With an entrepreneurial spirit, Sahil Nathu is a Strategist working for clients including Absolut Vodka at world renowned Sid Lee. Based in Amsterdam. Sahil landed his position after grafting away in London at AMV BBDO and BBH.
We spoke to Sahil about these experiences, what he gets up day to day and to share some advice on things he’s learnt along the way.
Describe your career path up to now.
In one sentence?
A misfit crafting his own adventure.
After final year at uni and a bout of travel blues, I begged, borrowed and stole for placements at two of Britain’s iconic ad agencies, AMV BBDO & BBH. That was followed by helping out the digital team at a research consultancy called Flamingo and studying with Google.
All of those lessons and projects helped give me the tools to join Sid Lee Amsterdam on their junior program as a strategy intern and finally get through one of adland’s recruitment Hunger Games.
*Note- I’ve left out the avid viewing of daytime TV, sleeping on sofa beds and torture of near miss applications.
How does Amsterdam compare to London?
It’s difficult to compare, as I didn’t spend enough time working in London to give an answer I’m happy with, but I’ll have a go anyway.
"The allure of a peaceful way of living, picturesque canals and fetish for all things cheese."
Amsterdam is a city proud to dream and think differently (heritage coming from famed renaissance artists like Van Gogh, to football’s greatest philosopher Johan Cruyff, and modern day policing of aspects like drugs, prostitution and peeing in airports). This is combined with the allure of a peaceful way of living, picturesque canals and fetish for all things cheese.
As for advertising?
The market segregates itself between those agencies catering for international clients and those catering national clients. That is the main difference here.
What attracted you to Sid Lee?
I spoke with a few agencies in Amsterdam and sensed that they wanted to take a risk on wildcard junior talents rather than stick with the more tested formula for success that London had when I was applying.
One of those agencies was Sid Lee. This was an agency getting people talking and debating about their work on Adidas Originals and Absolut Vodka.
"Every day a strategist needs to define the problem and question the pre-established question."
In addition SID LEE stood out for two strong senior planners. I sensed that I could learn lots from them and that they were genuinely passionate about training juniors. The second was that the team was smaller than I’d previously experienced. I felt that meant more opportunity to develop quickly.
Oh and did I mention that Sid Lee was infamous for a work hard play hard mentality (as well as free vodka).
What does your typical day involve?
Rather than take this opportunity to formulate a perfect (and therefore false) representation of how I work - I’d rather talk about what I feel a strategist’s day should look like.
Every day a strategist needs to define the problem and question the pre-established question. That means your client’s question and the account man’s version as well. Every typical day should ladder up to that, because you’re primarily paid to do that - define the problem and craft a battleground. So whether you are doing desk or primary research, writing a deck or brief or just learning something new, every “typical” day needs to have this as the core focus.
It’s the old Einstein chestnut of “If I had an hour to solve the problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes on the solution.”
What's most challenging about being a strategist?
Making sure I have the self-confidence to do the task above. Sometimes it can feel lonely, especially when you can’t articulate it yourself or the puzzle isn’t coming together.
"Sometimes it can feel lonely, especially when you can’t articulate it yourself or the puzzle isn’t coming together."
Aside from that, we live in a world of information and that can make you feel like you need to have assessed all of it. Seems obvious, but I’ve had to learn that it isn’t possible and that it isn’t always going to be right. So, instead make sure that what you bring to each and every conversation is interesting.
What’s been your most fulfilling work to date?
Again I’ll use this question to do something else - I’m not looking to blow my own trumpet and I wouldn’t say I alone have been highly influential to our clients (old and new).
That doesn’t mean I haven’t helped the team, just that I haven’t changed the game (yet) or that I’m 100% happy with my end product.
"Failure means you are forced to change your ways and to investigate new techniques."
Therefore the most fulfilling thing has been the overall adland journey - being a runner, a pitch bitch, presenting learnings from Cannes to the whole agency, presenting to CMOs and most important is learning through failure.
Failure means you are forced to change your ways and to investigate new techniques to winning on your own terms, not the ones that your peers excel with.
What’s your favourite thing to do outside of work?
I’m not single minded on this point - my mind and interests wander too much. Overall I would say it would be to geek out- whether it be reading quirky articles on football in the 50s, watching Vice documentaries on Peruvian warfare or people-watching with a coffee in hand.
Any advice for people starting out in the industry?
To continue my disregard for the set questions, I’m going to offer advice to any wannabe strategist’s instead.
Of course these pieces of advice are just things I’ve learnt or applied; they aren’t rules and might not suit you. However they are principles I’m trying to follow right now and so they have helped at least one budding strategist (me).
1. Don’t worry about the need to always have a point of view and speaking up. Only add to the conversation when you have something worthwhile, rather than for the sake of your strategist title. It’s unhelpful as it blocks the creative process and taints what people think of your future thoughts.
2. Practice your listening skills. Advertising is full of talkers, and more can come from listening to people’s tone than the words they sometimes say.
"Only add to the conversation when you have something worthwhile."
3. Creatives like things they can play with and visualise. That is a perfect breeding ground to experiment and actually build something. My mode of operation is to create video edits that can weaponise a written brief. Find yours.
4. Steal anything and everything that helps you become more interesting and better in your job. It’s an art form and one that you shouldn’t be ashamed or cool for. Whether that is insights from the world of architecture, food or biology, creativity requires knowing about subjects that aren’t in your natural interests.
And these potential principles aren’t just mutually exclusive to strategists, but to creatives as well.
Lastly, if you could share a desk with anyone from the past, present or future, who would it be?
Arsene Wenger - being objective of course (Arsenal fan), he is an amazingly selfless strategist who created a superclub and will be 2016’s Premiership winning manager.
Dave Trott - he shapes so much of my thinking through human empowered stories and doing what we all avoid - being brutally honest. We all need to start applying it, instead of retweeting him.
Elon Musk - real world Tony Stark and THE man shaping the world’s future. He’s also one of the few who is proving that “the future is now” statement is just bullshit.
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