Planning for the Best: Being a Creative Translator with Megan Carrigan
Megan Carrigan began as an account manager at independent creative and performance agency Union and soon rose to the role of account director and then experience director, during which she led the digital experiences team of about 30 people. Soon after, she started Union’s Strategy department.
Megan is no stranger to awards. Among her many accomplishments: Six AAF Charlotte or District awards in the past two years for clients such as Volvo, CRVA, Pepsi, and CRVA; an AWWWARDS Site of the Day distinction for Union.co, and a pair of Webbys for her digital work with MUZAK. She has served on panels for Strategy on Creative 2021 (AAF Charlotte) and Society for Experiential Graphic Design (North Carolina Chapter, 2021).
LBB> When you’re turning a business brief into something that can inform an inspiring creative campaign, what do you find the most useful resource to draw on?
Megan> When looking at this from a creative perspective, especially as a performance marketing agency, we rely on data—from current campaigns to existing clients to research. We’re ingesting information from a variety of sources. Once we are running a campaign, we are always testing and learning. From a digital standpoint, especially, optimising creative is something we always do.
Our strategy team is always looking for anything we can get passionate about—the creative team can tell if we are being authentic and if we are feeling something. We’re relying on data, but what really hits us as humans from an emotional standpoint or gets us excited usually will get the team excited, as well.
LBB> What part of your job/the strategic process do you enjoy the most?
Megan> I need to work with other people. I cannot do any of this by myself, and I think that collaborating with the other strategists on my team is invaluable. We all come from different backgrounds. I used to be a designer and a creative director, and other strategists come from media or communications backgrounds. There is rarely a time we’re not involved in each other’s projects to bounce off ideas. As we’re bringing things in, I’m getting their perspectives.
But I think I have the most fun when I work with the creative team. I feel really comfortable with them because I was doing that for 15 years before transitioning into strategy. I get excited when I see them take our insights and run with it and bring it to life—and then we dig back in and refine things.
The briefing processes can be challenging, but we trust each other and have a good relationship between our strategy and creative teams
LBB> How has coming from a background as a creative director made you a better strategist?
Megan> I value and spend time building trust between the design and copywriting creative teams at our agency because I feel like we need to have that level of trust to be a little bit messy. Everything can’t always be formal since things happen, timelines change, requests change, and we have to be able to move fast.
If I can get into a room with creatives and we trust each other, then we can get in and work on things together vs. a hand-off. I led a creative team in the past, and what I found was I loved working with creatives and designers who were better at executing than me.
I saw myself being a translator - taking business requirements or consumer insights and then trying to deliver in a way our creatives can understand and be inspired. I know what it was like to get too little information to go on and try to figure out how to bring an idea to life. I want to find that moment where they’re like, “Oh, I got something!” or “Oh, I know what to do with that,” and you can see it. That’s ultimately what I want to get to.
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 around?
Megan> Since I’ve been here, there’s rarely been a moment where there wasn’t a great relationship between creative and strategy. I think that’s because the agency was founded by a designer, so creative has always been a high value here.
When I came in with my background, I was encouraged to use that and not just stay in my lane. I found we spend a lot of time collaborating with each other, so they see what I can bring to the table to help them do their jobs better.
I feel like that’s been a nice segue for them to start seeing how research and insights can make the creative better. A big part of my job is to make sure everyone in the agency understands what strategy can bring to the table.
LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning or strategy as a discipline?
Megan> My biggest frustration, honestly, is time. Clients see the value in strategy, but they also want to move fast—especially with digital. There’s somewhat of an expectation that you can move super-fast—get something up, make changes—which is true to a certain extent, but we need to figure out the right way to bring insights to the table. To figure out how to get something out there we can test and learn from when we don’t have enough time to do a full-blown research project.
Ultimately, we have to find a way to put a stake in the ground confidently and make sure we’re clear on what we’re trying to track, so we can go back and see what’s performing, and then how we should make changes.
LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist?
Megan> Strategy wasn’t a track offered in any of the schools I went to. But once I really dug in and found out what it is, I’ve noticed there are many great strategy groups you can join. I end up talking to strategists at agencies from around the world, and everybody is surprisingly helpful. I think because there isn’t much formal education, everyone is generally up to helping each other. Often, it’s just kind of validating when you’re having impostor syndrome or trying to figure out what you want to do. Two of the groups I found really helpful are Sweathead and Planning Dirty; both have groups on Facebook.