An interview with

Agatha Asch

Senior Interactive Strategist, Wieden+Kennedy

True To Me Too: I think there’s a misconception that you just need to start a Facebook and a Twitter page and you will automatically be on everyones radar.  There’s probably a little more to it than that, what is the role of an interactive strategist?

Agatha Asch: I think it has kind of morphed over the years, we definitely partner with the planning team here so we have a heavy element of strategy just in general.  When interactive hit the scene and suddenly there were all these social networks where brands could have a voice and have a one-to-one relationship with people, that’s kind of when I think that specialty started to surface.  Our role is largely to figure out how to represent a brand in the social space or various other channels, whether that be mobile or social.  Then trying to figure out how to form relationships with people because I think, per your point, just starting a Facebook page doesn’t mean anyone is paying attention to you.  It has to be part of a larger strategy or a larger brand message so that is what we do.

You went to school for communications, how has that helped in your career?

I think that my career is kind of a funny one.  It wasn’t on purpose, this is all by accident that I’m here.  I went to school for communication largely because I was interested in the way that people communicate with one another, whether that be face to face or if there is a computer screen in front of them.  I started to work on as many companies as I could find, just doing startup work, at that time it was when websites were starting to make a big deal.  Suddenly I found myself with a lot of responsibility on my lap that I didn’t quite understand like how do we hack Google search?  How do we show up number one?  My boss would come to me and ask these things and I’d say I don’t know, so I’d have to figure out search engine optimization on my own.  The biggest thing that helped me in terms of my major was understanding communication ethics and it’s difficult when you can’t read nonverbal cues or if it’s text only so that’s something that stuck with me.

The whole winding up in advertising was not on purpose,  I didn’t actually want to go into advertising and Wieden+Kennedy kind of found me after I’d worked at a bunch of startups doing a bunch of nerdy things.  They said “hey we’re starting up our interactive group are you interested” and I had to Google who they were because I was not interested in advertising.

You held a lot of different positions when you were starting out but most people struggle to land their first position and once they do they usually stick with it.  How did you get your first position and how did you get so many positions? Do you think moving around helped?

The first few positions that I got I think were because I started to immerse myself into digital and like I mentioned started to work in some places that were kind of in touch and a little bit like playgrounds.  The fact that I understood search engine optimization to a certain extent and at that time had also done a bunch of paid media or media placements and media planning meant that I just had the opportunity to jump into lots of different roles for different companies.  At that time it was like I hit the ground right when my skill set was needed and that gave me the luxury of going to different places. Actually the startups that I went to and the fact that I jumped around was largely because the startups just didn’t start up.  I kind of just jumped and jumped and jumped until I found one that stuck and that’s kind of why I’m here still.  I think it’s important for young people to try different places out and if you find one that’s great, stick with it, that’s why I’ve been with Wieden+Kennedy for 5 years.  It’s important, especially in the beginning of your career, to just kind of see what you like and what you don’t like.

What do you think people should try to take from internships and first jobs?

The biggest piece with internships is finding one you feel is exciting.  There might be elements that you’re not so excited about and that’s okay, you should still do them.  I feel like it’s important to maybe not be in love with your first job ever because that gives you something to look forward to.  When you’re trying to figure out what your favourite job is or what your goal would be you kind of need to do that grunt work.  For interns especially, and people just entering the field, it’s okay not to know everything.  It’s important to fail and try to figure it out as you’re in it. I think that’s the best way to come out on top.  Just hit the ground running and figure it out in the middle of it and the heat of it.  The biggest thing for me was just taking a risk.  I didn’t know what the companies were, they were startups, and they were taking a risk by even existing so I had to be a little bit ballsy to just think okay I’m not sure what you’re doing or what I’m going to do but let’s do this because I believe in the people that are working here.

The websites you started with were online stores for barstools and barbecues, which are companies that some people might not think about when applying for marketing or analyst or interactive strategy positions.  It’s easy to think of the bigger companies when you start job hunting but your career shows that smaller companies need to fill these positions as well.

Absolutely.  I actually feel like when you’re in smaller companies you are given the opportunity to be a little bit scrappier because they have a smaller staff. You are given the opportunity to work on things that maybe don’t fall within your role exactly but give you a whole different level of skills that will help you in your career.  Start small if you’re given the option, sometimes you need to work your way up to the big leagues. It’s okay.  For me I always kind of loved the underdogs and the smaller spaces and places that kind of aren’t quite sure how to market themselves and aren’t quite sure what they’re doing.  I like figuring that out, it gives you a lot of opportunities.

New websites start up everyday, how would you recommend someone approach these sites if they want to get involved?

The biggest thing is figuring out how you can represent yourself online and sell yourself.  The first job I had there was kind of traditional way of finding it, I found an ad in the newspaper, a physical newspaper.  It was a number of years ago so the job search was a little more traditional.  After I got a bunch of experience, representing myself in the digital space became such an important thing.  I started to figure out things like when someone Googles me, what shows up?  I started to do what I had helped brands do for myself.  That meant at the time going to and figuring out how could I get my resume to show up first for the types of skill sets that I’m interested in.  How can I make it so that when someone Googles my name they are immediately brought to a website with a homepage that shows what I can do. That really helped me because a lot of smaller shops and recruiters in general, Wieden+Kennedy included, found me that way.  It started with an email saying “hey, we saw some of your stuff, we’re interested, let’s talk”.  I think that you want to be proactive and go after different places. It’s just as important, if not more important, to figure out how to represent yourself online.  So if you’re going to send an email, figuring out okay if I send this email my display name is going to show up, what are people going to see when search my name?  Because that’s the first step that they’re going to take.  I think it’s really important to figure out your own online persona and that’s tough because your online persona can vary depending on who you want to see it.  Your online persona to your friends should be very different than your online persona to potential jobs (laughs).

When I was in school around 2007-2008 there was a lot of talk about all these social media jobs and how big this field was going to be but it seems to have died down a bit.  What are companies looking for in an interactive strategist these days?

I think that you kind of hit on something that is really important, which is interactive strategy didn’t exist and is largely still being figured out. I think more than anything they are looking for people who are willing to be a little bit nimble and flexible and figure it out as they go along.  But for the most part it actually has become a little bit of a discipline, there are departments now,and it is a little bit more experienced.  I could speak to agencies and what they are looking for, they are looking for people who have figured out how to represent brands and form relationships and build communities.  I think actually community management, kind of being the person who manages communities in a social space on behalf of a brand is super important to what we do.  It gives you a base for the strategy.

It’s interesting because what you did, reaching out to me through email, is a bit of community management because it’s figuring out who you want to talk to and why, what they can do to help you build whatever you’re looking to build.  That’s exactly what community management is and it’s such a big part of the beginning or essence of what strategy is built on.  In general I think also it’s trying to find someone who is curious and interested in researching and coding and the less sexier parts of the internet.  When you talk to a traditional strategist versus an interactive strategist their answers are probably largely similar but the way they go about finding research is different.  It’s someone who is super curious and has a lot of experience just fucking around online and I think that doesn’t necessarily mean starting a Facebook page it means analyzing why people are starting Facebook pages and analyzing how people are representing themselves in a digital space.  You also need to be on top of platforms, Instagram came out with Instagram video yesterday and we’re all freaking out and it’s so much fun but what does that mean, especially for brands.

How do you keep up with everything that is going on online? Where everyone is hanging out and more importantly who is hanging out where?

It is largely dependent on the brands that I’m working on and the types of people that we’re going after.  I think that when you think about just in general advertising has a target audience that a brand is going after so where do those people hang out and that’s the way it’s been throughout time.  Now it’s really interesting in the digital space because moms hangout in different spaces than younger teenagers do.  So it’s just keeping my ear to the ground and being really curious. I read a lot online, I love to just see what people are doing and be a little bit voyeuristic in spaces that maybe I’m not a part of.  I don’t necessarily have a big presence on Reddit but that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in what people are saying and how they are saying it.  I think the same goes for Facebook and Twitter it’s just kind of observing and seeing what people are doing.  I was always a people watcher, my whole life, even as a little kid I would just watch people.  It’s the same way with the internet, actually I think it’s a lot easier and maybe a little less creepy (laughs).  That’s a really big thing for me that allows me to kind of see where people are and what they’re saying and why.

How much time do you spend online?

Oh man! Well it’s tough because a lot of my day is spent in meetings and taking client calls just like anyone in advertising.  I would say in order to produce the documents that I do I need to be online a good chunk of the time.  I’d say at least half of my day is spent just seeing what either the target audience is doing or what I’m curious in and just performing research that way.  At least half my day.  The other half is spent just like anyone else, taking calls, maybe traveling, I travel a decent amount, it’s all those little things that are still a part of what I do.

You guys got a lot of credit for running one of the first big successful campaigns through Instagram with your Oreo spot during the Superbowl.  Can you talk a little bit about that and the decision to to use Instagram.

It always comes back to business objectives for brands.  Our brand was looking to target a younger demographic and it just seemed natural when the idea started to bubble up that we would put it on a platform that would have that younger audience.  It was also so visual that it just made sense for it to be there.  I think we were the first brand to use Instagram during the Superbowl so it was really wonderful that we were the only ones playing in that space and it just felt so natural to the target audience that we were trying to go after.  A lot of what I do is coming up with research but also partnering with different teams here.  So when the creatives started to have an idea bubble up I was in that room like “yes we need to do this, we need to do this during Superbowl and this is why”.  But it was super hard because the essence of what we were doing, handmade sculptures, kind of goes against real time, handcrafted is kind of the opposite of what you think or equate to real world time.  It was kind of fun to push up against that and do something that people didn’t expect to be possible.  But we grew their fan base so quickly.

You brought up Instagram video earlier, how do stay current with all the new platforms?

A lot of it is just that I’m on those platforms.  If I don’t have a presence myself I’m still digging around to see what people are doing and trying to understand the trends.  Our brands are largely on these platforms so it’s always just making sure to understand what different platforms are doing so there’s an opportunity for our brands to jump in on it and know what it is and we can bring them into it.  It’s as simple as just reading the platform blogs but it is even more complex by finding who the influential people are on those platforms and seeing how they’re using the platforms and what they’re doing.

It was really fun to see Instagram video come out yesterday because you saw a range in the way people use it.  There were people kind of just taking a video to say “hi Instagram video” which you saw a lot of but I think what was really neat were the people who have a handle on visuals, there was a really interesting stop-motion video by some folks that have that talent and maybe have that skill set.  It will be really fun and it is fun for me to kind of see the behavioural stuff, that’s what I always get jazzed over is HOW are these people going to use these platforms not just that they’re going to be there.

Who do you work with? It sounds like you work a lot with the clients but also the strategy department, there’s probably programers, graphic designers, people who turn your ideas into technical realities.

We partner with the planners.  I’m also always making sure to have a good relationship with the creative teams here, to try to help feed the idea but also extend it once that idea starts to get baked.  I work mostly with the account managers because even though I’m not an account manager I am client-facing and it’s really important for me to maintain a rapport with clients.  It’s also it’s funny that you mention designers and developers because those are people that I do interface with regularly.  I always work really closely with producers.

I’m part of an idea from inception, it’s not like I’m just like “okay that idea’s good” I have to make sure that the way that it is actually executed and launched is sustained and is true to the original strategic objective.  I work with basically everyone.  I feel like I interface with almost every type of team in the building.  It’s so wonderful.  It’s kind of why I love what I do because I’m always meeting new types of people and having to figure out ways to communicate myself to speak to a developer versus a client.  That’s a very different type of language that you speak and that’s one of my favourite parts of my job.

I think a lot of people assume your job is strictly creative but there are also technical requirements. . . I guess what I’m asking is how much math is involved?

(Laughs) When I first hit the interactive strategy team I did a heavy dose of analytics.  Leveraging tools that exist like something as simple as Google Analytics and understanding what numbers mean is a big skill set for what I do and have done in the past.  I love being in Excel spreadsheets and sifting through the numbers and it doesn’t scare me now because the cool thing that I’m always curious about is, what does this say? How can I translate this to a creative opportunity?  If not a creative opportunity how can we optimize the creative off of what these numbers are talking about?  There is an analytical side to what I do, which is funny because I hated math my whole life and then suddenly I found myself in this place.  I had to figure it out and I was researching Excel keyboard commands because my life was being consumed by data.  Now it’s a really fun part of what I do and I think the key is just figuring out that it’s not just numbers.  It’s figuring out what do these numbers actually mean when we put them together.  What is the story we are trying to tell with this?  What is the opportunity?  I guess it is a big part of my day.  I’m kind of split down the middle between being analytical and being creative.

You can be really good at the math aspect but if you can’t break it down and articulate your findings in a presentation it’s basically worthless.  How do go about translating these technical things into everyday language?

It takes practice.  I’ve been in meetings where I’ve said things and my clients didn’t understand what I was talking about.  It’s a lot of trying to figure out the right way to communicate to your clients, just as you would with trying to find the right way to communicate to anyone something that is kind of a difficult topic to understand.  The biggest thing for me is just that if you see your click-through rates are super high or your engagement rates are really high what does that really mean?  I’m always trying to find what it means, what is the Y behind this, what’s that behaviour that we can tap into?  So I guess for me it’s always just breaking it down.  Engagement, what does that mean?  Are people going to give a shit about what we’re doing?  And then everyone understands that, it’s just taking those buzzwords or mathematical terms and breaking them down into everyday language.  Also working super closely with measurement folks because in the beginning, at least at this agency, we didn’t really have a measurement team so I kind of limelighted and did a little measurement work here and there.  It’s such a great thing to be able to work closely with people whose whole day is kind of consumed by that.

While I was going through your work I noticed there were some that were funny and some that were emotional, how important is it to be versatile and adapt to the different clients and companies you are working with based on their image or needs?

It’s super important to be able to adapt to what your client is looking for.  I think I mentioned before that it always stems from what is the clients business object, who are they looking to speak to?  That is different across the board.  It’s always different but you make sure it’s rooted in research that backs up that business objective.  It’s marrying that data and the math and verbatim, what people are doing or saying, to what the client is setting out to do.  You need to be able to work with clients that span all different types of feelings and emotions.

What’s a typical day like for you?  Do you have typical days?

I think I don’t have typical days.  I feel like I’m always doing something different and that’s kind of why I like what I do because it’s not the same.  Depending on where we are on a project on any given day I am working closely with teams who are coming up with the idea, I work closely with producers to make sure that the idea is being executed, working really closely with the measurement people to make sure that the idea is being well received and trying to find those little nuggets to see how to optimize it.  Also just in general keeping my ear to the ground for opportunities that might pop up that aren’t necessarily campaign specific.  Then there is the client piece, always making sure that I’m available and a partner to the folks that I work for.  It’s not a lot of sitting at my desk (laughs) I like to be busy and I’m busy everyday (laughs).

What have been some of the highlights of your career so far?

I started at Wieden+Kennedy having not really understood advertising and 5 years in I think I have a good understanding of what advertising is all about.  Being given the luxury of working with all these different types of people with all different types of skill sets around advertising has been the biggest most exciting thing in my career.  Working on brands who are great partners and to do things that haven’t been done before is also really fun.  I think that working on Oreo and that Superbowl campaign was so great because we literally just put all of our souls into it and didn’t sleep and didn’t eat and just smelt cookies and cream for days.

I also think that the other highlights are just being able to work on a range of clients.  I started out at Wieden+Kennedy New York and worked on predominantly entertainment clients and got a lot of visibility there, which meant flying out to Los Angeles and chatting with entertainment brands and understanding that world.  Then three years ago I moved to Portland, which is very different from New York, but I’ve been given the opportunity to work on almost every brand in the building in someway over the past 5 years and that’s been super wonderful because I’ve been given the opportunity to try out so many different things.  I also think that working on a team that was largely unsure of what it was and has gone through a metamorphosis, interactive strategy, that department when I jumped in was 3 people and now we are in double digits.  It has been amazing to see that change and be a part of it and mentor people and guide them through the process has also been a lot of fun.

For you starting out when it was so unclear and you maybe didn’t have a mentor, how did you go about learning something that wasn’t really established and was always changing?

It was a lot of not really being sure but being cool with not being sure.  That was the biggest piece. Working in an advertising agencies, Wieden+Kennedy is an amazing place but there is kind of a rhythm to what we do in advertising and then suddenly there’s this new department that was almost like a startup within a traditional agency.  So it was being okay with not understanding everything and still trying to want to breakthrough and make it make sense, which is what I think kept me here for so long.  I worked in New York and I really loved it and I worked with some amazing people but I wanted the opportunity to work closer with creative teams and just in general with creators so I came here to the mothership and that allowed me to explore interactive strategy in a whole different way. Being cool with not knowing everything and just trying to figure it out has kind of been my mantra “I don’t know but I’ll figure it out” (laughs).

What do you think is the most stressful part of your job?

The interactive space never sleeps so it can be stressful that things might arise at 6 o’clock on a Friday so I need to make sure I’m here helping usher those ideas along and that means kind of having to do a really interesting balance with my personal life and my career, which has been the hardest thing, especially now that I’m a new mom.  It’s been the hardest thing because you constantly feel pulled in two directions but if I didn’t feel pulled in two directions I’d be doing something wrong.

Congratulations on the baby.

Thank you.  She’s one and a half and she’s really the reason that I wake up everyday and still do this crazy shit.

I was checking out the blog and Instagram and Wieden+Kennedy looks like a really fun place to work.  What are some of the perks of working there?

It’s a lot of craziness that can be super fun, I work with a lot of people who love what they do and there is an extreme passion in the building.  It’s super collaborative here, it doesn’t always matter what your title is, if there’s a good idea they want you to be a part of it and help usher it along.  The biggest perk is just working with passionate people who are excited and just want to fucking do it.  Our agency and the culture here, there’s a laid backness and kind of an understanding between the employees that we’re all just people working in this amazing place and we’re lucky to be here, which has been the biggest thing.  Also just working on big brands is fun too.  Making sure that you get to speak with clients at crazy places is a big perk.  The travel goes along with it, I’ve travelled a good amount, which is fun particularly for me because I grew up in New Jersey in the middle of nowhere and had been on a couple planes and in advertising it’s part of the job so it’s super rad that I’m able to meet new people and go to new places.

Who are some of the people you work with in advertising who have cool or interesting jobs that most people might not know about?

The biggest thing for me are the technologists, the creative technologists, the people who can actually build shit are the coolest people I’ve ever met in my life.  They can take an idea and just build it or take an idea and extend it and they actually know how to make things.  Those are the people that I think most people don’t understand are also a part of the agencies now.  They are little mad scientists running around building things and that’s really cool.  For me working with designers and seeing how beautiful even the smallest things can be has been really interesting.  I don’t think a lot of people understand that part either, there are people who can make everything look good, it’s this crazy talent.  Those are the two that I like working with the most and I feel like I learn the most from.

Do you have any final advice for anyone looking to become an interactive strategist?

Don’t be afraid to work in places that are small.  When you’re starting out try to get as many opportunities as possible even if that means working pro bono at a bunch of small places in your town or taking an internship even though you feel like you deserve a bigger position.  You need to make sure that you try to work your way up.  Whenever I see candidates I think that the biggest thing is to make sure they’re representing themselves well in the interactive space.  That’s the biggest thing.  Because if you’re supposed to be expected to represent a brand you need to make sure you’re doing it for yourself first.

Date: November 28, 2014 • Category:
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