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Planning for the Best: “Strategists Are Creators,” Believes Kristina Jenkins
Advertising Agency
Los Angeles, USA
MullenLowe Los Angeles’ head of strategy on strategy as a guiding force to inform and empower creative ideas

Kristina Jenkins joined MullenLowe Los Angeles as its head of strategy in May of this year, bringing with her over 20 years of experience of working with brands like Disney, Google, HBO, Instagram, Hulu, FX, Taco Bell, Venmo, Reebok, Verizon and Marriott. 

Prior to joining MullenLowe, Kristina held the chief strategy officer position at Eleven, where she was brought on to transform the agency to be more purpose-driven and to pioneer a more empathetic industry workplace culture where creativity and creators can truly thrive. 

Two years prior, Kristina was head of strategy at Cashmere Agency, solidifying it as the 'world’s first culture agency' and earning it a spot as an Ad Age A-List Standout Agency. She served as Zambezi’s first chief strategy officer, where she helped double staff and billings, and led the agency to be named Ad Age’s Small Agency of the Year in 2016. 

"We are a powerful force in bringing new possibilities to brands so that they can introduce new possibilities to the world," she says of her fellow strategists. "Yes, we are thinkers, but we are also doers and makers, actively driving the manifestation of innovative ideas."

Read on to find out more.

LBB> What do you think is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there one?

Kristina> ‘Planner’ feels like a term from a bygone era in the advertising industry, while ‘strategist’ is a more current and relevant descriptor. Planners were the go-to for powerful insights to help create ads, whereas strategists are now the driving force behind actualising a brand’s vision, developing brand actions and campaign ideas to move that vision forward while achieving business success and cultural impact along the way.

LBB> Considering your response, this might be an obvious question. But, which description do you think suits the way you work best?

Kristina> Strategist, because I love shaping how a brand behaves, evolves, and engages with people and culture at large. I very much believe that strategists are creators because we operate and think like creators. We are a powerful force in bringing new possibilities to brands so that they can introduce new possibilities to the world. Yes, we are thinkers, but we are also doers and makers, actively driving the manifestation of innovative ideas.

LBB> We’re used to hearing about the best creative advertising campaigns, but what’s your favourite historic campaign from a strategic perspective? One that you feel demonstrates great strategy?

Kristina> I try not to look to the past for inspiration. Being immersed in the current moment and how people’s needs and values are shifting allows me to help brands play their unique role in creating a better and different future. Recently, I’ve been immersed in the launch of Nike Well Collective, a journey of the iconic sport brand evolving into a holistic wellness brand for the future, knowing that their audience’s expectations of them are shifting in unprecedented ways. The commitment and ability to adapt and change like this is an inspiring demonstration of the difference great strategy makes.

LBB> When you’re turning a business brief into something that can inform an inspiring creative campaign, do you find the most useful resource to draw on?

Kristina> I stretch out into culture and draw inspiration from the creators who are moving it forward. I immerse myself in trending content across the worlds of fashion, wellness, music, entertainment, etc. I find ways to live the experience of the audience we’re aiming to connect with and get in tune with the brand’s organisational culture and business pressures. I look at what other brands are doing in the space while incorporating learnings from totally different industries. This intentional mix of influences and resources pushes my thinking to unexpected and authentic places. 

LBB> What part of your job/the strategic process do you enjoy the most? 

Kristina> I enjoy the challenge of envisioning what’s next for a brand and the impact they can make on culture. I empower my team and my clients to think and create in bold ways. At the heart of strategy is imagination and the energy to put new ideas and different ways of working into action. At MullenLowe, we lens our processes and tools with ‘positive dissatisfaction’ to ensure we’re evolving beyond what’s been done before. 

LBB> What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself going back to over and over again? Why are they so useful?

Kristina> I revisit several principles, including: there are powerful ideas at the intersection of what people and culture need and how a brand’s unique superpowers allow them to show up in ways that only they can.

However, in the spirit of reinvention, I always challenge myself not to get too comfortable in the way I work and come up with new ways of doing things.

LBB> What sort of creatives do you like to work with? As a strategist, what do you want them to do with the information you give them?

Kristina> I enjoy collaborating with creatives who share a belief in the fusion of strategy and creative expression, who bring an entrepreneurial mindset to how we work (embracing building new things, in new mediums, in new ways), who believe in making audiences feel seen in the campaigns we put out into the world and who are passionate about ideas that have a transformative impact on an entire brand organisation, extending beyond marketing.

LBB> There’s a negative stereotype about strategy being used to validate creative ideas, rather than as a resource to inform them and make sure they’re effective. How do you make sure the agency gets this the right way round? 

Kristina> I believe in strategy acting as a guiding force to inform and empower creative ideas, but I don’t subscribe to the ‘right way’ to do so, because it doesn’t create space to use strategy in different or new ways, especially when a brand’s ambition or their audience requires that we do so. 

I inspire all the agency disciplines (strategy included) to stay open to adapting and showing up in whatever way is necessary, because creativity and innovation through challenges are fluid. I embrace being flexible, especially in the context of the ever-changing culture and business realities that we navigate. By maintaining this fluidity and embracing the true potential of strategy, we ensure that the agency approaches the process in the way that will get us to effective ideas.

LBB> What have you found to be the most important consideration in recruiting and nurturing strategic talent?

Kristina> As an industry, we must push beyond the boundaries of recruiting from familiar places. Our goal is to cultivate a thriving environment for talent, aligning ourselves with the company we strive to become in the future, not just the one we are today.

When it comes to being a leader, I prioritise authenticity. I put a tremendous amount of heart into understanding individuals, their journeys, and passions to unlock their strategic superpowers, offering compassionate and honest feedback, even in challenging situations. I believe in creating opportunities to help individuals grow and stretch their skill sets.

Collaboration is essential; rather than shutting down ideas, I work together to enhance them. I recognise the value of allowing space for self-discovery, even when it's tempting to provide specific guidance. Instead of waiting for perfection, I inspire us to get ideas going and update them as we learn along the way.

LBB> In recent years it seems like effectiveness awards have grown in prestige and agencies have paid more attention to them. How do you think this has impacted on how strategists work and the way they are perceived?

Kristina> Effectiveness awards help demonstrate how agencies and brands operate at a powerful intersection, producing effective industry-leading marketing campaigns that positively impact their business while upholding the creativity and originality that is essential to great advertising. Strategists are now expected to lead and contribute at this intersection, inspiring great creative while also being a steward of strategy from beginning to end, to drive results. 

LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?

Kristina> As a discipline, we often rely solely on familiar sources, treating them as the ultimate authorities on strategy, great creative work, and marketing. While it's true they bring valuable expertise, we shouldn't limit ourselves to just them. There are so many other voices out there with unique insights that we should look to.

Instead of always starting or stopping with the usual experts, we need to incorporate different perspectives. By doing so, we can uncover the fresh ideas and approaches that we need to truly be on the cutting edge of what we do. 

LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?

  • Embrace your uniqueness, as it is the key to developing your own exceptional strategic style.
  • Identify the skills and contributions that truly energise you and harness them to create your strategic superpowers.
  • Embrace curiosity and openness to change, especially when it’s tempting to keep doing things the way they have always been done.
  • Prioritise your wellbeing and health, self-care has a central role to play in achieving greatness and creating amazing things. 

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