are a lot of passionate hearts and brains in the field, so I am optimistic. And there are more roles than ever. On the other hand, there are loads of challenges in decreasing margins and lonewolf strategists and many companies not knowing what to do with their strategists.


WHAT’S YOUR HOPE AND FEAR FOR WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

A lot of people fell into advertising at some point. But in the USA, a lot of people study it in college and seek it out as a career from a young age. In Australia, I don’t know if I ever met anyone who studied it. Many went to portfolio school or studied something adjacent and this “falling into advertising” thing actually makes me feel lucky. I feel privileged to have fallen into an industry that allowed me to learn how to think creatively and critically on the job. What I hope (and I’m 32,000 words into this for a new book) is that strategy becomes more important when people see it as an art. An art of words.

My fear is that people who do the work we do don’t know how to magnify themselves in life, that they get get caught in unhappy relationships, that they self-harm because they’re not sure of who they are in life, and that companies shit on them, force them to lose their passion, and that they don’t get to contribute to the world in as powerful way as they could.


WHAT’S YOUR THOUGHTS ON PURPOSE IN THIS INDUSTRY?

The purpose debate pisses me off. People are tricky because they don’t always define what they mean by purpose when they diss it and England seems infatuated with this right now. A street gang has a purpose. A purpose does not need to be noble to a majority of people. Purpose’s main work is to help people understand why they go to work. A company needs to attract the right people to create good products and services to sell and then work out if that purpose needs external communication.

For brands it can work. But you've got to be bold. For example, years ago if Viagra had moved its purpose to focus on improving intimacy and building a business around that, then Viagra would look very different today. What’s the business model for a company that exists to help middle-aged people relearn how to be intimate with each other?


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IF STRATEGY IS YOUR WORDS, HOW DO YOU GENTLY TELL PEOPLE THEY AREN’T AS GOOD A WRITER AS THEY THINK?

I’m not sure one needs to tell people they aren’t good writers. Writing isn’t easy. But words make strategy, so writing makes strategy, so it is good to practise writing.

SHOULD DATA AND STRATEGY SIT CLOSER TOGETHER?

I think all people who do peoplework - who try to understand people and who communicate with people - benefit from sitting together and not in silos, separate P&Ls, or empires. Companies struggle with this though, because many companies are factories pretending they are anything but factories.

HOW DOES AN ASPIRING PLANNER GET AHEAD?

Get to the edge of the domain. I read the same stuff as you. Here’s an interesting fact: the average age of Nobel Prize winners has gotten older over the years. Because there’s more knowledge to know before you get to the edge of what we don’t know. So I’d recommend you read the case studies, the good old stuff. Then write down what they did. What was the problem? The insight? The solution? The idea? Then it’s about taking some risks. Doing things like this [Group Think] helps because you meet people and can get live feedback. I’d also recommend you have some artistic expression on the side, otherwise you’ll get to 40 wanting to be the head of strategy, then you get there and you realise you’re going to die soon. And there could have been more to your life, and that you need more to your life than that title or the job that comes with it.

HOW DOES LIFE EXPERIENCE AFFECT EXPERIENCE WITH STRATEGY?

To be good at this, life needs to have weathered you a bit. Life weathered me young. My family - like many - went through many traumas, small and big. I spent time with different groups of friends too - different areas, wealth, stabilities, and so on. I also had kids at 28 so I saw family life younger than most people in my kinds of roles. And this helped. When I worked on parent brands I was going through it. I’d draw diagrams based on my experience and clients would say, “Can we use that at our conference?”

The career stuff in itself is less interesting and usually about luck. How others perceive you. The thing you can always do is practise to get better. Know the techniques. Apply them. Work hard. But without destroying yourself.

HOW DO YOU TURN YOUR STRATEGY BRAIN ON AND OFF?

I’m better at the Off now. I never used to sleep much. I didn’t have a good sense of self, and I had low self-esteem, so I disappeared into work and publishing a magazine in ways that I realise were attempts at self-destruction. I wrote a lot but most of what I wrote was other people’s stories, as if by writing other people’s stories I could ignore my own thoughts, possibly wipe them out altogether. Insomnia was also an attempt to not sleep until the biggest sleep possible.

In New York, I started doing yoga. I have a few months with it then skip it for a while then I get back into it. And through yoga I was able to access different language and ideas, and started to feel self-love for the first time. The body is important for people who live in their brains and the idea of self-love is also important for these people.

To turn on my brain, I do stream of consciousness writing and take on different voices. I read, I watch, and I listen to things. I go for walks. Turning it on isn’t difficult. Working out how to treat myself when it is On took time. Ideas such as Parkinson’s Law - that we’ll take however long we have, and developing my own philosophy and methodology for how I work were critical.

For many of us, the On part is who we are and what we relate to most. I think it’s healthy not to over-identify with this, to not think that unless one is thinking then one is wasting time or not valuable. This takes a while.

ARE PROJECTS MORE SUCCESSFUL WHEN YOU CONNECT WITH SOMEONE ON THE CLIENT SIDE?

There has to be an overlap, but it depends on the culture of the place. If I were a client I’d like to know the people working on my account. Their personal projects. What they really think. Spend a million dollars on people that you know who are amazing, rather than an agency trying to extract money from you. Also, don’t treat someone like shit. Be wary of over-management. Look at the ideas that haven’t been presented to you. They often give you clues.


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