Unsung Heroes - the strategist: Nicole Seah, VML Singapore

Nicole Seah is a senior strategist at VML Singapore who works regularly across cross-disciplinary teams.

The Drum has launched a new series called 'Unsung Heroes', in celebration of the people in the industry who slog hard behind the limelight for brands and clients,

In this new series, The Drum speaks to these heroes and celebrate the work they do for their clients quietly behind the scenes. As they are seldom in the spotlight for their contribution to the success of campaigns, this is their time to shine.

If you think of someone who deserves this recognition, please get in touch with Shawn Lim and nominate them! You can read the first feature, in which we looked at the role of the stylist here.

Today, we are featuring Nicole Seah, a senior strategist at VML Singapore who argues that the strategist is an unsung hero because they do not get enough recognition for creating and executing the tactics and strategies for clients to reach their customers. She also adds that there is a misconception that their main role is to surf the web and buy ads on Facebook.

Why is your job important?

I used to wonder how to articulate the job scope of a strategist, until I chanced upon an article that described the job of an agency strategist as being a combination of a shaman, sherpa and showman.

I identify the most with the sherpa label, as the nature of our jobs can get a bit chaotic at times, and I do derive a lot of satisfaction from making sense of the chaos, providing an overarching direction and connecting the dots for both clients and the internal agency team.

What is the hardest and stressful part of your job?

Staying ahead of the latest digital trends can be tough enough as it is, but with social media the cycle has just gotten a lot more compressed and as a result, I’m in a 24/7 state of FOMO trying to keep up with what’s new in the space while still trying to maintain a macro perspective on everything.

It has gotten to a point where I have cut down on social media postings on my own personal accounts even though I used to be more active, as I deal with it far too often at work.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

When I see a client’s face light up with understanding and enlightenment because of a recommendation we’ve put together, or when clients leave a discussion with much more clarity on what needs to be done next, and feel that we’ve added value to their business.

First thing that comes to people’s minds when you tell them your job?

There was one Chinese New Year where I was speaking with a relative who was a pilot, and he said, “Isn’t your job quite easy? All you do is play Facebook.” To which I quipped “Piloting a plane is easy too, all you need to do is to push a button and it brings you to your destination.”

It was all in jest ultimately, although it does demonstrate a fundamental misconception on what digital agencies do.

How would you correct/explain to them what you do then?

I usually tell them that everyone knows how to use digital channels such as social media, but not everyone knows how to use digital effectively for business. When we think about promoting a product or service, we have to consider many factors beyond just social media, but thinking as well about short form and long form content, partnerships, online communities, digital paid media channels, what kind of KPIs we need to hit to know we’ve been successful in shifting the needle, even how PR might play a role helping us achieve our business objectives.

I think people outside the industry start to understand this a lot better when they come to ask for advice on how to promote their own business or product. Then they start to realise that there both big and small ways to optimise whatever they’re doing to make their communications more impactful and effective.

Is there anything you want to change in your job?

The fast pace of agency life is what keeps me excited and on my toes, although sometimes I do feel there is value in taking a step back and recalibrating every once in a while.

Which is a campaign you've worked on, that you are most proud of?

We have gone beyond campaigns to do a fair bit of digital transformation strategy work with our clients. We were commissioned by a government body that was recently merged. At the time of appointment, their communications efforts were helmed by several different stakeholders, and fragmented into more than 20 over channels, which proved to be a mammoth task for their marketing team to consolidate. VML’s role was to optimise and simplify everything that they were doing without diluting the integrity of the individual stakeholders’ work, and to present a strategic way forward for the organisation.

To do so, we ran an extensive annual audit diving into every form of public communications on each of these channels, and analysed the findings quantitatively and qualitatively to consider how we could streamline efforts further. From there, we conducted collaborative workshops across stakeholder teams before developing an overarching content and channel strategy that had to be macro enough, while at the same time useful for each of these departments to adopt, bearing in mind that each had vastly different objectives and reached different groups of Singaporeans.

Finally, we had to pitch in the approved strategy to several stakeholder teams, inclusive of both working-level and senior-level government clients to get their buy-in, while juggling the different needs and feedback of each department. All in all, the entire process was very extensive and took more than 6 months to complete, but the final output is something that the VML team, myself included, is very proud of and we hope to see the longevity of our counsel in their future marketing efforts.

Who is someone you want to emulate in your industry?

Eric Yeo from Leo Burnett. I had the pleasure of meeting him when I was working on the Coca Cola business in Thailand, and he strikes me as a rare breed in the industry who is interesting, authentic, big-hearted, whip smart and looks out for the little people.

Chatting with him for 15 minutes inspires me to want to be a better person, and I hope to someday pay that forward to others.

If you were not a senior strategist, what would you be?

I would probably be writing for a content publisher. I like to understand what makes people tick.

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