The Provacateurs: Sid Lee CSO, Elana Gorbatyuk

Tell us a bit about yourself, what do you do?

Elana Gorbatyuk, Chief Strategy Officer and Partner at Sid Lee
I head up global strategy for Sid Lee, and help guide the agency into the future with our Executive Team. I also lead various boards of start-ups and not-for-profits organizations.

What did you do before your current role and what led you to where you are now?

I’ve been in leading strategy roles for agencies since 2002. Prior to that, I was an entrepreneur- I had my own branding and digital agency and also started my career in Management Consulting. Sid Lee’s general approach for the industry is what led me here and that, coupled with the people and the way they care for the work, is what keeps me here. It’s highly entrepreneurial and sees links between problems, disciplines, creativity, even people that others miss. This is a progressive, future-oriented place and that’s what keeps it exciting.

How would you define the role of a strategist in your agency?

In short, provocateurs. They use many tools from business strategy, brand strategy, cultural studies + anthropology, architecture, engineering, media, experience + innovation design to provoke insights and ideas able to form strong relationships between brands and people.

How have you seen the role of a strategist been evolving since you first began?

We have seen many shifts in the strategist role over the years. Today, strategists are the orchestrators of smart ideas that have the capacity to solve problems or forge relationships. That means we help our brands figure out the right actions to take, and help ensure the right thing actually gets done or made. Strategists’ ideas can’t sit idle in a 200-page deck somewhere. Instead, we must identify and solve all kinds of problems, not just “marketing” or “communications” problems. Gone are the days where strategists sit alone, crafting the “aha” moment or brief or presentation, anticipating some perfect “tada” moment of insight. Welcome are the days where nuggets of ideas form from input and challenge, conversations and post-its, white walls mixed with sophisticated models and yes, clients too.


In your opinion, what are the greatest barriers an aspiring planner/strategist encounters when trying to start their career?

I think many firms don’t pay enough attention to how they’ll grow young strategists beyond making them operational for immediate client needs. One aspect consultancies get right is establishing analyst roles for interns and those starting out in their careers. We’ve always had interns and analysts at Sid Lee, and that resourceful experience and rigor of deep research and ethnographic work serves them their entire careers and allows time to experience what strategy actually does with the support and guidance from seasoned professionals. Another barrier we see is case work lacking empathy for human beings. I think its symptomatic of how young talent is taught Marketing and Advertising in higher education—often taught from a brand or product distinction standpoint and lacks deep human insight or empathy for how people experience the world vs. how consumers ride a shopping funnel. Many of us teach at Universities and ask those in commerce or marketing streams to apply learnings from anthropology, sociology, behavioral science, economics, even engineering to design stronger programs, products, and services for brands.

In your time, what have you noticed are the key skills and traits that separate great strategists from the mediocre?

Those that spend more time on the problem, asking questions than running to solve what we “think” the problem is.
Those that take risks to elevate ideas right up until the end, as though there is no end.
Those that admit they don’t have all the answers themselves and go out of their way to bring others in.
Those that back solutions up with data to make it plausible, doable, sellable.
Those that believe when you stop learning, you die.
Those that genuinely care about people and creativity.
Those that understand businesses as much as brands.

How do you avoid getting stuck in a cultural bubble and stay informed on the needs and desires of everyday consumers?

I get out in the world and field like an anthropologist. I talk to, observe, and understand people and places naturally- which gives color and voice to my strategies.
I also include non-advertising people in the strategic process—working with subject matter experts, adjacent field or category experts, scientists, academics, etc.