Considered an unorthodox strategist, Onika Simon has been directing how global brands and businesses evolve for over 15 years. With experience in the UK, USA and Germany, Onika is currently running her own business, Spokehub. Business Review met with her at Bucharest’s Unfinished festival.
By Romanita Oprea
How did you decide to take this professional path and how has it changed through the years?
I started my career in 2001. The defining event of that year was 9/11 and I actually moved from the UK to New York in the first week of September. My first day of work, in an advertising agency, was on a Monday in September and the second day of my career was 9/11. When I look back on the last 16 years, every important decision I took in my career can be traced back to that moment, because it was a moment when all systems were in crisis.
My very first impression about work was that is all about the people. It’s all about emotions, connections and confronting people. New York was a very interesting place to be. Some people lost an entire team, some lost their families; they were walking on the streets crying. It was a crazy time to be in the City. It really shaped the way I worked because I realized in that moment that, projects who wouldn’t improve people’s lives, wouldn’t hold any interest for me. Ever.
I knew that I had to learn a skill, to develop an area of expertise. Here I learned the first and biggest lesson of my whole career: if I couldn’t find a way to improve people’s lives with my work, I was going to be unfulfilled.
How do you think the job of the planner has changed through the years and how do you see it evolving?
Planning as a discipline really comes from the world of advertising. “Mad Men” is the classic system of advertising agency life. Planning, as a discipline, initially was only for communications; it was “what do we need to know about people in order to use the right language and place the communication media in the right place?” And that was it. That is where planning comes from. But strategy is a lot broader. It’s about figuring out how to tie observations about systems and people and societies into any outcome, whether it’s communication, product, service, a process, etc. Strategy is a lot broader and within it are many, many disciplines. I studied philosophy, but strategy also bends into ethics, logics, psychology etc., but it’s ultimately about human minds. Strategy is like a label standing over many disciplines and this is where I see everything going. I don’t think that students will have to grab as many disciplines as possible, but what I do see happening, and what I think is really exciting, is that they are more students and people already working in the creative industry that understand the real need for interdisciplinary collaboration.
I am not saying that everybody has to learn a little bit of architecture, but I am saying that architects need to come to the table and “it’s not about what you make, but about how you think.” If industries would shift from looking at the output to looking at the method and the journey, that is where real, amazing innovation happens. Right now, artists focus on what they make, on what they build; everybody is focused on the objects and the outcomes, whilst the process is way more valuable. How you think is more valuable than what you make. The possibility for different people to work together and bring their own perspectives is going to be the biggest shift in the creative industries. People can keep their titles, as long as they bring more meaning and communicate better. That is the next step.
What do you think are the skills that actually make a good strategist?
The biggest skill, which I have never been good at and I am still working on, is listening. You know when you go to school and you get a report card from your teacher – I have a stack of them, each one stating that I have to learn how to listen. My favorite teacher used to say: “She doesn’t listen, she just waits to speak.” And that ties into another skill that strategists have but is also a weakness: strategists have to always keep the end goal in mind, so the reason I am a bad listener is because the second I think I’ve heard the answer, I stop listening to the rest. I just want to jump to the end.
If the researcher comes back to me and tells me a story about a consumer, I am already thinking about what it’s going to turn into; therefore I tune the volume down and start thinking about the solution. This skill is also valuable, because sometimes creatives go off on a tangent, they come back with a product that is beautiful, but that has no connection to what is actually needed. Therefore, it’s also the strategist role to point out the end goal, the destination.
You were talking about the idea of being disruptive. Where did it come from?
Disruptive is becoming a very popular word and, as soon as people started to say “disruptive design”, “disruptive innovation”, “disrupting a technology,” I started to ask myself what it actually means.
My friends and I cannot watch unsustainable things; we cannot watch bad things without saying anything. This comes from being in New York in 2001: when everything fell apart, everybody was in mourning; complete strangers would ask you if you were ok. Being able to cut through all the social labels and help someone is disruptive, but for a good purpose, and it’s something that I learned just by doing. If you see somebody in distress or troubled, just do something!
If you take those principles into the business world, it becomes disruptive, because businesses and society deliberately have ethics and rules, to run smoothly. If the [disruptiveness] is for a higher purpose (justice, community justice, balance), it’s always worth doing.
How do you persuade a client who is not open to new ideas and innovation?
I’ve been working in this business for 16 years and, with time, also come confidence and trust. If I’ve been working for that particular person for 6-7 years, that person also knows that my style is brutally honest.
I think you have to decide what your signature is. Why should people call you and not another person? Especially if you are a consultant, it doesn’t matter what your expertise is. It was very uncomfortable in the beginning of my solo project to realize that people would call me only when they were really upset and wanted my honesty. People call me when they want to change direction, when they actually break something.
What services do you offer your clients and which countries are they mostly from?
The cool thing about consulting and strategy consultancy is the range of projects, which are pretty much infinite. Ultimately, my services are advice, research and defining a way forward (helping people understand their current position, decide their future position and how to get there).
Born and educated in London, she studied Philosophy at the University of Manchester, and then began her career with the WPP Group in New York. on Monday September 10th, 2001.
Her talent for connecting behavior patterns with design opportunities, has led to successful product, marketing and business innovations for Adidas, Apple, Levi’s, Red Bull, Samsung and the French Ministry of Defense.