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Strands of Genius : Chelsea Brown + 7 Challenges for Retail Media in 2023
featuring: an interview with our guest editor and a research report
Welcome to the Bonus edition of Strands of Genius! On Fridays, we’ll be publishing interviews from our guest editors, and sharing a research report. Thanks for being along for the ride. Oh and by the way, you look great today :)
:: STEAL THIS THINKING | RESEARCH REPORT ::
It is believed that 2023 is the time for advertisers to buckle up and get retail media on their radar, for retailers to do their part in evangelizing retail media and for the wider retail media tech ecosystem to speak the language of marketers not the languages of tech.
:: DIVE IN | THE INTERVIEW ::
CHELSEA BROWN, INDEPENDENT BRAND STRATEGIST
>> Chelsea Brown guest curated Strands on June 1st, 2023. Read it here.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what keeps you busy. How did you end up doing what you’re doing today?
Like most strategists, I fell a$$-backwards into strategy.
I grew up an outsider, moving every few years because of my dad's military career and explaining American culture to my French mom. It was fun! Honestly. My "School of Life" gave me the training to always find a way to connect with people, to be curious enough to find the commonalities, and to be respectful enough to celebrate the differences. I found the best metaphor for that bonding agent was STORY.
I decided to use that love of stories to go to grad school to study mythology. The plan was a PhD, but after 2 years of student debt wracking up, I decided to take a leave of absence with my Master's and see what I could do with it. The official degree title: Master's of Mythological Studies with an Emphasis in Depth Psychology. I applied to a French-speaking office manager position at a "design agency" (no clue what that was) so that I could get some experience to eventually get a job at Google for the bennies. I looked at what the agency did and decided to write an audacious cover letter saying "Looks like you work with brands. I can help your brands find their story." And bingo bango, I described a brand strategist's job without ever knowing what a brand strategist was.
Over the last 8 years, I've worked with B2B, B2C, CPG, and OMG brands. (I made up that last acronym, but woah, we should start categorizing some brands as OMG brands.) After being laid off in 2021, I started freelancing. For me, it works because I can design my days to not be centered around work. I have a 6-month old daughter and a dream to own a bookstore, so I don't actually want to do a ton of work!
When I do do work, I do a lot of positioning work, like establishing brand foundations and messaging guidelines. I usually work with a creative and copywriter at some point towards the end of my engagement. I also dabble in pure qualitative research projects. I'm currently exploring more retainer models because that gives me flexibility with a safety net.
What excites you most about what you do?
Finding the story. I think of every phase and deliverable - even the whole project - as a story. It helps me create presentations and helps get people onboard with my ideas faster. If I'm stuck, I use my "debriefing"/venting sessions with my partner and friends as a way to find the story. But the thrill of finding a story is phenomenal. It reminds me of that connective thread throughout all humans; we love a good story.
And running workshops. I love facilitating, designing engaging activities, and the electric alignment that comes from getting a team together. I try to work at least one workshop into every project.
What beliefs define your approach to work? How would you define your leadership style?
As you might have already picked up, I'm big into narrative. Everything is a myth. My good friend Whitney Beltrán (fellow MA in myth and video game studio director) defined a myth as "a story about ourselves we tell ourselves in order to understand ourselves." And I think that's what brands are looking for when they come to me. They're looking to understand themselves, to find their own myth. If they can tell their own story well enough, then hopefully they get their customers/consumers/audiences to want to be a part of it.
As such, I do not prescribe to the idea of that a myth is unreal or a lie or made-up. Or rather, it can be those things, but that doesn't mean it isn't true.
Aside from that bigger philosophical stance, my main approach is to shoot the sh*t. I like meandering meetings where we talk about all the things. It's how I engage in lateral thinking and find inspiration. Because of this tendency and because I also know there are real-life constraints like meeting end times and people's attention, I tend to be quite regimented with little organizational and project management tactics. I feel creatively free to engage in seemingly unrelated topics of conversation if I have a pretty thorough, almost pedantic checklist that I know we're going to get through. This is why PMs are actual miracle workers and deserve to be paid more.
What has been the most rewarding project you’ve worked on and why?
Last year I worked with a small local hardware company, Nanu Electrics, on their brand positioning and content strategy. It was emotionally rewarding. They were good people to work with who constantly said flattering things like "Chelsea, you're our sherpa" and "Chelsea, you made all this scary, complicated soul-searching stuff really easy." <3 They were angels. Unfortunately, they launched a kickstarter when I was on mat leave, got scared, and threw out a lot of the work I had done for the kickstarter! :( But I forgive them because they're young, it can be scary, and they still got their project fully funded.
We are big believers in diversity -- Not only because we believe in equality, but because we also think it’s better for business. The Black Lives Matter movement has shaped industry conversations around both global injustice, and also lack of representation in our industry. How do you frame these kinds of conversations, both internally and with clients? Is there an emphasis on action, or are the conversations really more about communication?
First of all, I think of diversity as being more than skin color. It's about backgrounds, cultures, physicality, gender, location, and sexuality. It's all the things.
The way I go about it depends on the type of project, but it's always a topic. If I'm doing a stakeholder interview, I always bring it up then as a question. I ask about any and all diversity efforts. As I'm building out a positioning or developing some brand foundations, I encourage the client to evaluate the work from a diversity perspective. Does this promote, ladder up to, and demonstrate diversity goals? Are those goals realistic, or just lip-service?
I also look at my partners - the people I work with a lot - and think about how I can use my door as an opportunity. When I was on mat leave and recommending other strategists, I made it a point to list women of color first.
I educate myself on and use any language adaptations that might arise in a new-to-me industry or category. When I was working with a healthcare client, I heard about "pregnant person" as an inclusive alternative to "pregnant woman" and pushed the client to adopt it in all their messaging.
And this is a small thing, but I always make sure that none of the pictures in my presentations show white, hetero, able-bodied, 38-year old men. It can make a world of difference when you're showing a target consumer who is in a wheel-chair, with a same-sex partner, and/or not white. Any time I'm creating persona name, I use non-Anglo or non-gendered names. If the client doesn't want to do the work, then it's my job to do all I can to inspire them.
Switching gears a bit, how do you find time to balance personal interests with your career? Do you believe work/life balance is possible? Anything you’ve implemented that you recommend that others try?
OOOF what a big question. First of all, I want to be really clear: capitalism is responsible for creating a work/life dichotomy for the twofold reason of exploiting our labor and then selling us things to help us deal with the exploitation. So, unfortunately, no, I don't think a work/life balance is possible because I don't think there is a difference. Work is part of your life. We just have been forced into over-indexing and finding our worth in our work and careers.
I think a strategist's career is only enriched by having many other interests. I think we should be doing strategy work for only, like, 5 hours a week or something ludicrously small. The rest of the time we should be consuming culture and chatting with each other. And doing a lot of self-work so that we really have empathy for others.
Now, do I actually live my life according to all that highfalutin stuff? NO. So here's what I do.
- I use Toggl to track my work time for myself. I hate when clients make me do timesheets and I push back HARD when I asked. But for myself, I like learning how long it takes me to do things. It makes me a better partner because I can reasonably say how much longer I'll be working.
- I make sure to do things during the day that feel luxurious. Especially as a working mom, I do a lot of my work at odd hours. Sometimes my days can feel like wasted time, waiting for my kid to go down for the night so that I can work. To change that, I've started going out for boba or playing Zelda during nap times so that way I don't feel like I'm losing down-time with my new nocturnal work schedule. Those are the things that I remember.
- On that note, I (try to) go outside when I notice the weather is nice. I live in San Francisco, where you can go through all four seasons in the span of a day. So I take advantage of good weather when it comes to me.
- Changing my mindset from "I have to" to "I want to". It sounds like entre-bro-neur speak, but it does help me see the joy in some tasks.
- For all you out there with ADHD - if it take less than 2 minutes to do, do it now. It helps me feel so much more on top of the house/life admin stuff.
What’s your media diet? Where do you find inspiration?
I'm so embarrassed by this. It's not great, due to my aforementioned 6-month old.
I read a lot of fantasy/sci-fi books and graphic novels. I watch movies and TV shows, a lot of the HBO Max (RIP) stuff. I listen to The Big Picture podcast. I go on LWS and read the articles shared there. My partner sends me articles to read. I go on IG...a lot. I watch a lot of DIY and tiny home videos on YouTube.
But honestly, I watch my kid. Seeing her see the world is magical. Windows are weird and feet are fascinating, if you think about it.
What’s the best piece of advice/knowledge you’ve stolen, and who/where’d you steal it from?
I heard Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace, say something along the lines of "your suffering is directly proportional to the distance between reality and your perception." I don't think I particularly like him. But the idea helps me remember to accept reality. And to redirect my efforts to what I can actually change.
From my daughter I've learned that everyone was a baby inherently deserving of love from the beginning. Even that one client.
My friend Kate has taught me many things. Firstly, to always ask "Do you want my help, or for me to just listen?" Secondly, to question what my desired outcome is. This has had a resounding impact on all parts of my life.
My friend Colette has taught me boundaries. "No" is a complete sentence. Taking time to consider an answer (and not feeling the need to answer in a meeting) is okay.
Octavia Butler and her work are a wellspring of wisdom on the dignity of perseverance and the beauty of change.
The Dune series taught me about the lifecycle of a myth. The whole series is a really fascinating deconstruction of the hero's journey.
The Florida swamplands and Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy taught me how life and death and mutation all live side-by-side. In fact, they're the same thing.
My dad has taught me how to start a fire and to always keep an eye on mile markers when driving.
Whenever my mom forgets something, she says "Well, must not have been important." And while I know that's not always true, it helps me move on.
And my Lita, my French grandmother, taught me to never go to bed with wet hair and to never leave the house with un-ironed clothes. I don't always follow her advice (she also irons bedsheets), but I think it's good to strive towards them. In this age of WFH and remote work, it's good to maintain some standard of personal appearance.
How have you grown the most?
I now push dishes and glasses further in, away from the edge. I'm really proud of myself every time I do that.
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It's called Genius Steals because we believe ideas are new combinations and that nothing can come from nothing. But copying is lazy. We believe the best way to innovate is to look at the best of that which came before and combine those elements into new solutions.
Co-Founders Faris & Rosie are award-winning strategists and creative directors, writers, consultants and public speakers who have been living on the road/runway since March 2013, working with companies all over the world. Our Director of Operations is nomadic like us, our accounting team is based in Tennessee where our company is registered, our admin extraordinaire is based in Playa del Carmen, and our collaborators are all over the world. Being nomadic allows us to go wherever clients need us to be, and to be inspired by the world in between.
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