Join me as I have a conversation with Michelle Bellon, Vice President of Strategy and Growth at Rescue agency in San Diego. As she shares her 3 pieces of advice for a strategist, her strategy journey, and what she found most helpful in joining The Planning Dirty Academy.
Hi, my name’s Julian Cole and today’s guest is Michelle Belen, who is Vice President of Strategy and Growth at Rescue Agency in San Diego. My first question to you, Michelle is what are your three pieces of advice for strategists? Yeah, it’s a great question. I think my first piece of advice is to draw. I find that it’s easy, especially working from home and being really encompassed in digital spaces to really rely on digital tools, to express thoughts and brainstorm and.
You know, do visual brain mapping and things like that. But I do find that the, the physical activity of holding a pen and paper and actually, drawing out an idea, or even sketching out, taking notes with pen and paper can really just activate different parts of your brain, in a way that can help you make novel connections that maybe you wouldn’t have made otherwise.
And I think that’s actually one of the biggest things I miss about being in the office is being able to like whiteboard and actually use like tangible pieces of just physical materials. Like I’m dating myself somehow by really cleaning to paper. But it’s something that I’ve always as a, as a millennial, is, has been something I haven’t really seen with people my age and has been really.
Important as part of my process, the second piece of advice I would have is, is really just focusing on relationships, and doing, doing your best to check your ego, in the development of those relationships. I think sometimes. Strategists or, you know, you’re kind of getting your head like I’m supposed to be this modest person in the room and trying to kind of like be that smartest person can kind of come with an ego.
And I think whether, whether it’s creatives or account people or media folks, research, team members, even fellow strategists, where you’re trying to massage an idea, those personal relationships can really create or close opportunities in a way that I think. Sometimes strategists forget when they work in a silo.
And before any type of, you know, pitching meeting kind of internally in preparation, I really try to. You know, as attached as I am to my idea. And as right as I think I am and about what the options are trying to really detach myself from those ideas and create that space for other people to contribute or to think of something that you didn’t think of.
And that, that part is okay. And that it doesn’t all have to be your idea and that the whole, the whole part of making it the best that it can be is pulling in kind of different brains in a way that. You’re able to kind of orchestrate it, into the best idea that it can be. And I think that that can just be a fundamentally different working environment when you get it right.
And then the third piece of advice that I would have is just kind of acknowledging the role of good timing. And this applies to client work and that sometimes they’re not ready for an innovative idea. I work primarily with government clients. So I run into this a ton, and it’s taught me a lot to be patient and to really break down innovation into digestible bits that can, you can really nudge a client over time.
You know, over the course of a two-year period, we were able to get us federal government agency from a stance that they didn’t want to do events and. Having to delete the word events out of all of our decks, because it was such a dirty word at the time, um, to being able to build a national hip hop event tour with over a thousand annual events.
And it took two years of kind of nudging along and building trust. And I could just kind of waiting for that right. Timing for the idea to really flourish. And if you would have asked me on day one, If this was ever possible, I would have thrown my hands up and said no way in hell. But you know, over time and with persistent persistence, it really did come to life, which was, one of the highlights I think of my career.
And then I think that the timing note also applies to career growth. I’ve seen a lot of strategists get frustrated with like their personal career advancement and it’s kind of based on their timing. Like I want to get in, I want to do a year, then I want to be promoted. And then I want to kind of like, they have their timing very much kind of in the forefront of their mind, which is totally valid.
And you know, to want the next step, I think is normal and natural. And I personally have, have experienced that like anxiousness and kind of ready for readiness, for growth as well. But I think sometimes earlier in my career and some of these other strategists that I’ve mentored over the years, kind of kind of miss the larger business context for what makes those types of moves possible.
And so what I typically do is just to encourage really active conversations around advancement and what that looks like from a skill building perspective, what that looks like. Kind of outside of your control because it’s not always about your skillset and exactly what you bring to the table. It’s also about the readiness of the agency, the readiness of those clients, you know, what the needs actually are.
And sometimes you can control that sometimes you can’t and, You know, sometimes I’ve counseled strata just to kind of move on to a different place because way you just don’t have that opportunity. And then other times we’ve been able to make it happen and the timing works out great. But I think the role of good timing is, is definitely underrated.
When people are kind of considering both client and career advancement, Yeah. So may it’s like a re it’s a relationship. It’s two sides. And I was guilty of it at the start of micro is like, why aren’t I getting the promotion right now? And it’s, it’s a dance it’s going to be books. God. So I love that.
And you know, the funny thing is on your first point, I was like, I’m writing a deck at the moment. And then you would just like draw an, a muck. Oh, my Lord. That’s what I’ve forgotten. That’s what I’m doing wrong. You’ve got to go dig out that time, the pen back. So yeah, appreciate that. That’s, I’d love to hear your backstory, Michelle, and how you got to where you are.
Yeah. I mean, I think as is common with strategists, it was kind of a, an unintentional happy accident. I suppose. I never really set out to be a strategist. But I knew, you know, when I graduated college, I knew that I wanted to have some sort of positive impact on the world and it feels super naive to reflect back, but that was kind of my guiding.
Purpose. I was like, right. How do I figure out how to do something good? And I dug into public health, just coincidentally. I graduated college in 2008 during the financial crisis. So it was a real bad time to be seeking employment as someone who had zero years of experience. So I, I really just kind of took what I could get, which happened to be a job in public health.
And was able to kind of get in there and try to create some space for the things that I wanted to learn, how to automate and hire interns and, you know, get other people to do the things that I didn’t want to do so that I could really kind of create the role that I wanted. And. I feel like that approach to work has, has really benefited me over my career and something that I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do.
And pretty much every job I’ve had since, I dabbled in some kind of environmental causes. Cause I wanted to get like a broader range of marketing skillsets. This is when social media was a really big thing and I was a young person. So everyone pointed at me and said, You know how to work Facebook at the time I did.
And I was able to actually do some pretty innovative stuff, early in my career, looking back on it that a lot of the more established like marketing folks weren’t really able to do. I was also able to play a little bit with my, like running my own freelance operation and that gave me some good exposure to the music industry.
It gave me a good foundation in just some of the business skills of like what it would look like to start my own agency. I think a lot of what I learned is that there’s a lot of it that I didn’t like. Um, and that I would prefer to join an organization. I have some of that. Some of those pieces kind of figured out for me.
And ultimately, I think I just tried on a lot of different hats and just tried to lean heavy into the things that I was interested in and, move away from the things that I thought, you know, just weren’t as fun and interesting. And kinda just stumbled my way into my first strategy job. Which was funny too, because as I laid into my first strategy job, it was kind of, as the agency was establishing strategy as a function.
And so. That was also an interesting territory to navigate because I was kind of setting a standard for something I was still learning. And then over time I kind of followed that same philosophy. Like keep the things you love, ditch the things you hate, um, and, and kind of morph it into something that, ultimately like lights my fire and keeps me excited to come to work here every day.
So, it was cool to be able to kind of experiment with different, you know, starting on comms, kind of going more towards like more traditional planning and focus on audience and motivation and then back to comms. And I’ve, I’ve, it’s been fun for me to kind of be fluid between some of those categories.
In a way that’s helped me just kind of like keep the brain candy interesting and tasting sweet, um, and. And really kind of pull it together in a way that has been an interesting way to land where I’ve landed. Yeah. I love keeping the brand candy. Sweet. I’ve never heard of that, but I love it. I’m like putting candy, but I’m like amazing.
And it sounds like you were navigating that path from the get-go so early on in your career. So. It sounds great. You’ve also been a member of the, uh, planning dirty academy for over a year now. What have you found most useful about the academy? Yeah. Luckily enough, when they kind of came out, we were trying to establish communications planning as a formal function at our agency.
And I remember it came out and I was like, ah, this is a sign. Here we go. And this can help, you know, really provide some tangible tools and help. Not only the internal strategy team, put some structure around this type of thinking, but also communicating to agency stakeholders, and then also to our clients about what it meant to communications plan.
And so for me, some of the initial communications planning frameworks have been most helpful. Kind of paired with some material on like the differences between comms and strategy and what that meant, because that’s kind of where everyone’s head was at. And, and that was kind of the lock that I was trying to pick at the time.
And you know, with government clients, it’s a little weird. And every time we run into something that’s applied in a commercial marketing context, we kind of have to play with a little bit and figure out like, all right, how are we going to make this work for, you know, a behavior change objective, which is sometimes a little different and a government minded client, which is very different than a commercially-minded client.
But even having somewhere to start and figure out like, okay, let’s just. Throw like what we would normally do into this framework and see if it helps us think about the ideas differently. And see if, if we benefit from that structure. And so those were just really key materials for us and kind of setting up that function, uh, helping the agency understand what that function meant, how, how they could kind of plug into that function and then ultimately how we could represent our best work and our most thorough work for, for client deliverables.
Right. Well, thank you so much for telling us about your journey and to get the pen back in my hand and start drawing it. It’s been great. Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much, Julian.
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