Crossing Verticals – Why The Best Strategists Probably Don’t Know Your Market

Amelia Torode

This week we spoke with Amelia Torode, marketing strategist and entrepreneur.

With 20 years working with many of the world’s largest brands and agencies, Amelia’s list of achievements is long enough to fill its own podcast – Campaign magazine’s planner of the year, Timewise Power 50, one of the UK’s most influential marketers on twitter, various media and academic positions along with countless other accolades.

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Dan: Welcome to this week’s Boss to Boss podcast. In our interviews we feature remarkable people doing imaginative things in often unimaginative markets, usually from the world of b2b. This week we’re joined by Amelia Torode, Marketing Strategist and Entrepreneur. Amelia’s list of achievements and recognitions is long enough to fill almost this entire podcast, campaign magazine’s planner of the year timewise power 50, one of UK’s most influential marketers on Twitter, various media and academic positions held, basically Amelia is kind of a big deal, so we couldn’t be more excited to have her with us today directing her enormous brain towards the subject of b2b as well as a few other interesting tangents I’m sure. So Amelia, thank you so much for joining us.




Dan: Let’s start with a fairly basic one. I’m sure you’ve been asked 100 times before, are there any traits that in your experience, the best strategist share and perhaps a more interesting sort of take on that is, would you draw any distinction between strategists in a sort of b2b context versus those in a consumer context?

Amelia: Thank you. I think that is a really fundamental place to start. I think that actually from my perspective, and kind of, you know, 20, 25 years in the business, working on kind of b2b, b2c as well, the crossovers are more and more crossed over than they’ve ever been in the past. And if I think about the fundamentals of marketing strategy, if I think about audience insight, I think about brand truths, I think about the cultural context that organisations and brands are operating in, I think there’s much more fluidity between what is a consumer brand, what is a corporate brand? What is a business brand? So actually, from my perspective, it’s really made my life much easier, because a lot of the frameworks, a lot of the processes, and I’d say all the thinking now, I actually do take from b2b and I apply the best of that to b2c, and vice versa, actually, so. So I think it’s become increasingly interesting for b2b marketers, because I think the sort of the canvas is, is flatter now. And I think the opportunities for imagination are greater than it’s ever been at any point in my career. 

I think the opportunities for imagination are greater than it’s ever been at any point in my career.


Dan: Did you almost think sometimes within a b2b context, because maybe the most creative minds, aren’t always, I mean, there are lots of exceptions. But aren’t always drawn to a b2b environment that actually that there can be some like, like, sometimes I think there are some of the most exciting opportunities exist within b2b because if you’re trying to kind of like do something remarkable in a really established consumer market that’s had, you know, billions of dollars thrown at it over the last 100 years, from an advertising perspective, it can be quite difficult and kind of know how to cut through the noise. In a b2b context, often there just hasn’t been that sort of creative ambition, historically, like what’s your, what’s your take on that?

Amelia: So genuinely, I get much more excited. I mean, I actually, so I get much more excited by b2b briefs. And then let me take a step back, I actually don’t even use I mean, I find the kind of denominator sort of b2b and b2c quite unhelpful, actually, I think it’s a sort of false dichotomy. There is, there’s a proposal I’m putting together now, for a fascinating, I’m going to call it b2b. But a fascinating project, which is, it’s an AI driven diagnostic tool for early detection of cancer; and my goodness, I would much rather win that, than win a project for Coca Cola. Genuinely, if I think back the last, I mean, not even sort of COVID, but definitely the last couple of years. It’s organisations and technologies. And that, to me, is where the really interesting stuff is happening. And I, you know, I’m not gonna kind of belittle Coca Cola, or butter or persil or anything else, but actually don’t think strategically and creatively, I’m just less interested by that. I think the opportunities to really think differently about companies and products and technologies that need to talk to multiple audiences on different platforms. That, to me, is the really exciting stuff at the moment. And if I was, you know, starting out in this business, I wouldn’t be rushing into consumer marketing because I feel kind of feel like that’s sort of 20th century to me, the 21st century plays out in this new role in this new kind of new world. And, you know, within that I get fascinated, you know, really interested by the role of founder the role of CEOs kind of corporate narrative, as well as audience narrative and where that fits in and also internal narrative, and how all of that you know, to date, it’s always sat in these different, you know, odd silos, those been the sort of corporate comms and public affairs and they’ve sat over here. And then the brand people never wear a tie and don’t wear a jacket and sit over here. And it’s like, actually, this is a really silly separation, and, strategically and creatively the opportunities line in how those align together.

I think the opportunities to really think differently about companies and products and technologies that need to talk to multiple audiences on different platforms. That, to me, is the really exciting stuff at the moment.

Dan: I take your point about the the sort of false distinction between b2b and b2c? You know, it’s all selling to human beings at the end of it. What about kind of sector experience market experience? How important is that? How valuable is that? Or actually, should I should a great strategist, just be able to sort of learn on the job and acquire the necessary information as the as the opportunity arises?

Amelia: I think it’s a really interesting question. So my perspective is a really good strategist should, should, be able to work across multiple verticals, I also happen to believe that you get true marketing innovation, when you take an insight, I don’t know, let’s take you know you’ve worked on, you’ve just done a big project on pet food, and your next project is for, I don’t know, retirement homes. And actually, you sort of go, interesting, the way that people think about pets, there’s something that sparks a really interesting thought about people, I don’t know, people and their parents and that relationship. So, to me, really good strategists make great leaps of innovation and insight when they take something from outside the category. So I think, you know, if you’re a technology specialist, or a farmer specialist, while I absolutely understand, there are regulatory issues that you have to know and be aware of. So with that caveat on, but if all you’re doing is talking to a farmer specialist, all you’re gonna get is a rehashed farmer strategy I don’t, I think what you’ll get is kind of safe and good. But I think if you want to break through and break out, to me the idea of bringing in insights from totally outside your category, and going, you know, what, if I took this category from the pet food market, this insight from the pet food market, with this truth from I don’t know, fashion, and we move that together. Like, that’s where something really interesting happens. But it’s a really hard sell. And the amount of times I think about so we worked on a fashion brand over COVID, and the CEO said, well, how many other fashion brands have you done? And I had to say, we’re not a fashion specialist, you know, what we are, are brilliant strategists. And it took it took a really hard sell to kind of go well, you know, on one hand is us, and we’ve never worked on a fashion brand like we haven’t, you know, you’ve got two people down to the final, the final choice. And all they’ve done is fashion. And it took, it took a really, it took a brave CEO to make that decision. But I’ve always thought great leaps come from when you take different things, and you take different things, and you put them together in a slightly different way. But it’s a braver choice.

Dan: Remember when, Dave Dye in an interview a few years ago, I remember him saying to me where sector expertise is really helpful is in the sales process. Because as you say, it sort of mitigates that sense of uncertainty for the customer. They’re like, Oh, well, you’ve done it, you’ve done it for our competitors, you can do it for us, actually, when it comes to the execution, it’s not necessarily terribly helpful. And as you’ve kind of alluded to, it may even kind of constrain the thinking somewhat, and certainly from my experience, that a lot of these podcasts within official services, like legal accounting, etc. And what’s really interesting is the CEOs of the really big, really big firms, they are obviously, you know, incredibly intelligent, amazing people, but their sense of what transformation is very different from when someone who comes from outside the industry comes in who genuinely tears up the rulebook and does things very, very differently. And of course, it doesn’t always succeed. But when you look at the the most exciting things happening in law, the most exciting things happening in accountancy, etc. In therapy, it’s someone who’s come in, I mean, there’s, there’s I won’t bore you the detail, but there’s one guy who came in from from the fashion world came into the legal industry, and what he’s done is just astonishing. So, so I think we’re kind of in agreement then that you know, sort of sector expertise is maybe not as important is, you know, we sometimes think it is or certainly decision makers seem to think it is but what about at a channel level? So how important is it? And obviously, this is becoming now more and more different, difficult with like the proliferation of evermore digital channels, how important is it for a great strategist to have experience in each of those channels? So if there are half a dozen specific channels that are kind of deemed really important for the brand in question, how important is it that the strategist has hands on experience of those channels?

Amelia: Well, it’s a really good question. The difficulty is to your point the channels are proliferating, but even how people use them change really quickly, so I do think from an executional point of view, it is important to have that hands on working knowledge, the inside amps. But I also think, you know, I said, I was talking at a big conference that Snapchat were putting on next week. And, you know, while I know that, you know, Snapchat isn’t an obvious one necessarily for your listeners it, it was a really interesting.The conference was really interesting. So I was doing a keynote for them. But then I was, I stayed on and I listened, and I heard their examples. And actually, it really struck me that all these platforms now have such good, smart, salespeople and practitioners within them, all of who their job is to teach their clients or potential clients the best practice within it. And, you know, they Snapchat were talking to a room of young clients, and also young Media Strategists from the big, you know, from Media Com, or you know, Group M, all the big media agencies, and all of them were having to learn. So I think, the idea that that somebody out there knows all this, and they’ve got the kind of the X, Y and Z rules to follow is a fallacy. I don’t think it’s true, because the behaviour is always changing on them. So whoever you talk to, if they say, you know, I’m an expert in tik tok, or I’m an expert in blogger outreach, or now, even a blogger outreach isn’t really a thing. But you know, people tell you they’re an expert, there’s a bit of me that alarm bells ring, because I think it’s very hard to be, the platform’s are moving forwards so quickly, the expertise, in order to be an expert, you are constantly going back in and constantly learning, and constantly opening your mind to new possibilities. So you know, even just thinking about the Snapchat and snap conversation, the technologies they’re always innovating; your point is a really good one, which is from an executional perspective, it’s all in the detail. And it’s so important when you are thinking about campaigns to really be thinking about the kind of behaviour on individual channels, but I do think there is so much help out there, you know, you don’t, you don’t need agencies, what, but what you can do is talk directly to the platforms. And I think I’ve always been really impressed by the calibre of people I found working directly on those platforms.

the platform’s are moving forwards so quickly, the expertise, in order to be an expert, you are constantly going back in and constantly learning, and constantly opening your mind to new possibilities.

Dan:My view on it a little bit is I think, if you as a strategist can be, and this is kind of like goes against a lot of what you know, I think we’re often taught, if you can be sort of seven out of 10, or, you know, at least six and a half out of 10 in, in as much as possible, I feel like that puts you in pretty good, because otherwise there’s a real danger. And when I first got involved in digital about 15 years ago, I lived in SEO right for like five years. And I just thought the SEO was the solution to every, you know, every challenge in life. And of course, that’s absolute nonsense. And I don’t I mean, realistically, can someone be expert in more than two or three channels? I don’t know, I’m not sure they can. So I think at some point, you have to say, Well, look, I’m gonna, as you say, so surround yourself with brilliant people who truly are, you know, world class in all of those challenges, but all of those channels, but if you can know, if you can have a reasonable understanding, so you don’t, otherwise I think your strategies are in danger of becoming more product of your blind spots than actually what you know. And I think that that’s a challenge, isn’t it?

Realistically, can someone be expert in more than two or three channels? I don’t know, I’m not sure they can.

Amelia: That’s interesting, or the inverse. So rather the product of your blind spot, to your point about SEO, you kind of revert back to your centre of gravity.

Dan:Yeah, absolutely. Well, I certainly did for a long time. How do you again, this is quite a sort of, I guess, quite a foundation question. How does one measure the success of a strategist? Because I mean, I guess it depends maybe on the brief and on but from your perspective, when you go into a new campaign, have you got a sense of like, these are, these are really the things on which I expect to be measured?

Amelia: I think it differs all the time. And I think, you know, there are kind of brand metrics, there are direct response metrics, there are engagement metrics, there are sales metrics, there are you know, so I think it’s become harder to measure, because there’s more that you can measure, then you get to the point of what does it mean? So you measure it, but what does it mean and what are you comparing it to? So you know, are you comparing it to where you were last year, which is a good place to start, but then you know, how do you benchmark yourself against a competitive set? And then you get into a conversation, which is, who exactly is the competitive sets? So it’s the metric conversation to my mind has got much more complicated. So on one hand, you think it’s much easier to measure stuff, and it is in terms of the numbers, but then turning the numbers into a story, and then telling this turning the story into a so what, into actions, I don’t think that we spend as an industry, I don’t think we necessarily spend as much time as we should, because you kind of you fill a dashboard, there’s a there’s a triangle I sometimes use, which talks about data, information, knowledge and wisdom. So you get data at the bottom. And that, you know, that’s the sort of, you can’t argue with it. That’s the numbers. So you’ve got the data, information is the next level up. And it’s how you put bits of data into information. And then a step above information is knowledge. And that’s where really, you’re starting to get a sense of a category of what’s going on. And the very top is wisdom. And actually, wisdom is quite subjective. So if the bottom and data is if you can’t argue, the click through rate was this, the sales rate was this, when you ladder up to wisdom? You can, because actually, that’s the bit where you’re like, well, I think it means this, and I think that we should do X, Y and Z. And that’s wisdom. So, you know, I think we spend a lot of time in the data. But I don’t think we ever go up those levels. 

Dan:Really interesting way of putting it. Really interesting. Where I guess, experience then becomes a big part of that, you know, that top level and as you say, very, very subjective. Some people have a natural inclination towards brands, some people naturally have an inclination towards sales and direct response and short term metrics, etc. So I guess, yeah, very, very difficult to define it, you know, in a very kind of specific way. But I love that way of looking at it.

Amelia: So experience but also confidence as well. And I suppose maybe they’re just two sides of the coin, which is you get experience, which gives you the confidence and the confidence gives you, you know, but it’s quite, as you go up that kind of, you know, data, information, knowledge and wisdom as you go up that step, it takes more bravery of the strategist, because the numbers give you security. But as you move up, the numbers received, and actually, it’s your point of view. And that’s really brave, because the reality is, there are always multiple strategic options. There’s never one solution. And that’s the bit where you then, as a strategist, your job is to persuade that your one is, is the most correct one or the least bad one or, you know, but but there isn’t always one answer.

And that’s really brave, because the reality is, there are always multiple strategic options. There’s never one solution.

Dan: Well, I was going to ask, because I guess I mean, very often, I think we take it as an assumption that it’s the clients decision to define what success looks like. But actually, does a strategist need to be quite forceful in imposing their own view on that and saying, well, actually, because if the client is obsessed about, you know, the next six months, but you can see that that’s undermining the next six years, well is it the job of the strategist to actually take a stand there and say, well, no, no, I’m really having an opinion on that. Whereas I think nine times out of 10, I think most strategists maybe is a question of confidence. It’s almost just a question they ask, what does success look like to you?

Amelia:How, that’s so, so suddenly, I’m thinking? So the short answer is yes, I completely agree with you. The longer answer is we and I include myself actually, which is a really good kind of wake up call, but you know, this is why having these kind of conversations are always so helpful, that we do need to be much clearer. So the what does success look like? What are we measuring? That’s the data. What are we hoping to learn? And what does it mean? And actually, that’s a really, that’s not a straightforward question. The question is, what metrics are we putting in place? What are we measuring? Action is quite straightforward. You know, what does success look like? Here’s those, what does it mean? What are we hoping to learn from what might you do? We need to spend I, well, we, by we, I mean, me? Certainly, this, this conversation has made me think I probably need to add a bit more time to make sure that actually what we’re learning, you know, there’s the data and then it’s what we’re learning, and then it’s what we’re going to what might we do.

Dan: Yeah, yeah, no, absolutely, absolutely. I think, certainly, from my experience, I think we just I think we tend to assume that that is sort of defined by the client, and then that in turn then defines the metrics that we track, but it’s kind of I think it’s selling ourselves short a little bit, isn’t it? Something that I want to ask and I neglected this point from the introduction, apologies. But having spent many years working within large agencies so you now more recently are running your own smaller consultancy what and it sounds like you’ve been doing some some really exciting work within that over the last few years, and I just wonder what can small consultancies, learn from you know, their larger siblings and vice versa.

Amelia: So let’s, let me just I’m just let me just flip that on its head. So, I think there’s a lot that the big consultancies can learn from the small. The difficulty is, with the big organisations, is that often organisational structure is so calcified that it’s difficult you can, you can learn the lessons of this like, you can take it’s a sprint, let’s do a huddle, let’s do a bit but but actually, if the muscle memory of the organisation is set up in a certain way, it’s very easy to call a meeting a sprint, but actually, it’s just a meeting. So I think it’s quite difficult for the big ones to put it into action. So what can they learn, you know, they can learn about getting to solutions at speed. I think the big organisational structures are not incentivised to do that. So certainly when I was in big agencies, if you solve the problem too quickly, you know, well, stupid you because the client would have paid for six months, and you did it in six weeks, I mean, that, you know, you’ve just said goodbye to revenue. So I think, I think bigger places can learn about kind of running hard and fast at problems. I also think there’s a learning that the big the big consultancies can take, which is getting to a kind of MVP, a minimum viable product, or you know, it doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect that you get, you can get to a working prototype of a strategic solution, and then you iterate and then you learn and you develop, but we, you know, the big agencies, the big consultancies, have had it hotwired into them, that you have to present perfection to a client that’s changing, you know, well, you know, you get into a kind of what is perfection anyway, but that certainly the clients I worked with would rather get to a working prototype faster, knowing that then they can iterate and develop, you know, certainly, I think, big, smaller consultancies, I think having clear methodologies and frameworks are really helpful. I think that the way large agencies do allow people to have expertise, whether it’s somebody’s great at new business, somebody’s great at client handling. So like, that’s hard when you’re a small consultancy, and you’re kind of everybody’s doing bits of everything. I mean, I do get the feeling that the agility, the expertise, and the focus of smaller companies are really needed by clients. Of course, I would say that wouldn’t I because that’s where I’m sitting at the moment, you can have too much process, you can, you know, I sometimes talk about, you know, the big companies make money when it’s layered and longer, and actually, when clients want is faster and flatter. And I do, I do think, I do think that.

I do get the feeling that the agility, the expertise, and the focus of smaller companies are really needed by clients.

Dan: I couldn’t agree more. I mean, again, you know, I, so unlike you, I don’t have experience in the really big agency world. So I probably am guilty of under estimating the value. I mean, I’m sure these organisations are stacked with incredibly talented, hard working people. And I probably underestimate some of the value that the processes, the systems, the organisation can bring. But I do think I mean, I think I’m right in saying that there is a real increase in the number of really high quality small, kind of boutique agencies now, and I think that is a response to, to really what clients what clients want. I mean, it’s so what you described there as in terms of a big agency thinking, how can we extend this? How can we, you know, kind of milk this for all it’s worth is so counter to the way that a small agency can operate because a small agency has no choice but to absolutely obsess over every stage of the customer experience, because, otherwise, there’s no survival, there’s no tomorrow. So that’s, that’s really, really interesting. But I’m sure that there’s a lot that small agencies can learn from, and I do think that sometimes there is a bit of a lack of structure, a bit of a bit of a lack of discipline, within marketing, when I look at other forms of professional service, you know, you have to have certain qualifications, you have to go through a certain education. Sometimes I look at the world of marketing agencies, particularly small agencies, and it does seem a bit like the Wild West. You know, you get 10 strategists in a room and ask them to define, you know, brand positioning, you’re probably going to get 10 different answers, which is ok, but you ask those 10 people the same question a week later, you probably get 10 new answers, it seems a bit, so I do sometimes think maybe there is a need for a little bit more structure and discipline. I’m not sure what you would think on that. 

Amelia: I would agree. And, you know, we make it hard for ourselves. And but even like, sometimes, I do have to Google when a client goes, well, is this a proposition? Or is this this or is this a pin site? Or is it any sort of, oh my God, have I just written? Is it an ambition statement? Is it a mission statement? Is it a purpose statement? I’m like, Oh, God, I don’t know, is there? And then you know, and even, you know, 25 years in the business, and I’m like, well, I still have to google sometimes, and then I’m going online, I’m like, actually, I don’t agree with that definition that I’ve read on this website. And, and actually, it’s, sometimes I think that we, sometimes, often, I think that as an industry, we build scaffolding out of jargon around us, you know, to make ourselves feel clever, and maybe that’s because, you know, it’s not like accounting, where we’ve all done the same exams, and but I suppose different to accounting, marketing is about, you know, at the heart, there is a sense of imagination and creativity and leaks, and you know, that certainly, you know, the projects that I love working on gives you that opportunity to kind of think differently, but to your point about structures and frameworks, and I think what it comes down to is it’s going to be, I don’t think it’ll ever happen that as an industry, everywhere we all go, this is what a brand proposition is, this is what I don’t think we’re ever going to have that kind of lexicon. So then I think what becomes really important is whether you’re a client or an agency, you have your own lexicon, and you go to your project, ok, the definition of a brand new site will vector at company X, this is what we think. So we think, you know, a proposition is this, a brand that we call it ambition instead of purpose, this is why, so in a world where definitions are fluid and do change, the ownus and important then comes to ok, Mr. Mrs. Client, you know, this is how we do it. And this is how we think and when we say a brand proposition, this is what we mean, when we say audience truth, this is what we mean. And then at least you as a, you know, agency consultancy client, you as a team, coalesce around it, or maybe the client goes, you know what, I don’t buy that definition, I think, and then you go, Ok, well, let’s agree on let’s let’s agree on lexicon. And upfront, let’s agree that whenever we say brand proposition, this is collectively, this is what we mean by it. And maybe the best project to do, the client will say, well, I don’t agree with that. I want a slightly different, but I think going in you even just what is a brand? You know, you talk to people, and they all have a slightly different definition. So maybe at the beginning, when you go, you know, what are we going to measure? What are we going to learn? What might we do differently? Maybe there’s maybe in addition to that, then you go, what do we mean by when we say brand? What do we mean when we say insight? What do we mean when we say proposition? And actually you just go at the beginning of that, let’s just take half a day, let’s take an hour, let’s take a period of time, let’s just agree that so that as we go into it, there aren’t any there isn’t confusion.

Dan: Just the way that my head’s designed, I find it deeply uncomfortable, the ambiguity and the inconsistency. And, to your point, there is no single definition. Absolutely not these things are so subjective, but I just think it’s really important that any given individual knows what they mean by a thing, and that they are able to be reasonably consistent with that to the point where, a few years ago I actually built a essentially a kind of like strategy dashboard, that just like just had like a, it just ensured a certain structure from beginning to end from you know, market research, brand identity, content strategy, channel activity, through to like performance and execution. Just this is what we mean by absolutely everything. And just it’s a case of populating this. And I think when you have that it gives you then a certain freedom because you’ve relaxed, you’re like, I know I’m dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s, I know I’m following a process. It’s I think it’s reassuring to the customer, because otherwise it does seem a bit vague, a bit all nebulous and open to interpretation. And then it kind of gives you freedom to sit back and think a little bit more freely about the creative possibilities within that.

Amelia: You’re right. I mean, it’s interesting, I’ve never really thought about that before, which is the ambiguity, actually can sometimes feed into clients thinking that what we do is fluffy or nebulous, and actually, …if you put in those kinds of hard corners and sharp edges, and you go, this is how we’re going to do it. This is what we need, then you can have amazing freedom within it. But it’s not all over the place.

Dan: Amelia, I knew this was going to be fantastic; it’s surpassed all those lofty expectations. I’ve really, really enjoyed this. Thank you so much for joining us today.