Interview with a… Brand Strategist

Sean DuffyA very special guest is sitting in Firehead’s interview hot seat this month: Sean Duffy, founder of Duffy Agency. Sean is one of the world’s leading brand strategists with 25 years’ experience working with clients ranging from IKEA to GSK. Here he reveals the tasks, challenges, background and skills you need to be a brand strategist in a web 2.0 world.

For other web content and tech comm roles, read more Q&As in our behind-the-scenes job insight series. Have we covered your job in professional communications? If you’re working in any of our recruitment areas, get in touch about potentially doing a guest Q&A.

What is your job title?

My job title is brand strategist, although I like to think of it as brand detective because I solve mysteries such as why is our brand invisible in Germany, why don’t the Chinese understand our offer or what do Brazilian women feel about exercise? I work at a company I founded in 2001 called Duffy Agency. We use sleuthing, strategy and marketing communication to build brands internationally. We have offices in Malmö, Sweden, and Boston, USA.

What does brand strategy involve?

In a nutshell: I help CEOs, CMOs, brand managers and ad agency planners see the world through the eyes of the customer. And having done that, I help them communicate more effectively.

Most brands have a compelling story to tell the world. But often the relevance and product advantages get obscured in the marketing process so that consumers never really understand. This can be because the brand focuses its communication on the wrong messages, because it uses the wrong communication channels, because it has lost touch with the real wants and needs of its target group, or all of the above. We help identify and fix these things.

We start by getting to know the target market up close and personal. Usually by talking to them. We map their perceptions and look for overlap between their unmet needs and the brand’s offer. Then we help create a message that is both relevant to buyers’ needs and differentiating from competitors. We also help brands create a plan for how this message will be used across the various communication channels, particularly online.

What kind of background do you need to become a brand strategist?

You need a background in marketing theory and brand strategy. This can be through a master’s degree, through work experience or both. Beyond that you need to have very good analytical skills and writing ability. A genuine curiosity about life also helps a lot.

I began as a copywriter working in advertising agencies. When I was promoted to creative director I got a lot more involved in the strategy and planning behind the campaigns. I was hooked. While I still love copywriting, I have been devoting more and more of my time to brand strategy over the past 15 years.

Any challenges?

The biggest challenge in working with branding is that no two marketers seem to have the same definition of a brand or the activity of branding. This fuels miscommunication and slows development in the field. Aside from that, the hours can be long and the work quite demanding in terms of both travel and focus.

And the best bits?

The best thing is you get to do what you love every day: learn about new things, solve complex marketing mysteries and communicate your insights to others. No two days are ever the same, you never stop learning and you get to meet lots of interesting people. On the practical side, the compensation is also very competitive.

Is there job mobility/security?

Brand strategists can be found in traditional ad agencies, branding agencies, digital marketing agencies like Duffy Agency, more general business consultancies, PR agencies or working freelance. The field seems to be growing and jobs can be found in most major cities around the world.

Training and development options?

The Lund University School of Economics and Management offers a programme in international brand management that I’ve been involved with for several years. Last year, professor Veronika Tarnovskayaand I began a special programme to bridge classic brand management theory with online marketing strategies. The online component was called – you can get check our page out on Facebook. That course was developed for graduate students. Veronika and I are now talking with the university about creating a special version of the course for marketing executives this year.

With regard to books, there are the classics like Positioning by Trout & Reis and Kotler’s work. But there is a new book that I’m recommending to all my coworkers and clients. It’s called Tell the Truth by Sue Unerman and Jonathan Baskin – transparency: Jonathan is a friend of mine but that’s not why I’m recommending his book – which is built around the premise that honesty is not just the ethical right choice but is the only option today to build competitive brands. Definitely worth a read.

What kind of career progression is available?

I suppose there are levels of brand strategist (eg, junior and senior) in big firms. But I find the promotion comes more in terms of the opportunity to work on increasingly interesting and challenging brands. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many fascinating cases from global consumer brands IKEA, Volvo and Absolut to life science brands like GSK, Pfizer and Bayer. I’m hopeful that my next promotion will come in the form of a new international brand launch or repositioning.

What’s your work motto?

“Don’t guess, ask.” Most marketing communications fail because the marketer assumes to know their target and doesn’t bother to invest the time in understanding them. If you want to know what you can do to increase your sales, just ask your prospects. They have all the answers and never lie. Of course, to get the right answer you do have to know what to ask and how to turn the information you gather into actionable strategy, tactics and communication. That’s where we come in.

Sean Duffy spent 18 years with ad agencies in Boston, San Francisco, Copenhagen and Stockholm before founding Duffy Agency, an international digital marketing agency, in 2001. Sean has been director of TAAN Europe and a lecturer at the Lund University School of Economics. He is also a blogger, Twitterer and is on LinkedIn.

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