Five Traits of a Stand-Out Strategist

Welcome to the wonderful world of strategy: the best, most interesting, and arguably the most ambiguous job in this business. I understand there’s some confusion as to what exactly strategy is—given that my family still doesn’t understand what I do because there’s no main character from “Mad Men” to align it with—and therefore, who’s likely to make a great strategist.

What is strategy?

Strategy is the discipline formerly known as account planning. Back when account planning was invented, it was about understanding a broad target audience, gleaning insights and writing briefs that served as springboards for great work. And great work was limited to a much smaller number of mass media channels at that time: print, TV, OOH. Obviously, the world has changed a lot since then and with it, the practice of planning. The term strategy came about to encompass the broadening of the discipline’s scope—to include brand strategy, creative strategy, communications strategy, design strategy, digital strategy, social strategy and depending where you work, a fair amount of corporate strategy as well.

Well, that sounds daunting. What does it mean? While you can specialize in virtually any of the things listed above, strategy tends to be best suited for people with varied interests and an insatiable curiosity about almost anything and really, everything. A strategist’s primary job is the connection of disparate and sometimes seemingly unrelated dots to create a plan that solves a problem for a business and for a consumer. We still write briefs to inspire great creative work, but our job goes well beyond that today.

As strategists, we have an opportunity to shape and create better experiences for human beings. We have the power to encourage brands and companies to represent themselves more honestly, to impact how people across different genders and races see themselves represented in media, and to challenge our collective thinking about the way things are–and the way they could be.

What makes someone a great strategist?

A great strategist is part anthropologist (a student of cultures), part sociologist (a student of people and how we are shaped by our society), part psychologist (someone who seeks to understand the human mind and what makes us behave the ways we do), part analyst (adept at reading and interpreting data to uncover hidden truths about our habits) and part creative (skilled storytellers who are energized at the prospect of changing how people think, feel or act via inspiring work).

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: most strategists don’t start out as strategists. They take winding paths, ones that often begin in other disciplines within an agency, within a related field or within a different field entirely. There’s no right path, so don’t worry if you haven’t done all the “right” things. (If you secure an internship in strategy, you’re ahead of the game.) While few strategists share the same background, good ones often share similar traits. And you can highlight these traits in interviews, even if you don’t have much formal strategy experience yet.

What are these key traits?

1. Innate curiosity (general curiosity + intellectual curiosity)
The best strategists always seek to understand why something happens the way it does—or what makes someone do the things they do. Great strategists ask a lot of questions and enjoy spending time trying to figure people and things out. They tend to be people with varied interests, who demonstrate both an enthusiasm for and a commitment to learning new things.

2. Empathetic and compassionate observation
Likely related to our curiosity, strategists tend to be people watchers who recognize that we learn more from watching how humans behave rather than simply listening to what they say. The best strategists are not only fascinated by people, but they naturally tend toward empathy and compassion—finding it easy to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and understand what they want and need without judgment or criticism. They embrace the humanity in any situation.

3. Excellent communication
Stand-out strategists are equally good at talking to people and listening to what they have to say. Listening leads strategists to compelling insights rooted in real human truths, which lay the foundation for engaging stories. Great strategists are dynamic storytellers who possess the ability to make the incredibly complex feel simple—or at the very least, logical and easily digestible. And it’s not enough to be exceptional writers; strategists must also be highly skilled at presenting their ideas to a broad range of audiences.

4. Open-minded optimism
As strategists, we deal heavily in possibility and opportunity. Great strategists are drawn to and excited by the prospect of solving complex and often layered problems, but also energized by possibilities. They possess the business acumen to understand not only how a business works today, but the imagination and the optimism to envision how it might work better tomorrow.  

5. Creatively-driven problem solving
Great strategists are creative people who appreciate and voraciously consume creative content in myriad forms: books, films, plays, shows, stories, articles, podcasts—the list goes on and on. Exposure to a continuous flow of creative stimulus provides fresh perspective and inspires strategists to think about the problems they’re tasked with solving in new ways, helping them draw parallels, frame challenges and communicate opportunities in ways they otherwise may not have. This ultimately helps them to become better partners to their creative teammates.

If the above description sounds like you, find ways to demonstrate these traits in your interviews. Strategy is an endlessly fascinating field for those that love a challenge–and we’re always looking for critical thinkers and courageous creators who are unafraid to shake things up in order to make them better.

Interested in pursing a career in strategy? Check out VSA’s open positions.


With nearly 15 years of experience leading brand development for some of the world’s most iconic brands, Nancy Maloney serves as a Director of Strategy at VSA Partners. Nancy thrives on immersing herself in the culture, mindsets and behaviors of consumers, then delivering actionable insights that translate into business opportunities for her clients. Over the years, she’s led strategic thinking for brands such as AB InBev, Kraft-Heinz, Marvin Windows and Doors, Cargill, Nike and others. Prior to joining VSA Partners, Nancy worked for award-winning agencies including 360i, Y&R, JWT and Cramer-Krasselt. Contact Nancy at