Darien LaBeach Welcomes You to the Community
Darien LaBeach of Huge and Strtgst talks about the challenges of community. What do people want from one? What brings them together? What keeps them from sticking? He's done the research and now putting his efforts into building a strategy community - you're all welcome. This was our first conversation, and we'll be checking back in with Darien as Strtgst grows.
[00:00:28] Adam Pierno: All right. Welcome back to another episode of the Strategy Inside Everything. This is an episode that's been fun to put together. Today's guest and I, actually , have been talking for about 10 minutes and just realized we have to start the episode [laughs]. I'm sorry about that Darien. I stopped you mid-sentence because I was like, "Wait, this is actually really good information. I'm really interested. I think people listening would want to hear it, too first-hand." Welcome to the Strategy Inside Everything, Darien LaBeach.
[00:00:57] Darien LaBeach: Thank you. It's good to be here.
[00:00:59] Adam: Darien is a strategic planner at Huge. Also, a lead organizer at STRTGST, which is a community for people who think for a living, which today's topic is community, how communities are organized, why they're important to us. As STRTGSTs, there's a lot of conversation around community, how we compete, how we work together, and how we can be better as a group together. I'm interested in this topic because I want to see what you've learned as you've had these gatherings and have gotten people together and had access to some of the surveys that you guys have put together.
[00:01:46] Darien: Yes. Absolutely. It's been a really interesting learning process and an experience. We've been doing events and organizing this community for a little under a year now. It's been so fascinating to see the response that we've gotten. STRTGST was started essentially, earlier this year, we had our first event earlier this year, but the community started to come together after our founder, Tina Yip, she sent out a survey back in 2016 to different strategists in her network and it continued to expand outside of New York and wound up on the computers of other strategists around the country.
It was a survey that was just getting a sense of where people were at in their careers, how they were feeling, what they felt like they were getting not enough of, what they wanted to get more of. I myself was on the receiving end of that survey, and just filled it out as bluntly and honestly as I could. Then, out of that came the first event which was called A Culture Of. It was a culture of sneakers that happened earlier this year.
[00:03:14] Adam: That's really cool.
[00:03:15] Darien: Yes, it was incredible. The first one was this interactive events where there were three different speakers. Each one of them was not from the advertising community, but they were people who were actually living in this sub-culture in different capacity. You have one person from Fashionista who spoke about the culture of sneakers and the drop, and the cop, and how all of that comes together. You had the CEO of StockX, which is the stock exchange for things coming to talk about how the sneaker exchange market was such a huge piece of their business model.
Just the mechanisms behind how selling and re-selling and buying of sneakers happens on this platform, and how so many times people are selling and buying shoes without ever actually touching them themselves. It was incredible. The third person was someone that actually worked at the main Nike store here in New York. He talked about Nike and culture. He talked about all of these iconic moments from the three to ten seconds, or however long, the scene is in Forrest Gump when Forrest pulls out the Nike Cortez's with the blue stripe.
That moment became crystallized forever, and those shoes became the bubble gums. That's all it takes for Nike shoes in certain cultural context to become basically just like a cornerstone of culture. It was so informative. It was also just really dope, that there was an interactive sneaker exhibit that was also there. A chance for us to flip through some really interesting books on sneakers, different swag, that was also given out.
What was great for me as someone who was just attending the event at the time was that it was a chance for me to get super, super smart about this culture/sub-culture that I had done some research on myself for different pitches and projects here and there, but it was really cool to experience this sub-culture in a new way and learn something that I could take back to, not just to my team, but also just to myself.
[00:05:39] Adam: Huge is famous. I always go read the content that is produced by the agency on the infographies and the other pieces, the research pieces that you guys do into cultures and sub-cultures. No surprise to me that, that was interesting to you. It would certainly be interesting to me too to get inside one of those meetings and get exposed to a sub-culture. If I can go back one step, you mentioned Tina sent out an initial survey. What was driving her? Did she have a theory? What was she hoping to learn with that initial survey that launched this whole thing?
[00:06:17] Darien: Yes, the initial survey really came about from a personal discontent and from some musings with people in her close circles with trying to understand why she was feeling the way she was about where she was in her strategy career, what even is a strategy career, and what does that trajectory even mean, what if I don't necessarily see myself on the same ladder as the people above me. Does that mean that I'm doing things wrong? The reason why I'm able to even list a bunch of those things having left the survey in quite sometime is because I was having the same questions myself.
[00:07:02] Adam: I think they're really common questions for-- I don't even know if they're exclusive to strategy, but I know that strategy is a pretty isolating group or discipline because most agencies really haven't figured this, especially in the US, have not really figured out where it lives or how it relates to everybody.
[00:07:23] Darien: That's exactly it. It's funny because that's one of the main problems that we've been trying to solve with STRTGST. Not to jump ahead too much, but yes, that was where the survey was born from, was this feeling of uncertainty as to what does all of this mean, feeling isolated in not just our careers per se, but also within the places and spaces where we were employed. Like people not necessarily always understanding how best to use a strategist, or what strategy was actually supposed to do. Realizing that there was this need to see if she was alone in this, or if there were definitely a lot more people feeling that way.
After that survey went out, there were several hundred responses to it which was pretty incredible when you think about a survey response rate. From that, learned a lot of things about this community and how many people basically affirm some of these beliefs about the uncertainty, the career trajectory uncertainty, the isolation. Also, the need for and desire for skills development. Feeling somewhat stagnant wherever people were. For her, and now us, it's realizing that we have an opportunity to solve a lot of those things. I think that what we've lost overtime is that community aspect, which is by default designed to solve a lot of those things.
[00:09:19] Adam: Yes, tell me-- the first one was Sneakerheads. That was the first meeting you-- the survey came out. Tina realized, "Oh, okay. People feel the same way. I want to start organizing this." Is each meeting organized around something, a sub-culture, or speakers that come and talk about something outside of strategy in order to get everybody's brain turning, or is each one just totally different?
[00:09:47] Darien: Yes, the guiding principles of all of the events and experiences that we host and we organize are to essentially make sure that there is a specific purpose and a goal that people are coming out of it. Currently, we have three different types of experiences. We have Culture [unintelligible 00:10:04], which are our deep dives into cultures and subcultures, and the ideas that we want people to learn about these different subcultures.
Learn something new about them, especially if they have been passively aware of it but haven't taken the time or had the time to learn more about it. Or, if they are just completely unaware of it altogether but want to learn something new. That piece right there came out of the survey specifically, where people expressed by and large that they wanted to, like kind of this.
I think, one of the connective tissue between these people who think for a living and who either call themselves strategists or are problem solvers. By nature, is that there is this almost insatiable desire to learn new things. What came out of that survey, which was so fascinating, was that that was one of the top things that people were looking for. Was this ability to learn new things, to consume a lot of new and interesting information.
One of the things that was at the bottom of this list was actually like happy hour type stuff, which I feel like what happens a lot of times when people start to organize events is just like, "Oh, great." It's just like, "We'll throw a happy hour together, and we'll give people--"
[00:11:23] Adam: It's the easiest thing to do. We'll give everybody a drink ticket, and they'll just start mixing. The problem solved, but nobody is really exchanging information on a meaningful level.
[00:11:32] Darien: Exactly. I feel like that's where-- I totally understand that sometimes there are constraints that events may have, but I think that it's not an excuse for lazy event design, because then, I think it only exacerbates problems where people feel like there's no benefit to community and there's no benefit to gather together and the exchange of ideas when the opposite couldn't be more true.
[00:11:57] Adam: What are, in your mind, you've been organizing this. What is some of the benefits you've already seen, maybe firsthand? Benefits that you feel like you've experienced, or benefits that you've observed, or that people have fed back to you? What kind of impact is it making so far?
[00:12:14] Darien: One of the events that we do Culture [unintelligible 00:12:18]. The other type of events that we do are our equivalent of workshops, which we sometimes call workshop, sometimes we call boot camps. The most recent one that we did was called Strategy Work In Progress, so WIP. The really interesting part of this workshop is that-- we had a speaker come, we had Nate Atkinson come from Local Projects, and just talk about his approach to strategy and being that hybrid creative STRTGST mindset.
The really interesting part of the event was, when we, at the end of it, after listening to him speak. We had encouraged all of the attendees to bring a piece of work that they were in the middle of, and wasn't quite done yet, and they just wanted to get some feedback from Nate and see how it can be pushed further, but also turn it to the entire community of attendees as far as how that could be strengthened.
We only had time to do one. I was the lucky volunteer who got to show a piece of work that I'd been working on. When I tell you that it is actually a very scary experience or very vulnerable experience to take this thing that I had been laboring over for quite some time. It was a strategy deck that I've been working on, and to show it to people who are oftentimes considered the smartest people in the rooms in which they are in, and everyone-
[00:13:51] Adam: Totally.
[00:13:52] Darien: - has an opinion. It was so fascinating, but for me, it was a great opportunity firsthand to expose my way of thinking to other people, but also to, in real time, get a very quick understanding of how other people see the world, approach problems. How they apply their personal experiences, or what they've seen, their expertise to similar problems. When I say that it no longer was as daunting as I thought it would be. It was honestly just a chance for me to connect with these people in a different way.
I think that that's one of the pieces that gets a little bit lost within the strategy community, especially now that-- not to poo poo on big data, and all the access to data analysis that we're able to do. What we do in strategy, I firmly believe isn't only rooted in the data that you can find in a quantified and a quantitative study, or from a survey or anything like that. A lot of what we do at STRTGST. Strategy doesn't happen behind the desk. In order to build out or to create better strategic approaches or to solve problems better, I think that there's also that art form to what we do to the craft. To what we do that gets lost.
A large part of the craft is the crit, which I feel like creators almost instinctively but also as a byproduct of having gone to art school, and not being a part of the process. I feel like that doesn't happen often enough with strategy and with STRTGST. This crit of my work and my strategy was, I think super informative and one of the things that people kept coming up afterwards to express their appreciation for being able to see something that was still very raw, but knowing that everyone is working together to make it stronger or at least bring like a new point of view to it, and all in the service of honing our craft, which I think-
[00:16:21] Adam: Yes, and making it better.
[00:16:22] Darien: - is so important.
[00:16:25] Adam: Totally agree. In the position I'm in now where I've been speaking to a lot of people in strategy and meeting a lot of people, I've noticed people are starting to send me decks and saying, "Hey, I'm really proud of this," or, "Hey, would you take a look at this?" For me, I actually use those as an opportunity to step my own game up just by looking at a deck that someone sent me and saying, "Wow, who the hell? I would have never put this together this way. This is amazing." Or just learning new ways to tell the story, or learning new methodology just from reviewing the decks.
Never mind, sometimes they'll walk me through or sometimes they just send me something and say, "Hey, what do you think it is?" It's a two way thing. You learn from observing, and learn from reviewing work that you have no real context for just as much, or maybe not just as much, but you can learn a lot from from that as well as giving the critique of the work, so that's pretty interesting.
[00:17:23] Darien: Yes. Plus, strategy by definition is not simply an artifact that you create and then put away. It is merely an approach to solving a problem. It's something that can and should evolve as you are solving this problem. Like sure, yes, you have the core strategy, but it does need to be flexible and adaptive to the goal in which that you are seeking to achieve.
[00:17:56] Adam: That's a great point, because we're forced to create those artifacts to give our clients something that they feel is tangible, but you're right. Sometimes it's not really necessary but it feels like we're always shoehorning stuff into a deck format, or to a format that they can take and copy paste into other formats as they need to.
[00:18:18] Darien: Yes. It's a byproduct of where we are currently, but I feel that's a conversation for another episode. [laughs] Potentially.
[00:18:33] Adam: Good point. What is the third type of engagement you guys do?
[00:18:39] Darien: The third type that we do we call, Real Talks. These are more intimate settings where we have, at most, it's 20 to 30 people that will be able to attend one of these events. I think that the closest thing that I can compare it to, it's like a group therapy session, honestly, where it is just a chance to come with real questions, with real concerns, and just voice them and air them out.
I would say that, that event we've done that one. We've had one of those with Wolf & Wilhemine now, which was just a really, really powerful event, because we had the two heads of Wolf & Wilhemine, two managing partners who just sat on a couch and just talk to this small intimate group of strategists about what they had dealt with, and kind of finding themselves in the positions that they were in.
They were answering questions where people felt a lot more comfortable with just voicing some real concerns or real problems that they felt that they were dealing with, either in their own personal agencies or careers. It kind of pulled away, I think, the artificial boundary of them and us that I think a lot of panels and and similar types of events create where it is just a chance for the person on stage to bestow wisdom and answers, but in reality we're all coming together to figure out what those answers can be based off of our combined circumstances.
I totally understand when you start to plan larger events that in terms of building out that intentionality, you may want to have the specific moderator that's going to keep things on track, or but sometimes. Then at the very end, it's like, "All right, well, are there any questions now?" But you're not really looking for questions, you're just looking to cap it out in a way. It's stuff like that, that we wanted to really shy away from when we were designing all of the different experiences that we're creating with this.
We looked at the types of events that we feel like are prevalent within, not just our industry, but also across the board and looking at, is there truly intentionality and impact that is coming out of these, or are a lot of these events designed to provide a platform for either the person or the groups of people to brag about themselves or to basically come across as if they have all of the answers, but in a way that doesn't actually become beneficial to the people who are there to be serviced.
For us, each one of these events and whatever else we were actually discussing, including some additional types of events that can fit within the offerings that we have to the community in a way to add value. The idea is that everything needs to be designed to be beneficial to this community who has voice to us that they want to be here and that there are things that they want to get out of being here.
For us, it's, how are we providing them with the tools to become smarter at not just their jobs with the products that they're on to not feel as if they are isolated in what they're doing and they have other people to bounce ideas off of in any type of setting that they want that they can without being cliche, bring their whole selves to this community and not feel judged for bringing something that is work in progress. How can we encourage vulnerability through structure and through very precise goals that essentially serve our peers with a connection that they so crave?
[00:23:17] Adam: Yes, I love what you guys are doing and the reason behind it. I have questions, what holds back community in a general sense? What prevents community? It can be specific to strategy but it can also just be, you have a lot of experience thinking about it. What what makes it stop, what kills community?
[00:23:42] Darien: I think one of the biggest killers of community is the moment that you-- I think it's laziness, because the moment that you-- This is on both ends, honestly. I think that there is a laziness from an organizer standpoint. If there is like a specific organizer of that community where if there's not intention behind the types of things or events or curation or whatever is being designed for attendees, then you allow people to start thinking, "Well, is this even worth it?" The minute that, that thought creeps into someone's mind, I think that you're on a road to ruin.
On the other hand, I think that there is also an inherent laziness that we have as individuals which is somewhat connected to the laziness of curation, where, if we start to believe that, "Well, I can put this off," or "I can go another time," or "It's basically the same as what I did the past two times that I went, what's the real value there?" or "Do I even really have the time?" It's not the cliche that, you know, everyone has the same 24 hours, because I think that's a whole another discussion.
Everybody doesn't, but we do make time for the things that we believe are valuable and are valuable to us. On the curators part or whoever is organizing events, there is a command and a charge to you, to me, to us, as strategists in particular, to ensure that we're not being lazy with the way that we are designing our event experiences. Because if we are lazy, then it is essentially telling our community that what you are choosing to come to is not actually worth making time for and that's--
[00:25:59] Adam: We're not putting in our best effort, so we don't expect your best effort when you come here.
[00:26:04] Darien: Exactly. Because community, I think, again, and this is why I think that there's that symbiosis. It's not about the organizer makes the community and it's not just the people who are there make a community, I think that there needs to be for an effective community, it has to be more of a relationship where each one is doing their part to ensure that there is a mutual value exchange. It's the whole idea behind-- for us, I would say that some of the strongest communities, or the OG communities, it's our villages.
I think that there is so much truth to the idiom that it takes a village to raise a child in that you're not just a part of this community and just taking something back, but it's the expectation that everyone is contributing to this community, to this village. Whether that is your child or not, you are still helping raise them, whether that is your business or not, you're still helping to support them and that's how community works.
[00:27:12] Adam: I'm tracking with you 100%. How do you get people to contribute? With that framework that you've created, I 100% agree. It sounds like the events are really active and you have people really engaged. I love the idea of having three different types of meetings so that each time is a little different than the time before, but how do you get people to contribute?
[00:27:39] Darien: First of all, you have to ask them. It's interesting. My partner, she does events for large-- or she used to do events for a large tech company. One of the interesting things that she noted during her time there was that a lot of the events that were being designed or essentially the way they looked at them were products that could be sold-- Part of their events were products that could be sold to vendors and stuff like that, is that they were designed specifically to be bought by these sponsors.
There's different sponsorships opportunities, but there was not a middle person who was also looking to understand, "Well, what do these attendees even want to get out of these experiences?" I think that it's a very simple answer. It feels almost too simple, but I think that just constantly checking in and it's not just with a post event survey, but it's about constantly asking the community and the people who you're serving servicing, what is it that they want.
Even for us, we're in the process of developing basically like a another check-in type survey to understand where are people at right now because if we believe that we have created something that becomes a solution, then the way that we have to measure that is by the impacts on the people who have been coming? Do they feel differently since we began than they did before? If so, what does that then mean for the way that we design our events, the way we curate our events. We can't know any of that unless we ask our community questions and it's not just at the standard times but it is also at the-- It's almost as much as possible without becoming annoying.
[00:29:49] Adam: [laughs] That's interesting, you almost need to create a panel that you keep going back to.
[00:29:55] Darien: Almost. There are some efficiencies. Like, you would want to get the most reflective voice of the whole community. We don't want to just send out surveys all the time, I think that we benefit from the fact that we, this is so new that we can continue to flex and evolve and just be scrappy about the way we reach out to the community. It's something that I'd be lying if I said that we couldn't be better at it, but that's our mandate.
[00:30:30] Adam: Have you thought about setting up a Slack channel or something for everybody to participate, so it's kind of an open forum or is that too--
[00:30:39] Darien: No, it's interesting you say that because that's part of where we are in our planning phase right now. For us, we made a very deliberate decision to not set up any social media platforms for strategists because we felt that we could truly build a community that both felt and looked like it was providing people with the value that they subscribed to and nothing additionally superfluous, by only having this community exists via e-mail for the time being.
As far as a Slack channel, it's something that we are playing with the idea of, only because we don't want to over saturate but we also want to learn from other groups.
I think there's the open strategy, at a website that used to do a lot, and I'm not sure if they had a Slack channel as well. There are people-
[00:31:43] Adam: Yes, they still have a Slack channel for open strategy.
[00:31:47] Darien: Yes. It's like what we are providing, is it an addition to, is it necessary to create a whole separate place, does that serve to further fragment or does it strengthen the community? For us, I think it's about going back to what are the very precise deliberate goals. We want to ensure that this community that we have been able to build and gathers offline, but we're able to do that through digital channels. How then do we translate that to an online community that can make it sustainable, that can also, in a five-year vision, flex to potentially chapters across the country or world.
It's fascinating because we have people who reach out. I think, one person found our events who was in Singapore and they asked us, like, how can we bring this to Singapore? And just like, "Wow, we're not there. [crosstalk] We have no idea." There's a beauty and also kind of an, "Oh my God, we are definitely onto something but how do we ensure that we are making very deliberate steps and concerted effort and taking a very concerted effort to do this as smart and as in as valuable way as possible to the people who want to be a part of this community."
[00:33:20] Adam: Let me ask you this, then. If in Singapore they just started their own chapter without-- They asked you and you said, we're not sure yet and they just started meeting and doing it their own way. If that was working for the people in strategy in Singapore, that would be a victory for you. I mean, it's not like you're-- Do you care if there's a--
[00:33:41] Darien: 100%, no. Absolutely not.
[00:33:42] Adam: Yes, you don't care if there's a brand associated with it, it's not like it's for profits, it's really just for-- You're trying to build a community. If it happens organically, Amen.
[00:33:51] Darien: Then again, it goes back to those measures of success. Like, did we do what we set out to do? You're absolutely right.
[00:33:58] Adam: That's awesome. I love to see that there's the interest. I know for sure, I just missed one of your events when I was last in New York, next time I'm there, I'm definitely going to hit it up. I'm going to try to schedule [crosstalk].
[00:34:11] Adam: Yes, please. It's amazing. One of the last events we had, we held it in a co-working space. It was a startup incubator actually called Voyager, and there was a strategy director who had been working in the building on a different floor and was leaving and saw our sign down at the front desk and was like, "Wait, I'm a strategist. I haven't heard of this yet." Instead of leaving, she came back up to the event and is now part of community. There's those moments and then there's--
It's okay if you miss this event, the ideas that you should know that there is going to be another one that's going to be just as good, if not better, and maybe it is even more relevant to what is going on in your life or in the world or in culture at that time so that there's no question as to whether or not if this thing is going to be good or valuable to me. As we grow, yes, we want people to feel emboldened and the idea is that we are all connected to this. I think it's awesome that Tina and I can essentially lay the foundation for this; and as much as we can be a resource to to this community, that is our mandate.
[00:35:38] Adam: That's really cool. On a personal-- Oh, I lost you.
[00:35:43] Darien: Oh, oh, can you hear me?
[00:35:44] Adam: Oh, no, you're back. When you told me about this, I don't know, last month or two months ago, when we were chatting, I felt comfort just knowing it existed, just knowing that you had done this and you had had meetings and you were building it. I'm on the other side of the country, it's unlikely I can attend but I felt like, "Oh, that's so good." I just felt relief knowing that people were organizing and having these conversations. It just made me feel somewhat safer, or more plugged into it.
[00:36:17] Darien: That is best thing that you could have said, honestly. We've tweeted a bit, I started following you after reading your book and it has just been so good. I think we have the tools to stay connected with technology but what are those things that we can do that, almost not to pander, but if we under think it, it's just like, "Oh, if we create a community, if this is the thing that is missing," it's like, "Yes, we're all connected via technology but are we really connected? Are we really engaging with one another? Why do we feel so isolated when we're more connected than ever?" It's because we're not as connected as we could be, not in the ways that we need.
[00:37:22] Adam: No, we have the tools to be connected but we're not accurate. We're not actually connecting.
[00:37:29] Darien: Exactly.
[00:37:30] Adam: I do agree. I love the idea of not setting up all the social handles and just starting blasting out content and make it personal, make people have to get up out of their routine and go to a place and actually meet face-to-face because as nice as it is to have Slack channel or people on Twitter, it's not the same thing as sitting in a room and being able to elbow somebody next to you and say, "Oh my God, I had that same thing happen to me. Did you hear what she just said?" It's the best.
[00:37:59] Darien: Exactly. I was going to say it's been really fulfilling, I think, just from a personal aspect and feeling some of those same struggles that led me to feel so passionately about joining Tina on this team and to work so hard to make sure that this is something that people enjoy. To your point, when you create something that people do have to get up and when you have to put effort into something, that's I guess one of those secret behavioral economic things but it's-- When there's effort that's put behind it, there's an additional reward factor that you start to understand that there's value, that you start to add value to.
[00:38:58] Adam: It's the endowment effect, is what they call it, that's exactly what it is. It's like why you think IKEA furniture is better than it is.
[00:39:05] Darien: Exactly.
[00:39:07] Adam: All right. Well, this has been awesome. Darien, tell people where they can find you and more importantly if you have a STRTGST meeting set up. Tell me when the next one or two are, if you're having dates. I'll link to them and share them out as often as I can.
[00:39:19] Darien: Yes, absolutely. We're working on confirming our next event but everyone can stay up-to-date by joining the community at strtgst.co, that's STRTGST without the vowels and be on the lookout for-- Once you've done that, be on the lookout for some information. It's going to be a good one in August. We're going to have a really, really interesting conversation about the future of the agency model and the chaos that seems to be just attached at the hip to it and what that means for a STRTGST and the creative community in general, but we've got a lot of really, really good stuff coming up.
I would love to just be connected with anyone who identifies as a STRTGST or as a problem solver.
[00:40:15] Adam: That's cool, man. I won't be in New York for that one. Are you guys going to be streaming that one or capturing video or audio that?
[00:40:22] Darien: We'll be doing a recap that will start to become an ingrained part of what we do. If you can't make it in person, definitely still signup and join the community because those recaps are still super informative and also thought-provoking.
[00:40:43] Adam: Beautiful. I love it. Darien, thank you so much for making time. You've met with me after-hours. I really appreciate that.
[00:40:48] Darien: Thank you so much. This was amazing. I can't wait to meet in person and continue the conversation.
[00:40:53] Adam: Yes. Great talking with you. This was awesome. When I'm next in New York, you're on my list [crosstalk]
[00:40:58] Darien: Sounds good. I'll see you in Arizona?
[00:41:02] Adam: Yes. Tell me when. You're welcome any time.
[00:41:03] Darien: Perfect. Perfect. Thank you so much.
[00:41:07] Adam: Thanks a lot.
[00:41:42] [END OF AUDIO]