Q&A with Sophie Little, Strategy Director @ Albion

Sophie has worked for 11 years in Strategy and is now Strategy Director at Albion, with areas of expertise in business transformation, co-creation, embedded teams, innovation and service design. She helps to sustain change within organisations by helping them identify their purpose, find new ways of reaching new customers with new products and services, and embed more effective ways of working. Through her very diverse roles in the past, she has learnt & explored different types of strategy.

AS YOU’RE HELPING BRANDS TO TRANSFORM THEMSELVES, WHAT ARE THE INGREDIENTS THAT CAN IMPACT CHANGE INTERNALLY?

The most important ingredient is to find people inside the company that have an appetite for change. You can have the best thought-through strategy, but if no-one can bring it to life and nurture it, it’s very likely to fail. The key thing then is to find and identify people within the organisations, proper change makers who want to make things different.

Interestingly, these people might not necessarily be in innovation, they can be anywhere in the business. So it’s important to build a network of people that are willing to make a change by taking the initiative to talk to other people in other departments. Actually, it’s quite a privilege to be outside a business because with this kind of position, you can join the dots when other people inside the company can’t.

WHAT KIND OF BRIEF DO YOU USUALLY HAVE? DOES THE CLIENT SAY “WE NEED TO DRASTICALLY CHANGE SOMETHING”? OR DO THEY ASK YOU TO LOOK AT SOMETHING AND THEN YOU SURFACE A LOT OF ISSUES?

Usually the latter. And these are the most difficult briefs because often people internally can’t see there’s an issue with their culture. For instance, we once worked with a 200+ year old company, who had an app and a website, and wanted help to start a proper digital transformation. Part of our job was to help them build digital services shaped around their customers’ needs, but just as important a part was to drive cultural change by showing how technology wasn’t a threat to how they do business, but actually how it can be an enabler.

CHANGE IS VERY TRICKY AND MESSY… HOW HAVE YOU MANAGED DIFFICULT SITUATIONS - LIKE MANAGING STAKEHOLDERS?

Yes you’re right, change is very messy. This is why “having a clear purpose” is key to making the change, so that it can translate into the day-to-day work. Having a unified story that everyone can tell & refer to is very important.

Besides, [as creative agencies/consultancies] we’re still on the creative side of the work, we don’t work with a “big management consultancy” mindset. I think that what’s changing is that agencies are trying to find ways to be taken seriously when it comes to giving recommendations regarding “change”.

So it needs a lot of time spent in conversations and patience to find what motivates people individually and to find ways to frame things.

WHAT IS ONE OF YOUR GREATEST EXAMPLES OF TACTICAL THINGS YOU HAVE IMPLEMENTED THAT LED TO A BIG CHANGE?

A year or so back my team and I worked with a pensions business, where two rival companies had been forced to merge. As a result everything needed to change – from the brand, to ways of working, to how they talked to customers etc. This scale of change could only be achieved with the help of people inside the business, so we recruited a group of influencers and game them the tools and training to work alongside us.

After two years, that group is still active (we’re still on their WhatsApp group and there’s so much going on!). That’s amazing as we stepped away after a period of time but they’ve been able to drive the change forward themselves. It’s a good example of what we were talking about earlier that finding the right people and empowering them in the right way is key for change.

BREXIT IS SUCH A HOT TOPIC AND A MAJOR UNKNOWN, THAT CAN GENERATE A LOT OF FEAR… HOW DO YOU NAVIGATE THROUGH THAT?

One of the first impacts has been around discretionary budgets on innovation which are most of the time… gone. As no one knows what’s going to happen, we scale down the kind of things we talk about to our clients. It’s in these sorts of environments where smaller interactions and tangible experiments tend to be useful. We can’t ask them to take a leap of faith anymore - as it can happen in a creative industry - so we’ve been downsizing our projects and structing our offer slightly differently. It’ll be interesting to look back in a few years to see how our industry will have evolved.

I READ AN ARTICLE FROM A STRATEGY DIRECTOR SAYING THAT BIG BRANDS HAVE BEEN SHRINKING THEIR BUDGET BUT SOME OF THE MID TIER BRANDS ARE SEEING BREXIT AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO STEAL A MARCH OVER LEADERS - HAVE YOU NOTICED THIS AS WELL?

Yes, I’ve seen this happening too. The irony is the time has never been better for people to try and to do things differently as we’re all going to have to change. Arguably, now is the time to invest in innovation and to try new things. But that philosophy is tough to prove out, and smaller businesses have the mentality and agility to take advantage of the current context.

THE INDUSTRY IS CHANGING SO MUCH,… WHAT DO YOU THINK THE STRATEGY TEAM OF THE FUTURE WILL LOOK LIKE?

The nature of work will change as I think there won’t be one team working in one office anymore, people will work much more flexibly, in a much less siloed way. Also, with a job title as broad as ‘strategy’ there’s an opportunity to do so many different things, and build more of a portfolio career.

IN MY OPINION, STRATEGISTS ARE EITHER HUMAN LED OR DATA LED, FEW ARE BOTH. WHAT DO YOU THINK THE SKILLS A STRATEGIST SHOULD HAVE? SHOULD ONE BE FORCED TO BE WHAT HE IS NOT?

I think you need to have an appreciation of both – you can’t really get away with the luxury of not trying to at least understand other specialisms. But ultimately, it’s about finding what you’re passionate about (be that a more people-centred approach, or a more data led approach) and shaping that into something useful!

TALKING ABOUT THE FUTURE, I AM IN THE PROCESS OF FINDING A JOB, AND I FOUND A LOT OF COMPANIES CLAIMING “THE FUTURE IS DIVERSITY, INCLUSIVITY IS KEY…” BUT IT CAN BE VERY TOKENISTIC AND IT FEELS LIKE THERE IS NO TRUE STRATEGY BEHIND THESE WORDS. DO YOUR CLIENTS USE THESE BUZZWORDS A LOT? WHAT’S YOUR APPROACH TO THESE TRENDS?

It’s a good question. I’ve worked with companies with high % of white, middle class men in their 50s and it can be a struggle to actually embrace a culture of diversity. Nowadays, people are realising the opportunity to approach things differently, but there’s still a fair amount of tokenism. That said, even if they’re using buzzwords, I’d say don’t let them stop you using it to your own advantage!

Going back to the future of strategy, I am quite optimistic that teams will change, that we would look for more unusual types of experience. I am far more interested in people who have never worked in the industry. For instance, the best guy I hired recently was running his own start-up, and the lessons he’d learnt from that experience where far more valuable than years spent in a traditional agency. I think the industry is changing - and what is great about strategy is that ideas can come from anywhere.

HOW DOES WORKING IN AN AD AGENCY DIFFER FROM WORKING WITH AN INNOVATION PERSPECTIVE?

What used to frustrate me is that when I got communications brief, the majority of the key decisions had been made already. Working in innovation, you have more permission and scope to challenge briefs - from being asked to build an app to going to the heart of the problem. But then I guess it depends on the work you want to do: some agencies make incredible websites. It’s just about finding what’s important to you.