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Mika Saulitis

Mika Saulitis is the Director of Creative Strategy at branding and design studio, Trollbäck+Company. But what does a Director of Brand Strategy do exactly? As Mika puts it, there are two core components: strategy and creativity.

How Brand Strategy Works
How Brand Strategy Works

How Brand Strategy Works

Ep
186
Apr
27
With
Mika Saulitis
Or Listen On:

Where strategic thinking and creativity meet.

Mika Saulitis is the Director of Creative Strategy at branding and design studio, Trollbäck+Company. But what does a Director of Brand Strategy do exactly?

As Mika puts it, there are two core components: strategy and creativity.

Strategy involves strategic thinking, writing positioning statements, and determining the brand’s voice—the invisible traits of a brand. Creativity arrives in more tangible forms, like campaigns, videos, concepts, and copywriting.

In this episode, Mika shares how he navigated the design industry and transitioned from fetching lunch orders to facilitating high-profile strategy sessions.

Mika and Chris delve into how brand strategy works. The process, the pitfalls, and why the last thing a client wants is a “yes” person.

If you work in or are curious about brand strategy, what it is, or how it works, then give this episode a listen. Mika is generous with what he’s learned and how he learned it. Maybe his story can help you.

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Episode Transcript

Mika:

I think a lot of times clients come to agencies because they have an idea. Maybe they should do this, maybe they shouldn't. They need either validation somehow or someone to challenge that intuition. So part of servicing a client is showing the process of how we get to where we get to. I think they pay for our thinking just as much as the solutions we arrive at and showing the thinking, I think is really valuable.
(Music)

Chris:

It's not that often that I get an opportunity to speak to people who are actively still working in this space that we left behind a few years back. So it's always nice. It's like a trip memory lane. So Mika, you're one of those people, you're working over at Trollback and you have a really interesting title. You're the Director of Creative Strategy. That's a big lofty title, Director of Creative Strategy. Sounds wonderful. I think I know what it is, but for people who don't know who you are, can you introduce yourself and tell us what it is that you do and little bit of your story, please?

Mika:

Definitely. My name is Mika Saulitis, as you said I'm the Director of Creative Strategy at a branding and design studio Trollback+Company. I'd say it's a fairly new title within the industry. Trollback started in the motion graphics world back in the late nineties, I think in 99, but recently we've grown into a studio that handles ... We still do design and animation and motion graphics, but we're doing a lot more brand strategy, content strategy, those kinds of things. So for me specifically, a lot of my work is what consumers and audiences don't see. It's a lot of brand strategy work, positioning, building brand voice guides, conducting workshops, the foundations that designers or writers can consistently and cohesively bring to life.
So that's half of the job. That's the, I'd say the strategy part of creative strategy. And then the creative side is the more consumer facing manifestation of that strategic elements. So that's campaigns, sports, advertising, marketing, partly leading teams of writers. And then I'm partly on the box or whatever the writing version of being on the boxes, but coming up with concepts, taglines, script writing, that sort of thing. So there's two sides of the house.

Chris:

Wonderful. A lot of things for me to unpack there. And what makes it really interesting for me is looking into your background, you graduated from USC as a communications major. These are lofty, like what? A communications major. What is a communications major prepared to do once you're done with school?

Mika:

I was prepared to do pretty much anything. To be perfectly honest, I didn't know what I wanted to do out of school. So I chose the major that seemed like it had the most possible pathways. So I actually started at Ithaca College in upstate New York for a year. I was in the film program there. And then I transferred to USC for the film program. And I spent about a semester in the film program and saw how crazy passionate the students were there. Staying up till four or five in the morning making these student films. And I realized pretty quickly that wasn't me. I didn't really have that passion for the film industry.
So I was back to ground zero. I ended up choosing communication just to get a good solid foundation. I knew I was interested in writing and maybe marketing, but not really sure how that might come to life. So communication felt like it would give me a foundation to lot of different things with.

Chris:

How old were you when you realized that maybe film isn't your thing relative to who is doing it?

Mika:

I was probably about two months into my sophomore year of college or two months into my first year at USC. I just saw this passion that people had and I thought I had that and I didn't. And I also think I realized I'm much better when it comes to creative writing, doing that in the short form. So I think my talents lie more in tagline writing or 32nd promo writing. But whenever I see someone writing a feature length film and the complexities and the story arcs and these sub arcs within them, my mind just doesn't work like that. And luckily by being thrown into the fire in that film school, you realize that. So that's how that came to be.

Chris:

I see. So you were either in your late teens or early twenties when you realized, "Hey, this is not the right thing for me." Is that about right?

Mika:

Yeah.

Chris:

The reason why I asked you this is I don't want to presume somebody is going from high school to college. Because sometimes people take a little detour that's high level self-awareness for someone. I just want to point that out. You're like, "Wait, I thought I love this. This is what I thought I was going to do." And you look around like, "Oh, these are animals next to me. And if I'm going to go somewhere in life, this is not my jam." So what is it about you that you have that sense of self and that you have the confidence to say, "You know what, it's a good plan going in. I got to change the plan."

Mika:

I guess I've never really been afraid to take a leap because in that case, it's not like I found a different passion and I just started pursuing something else and jumping right into it. I just knew this is what I didn't want to do, but I didn't have an answer for what I did want to do. So something in me, there's this intuition knowing this probably isn't the path and I tried to follow that intuition, even though I'm not sure where that's going to eventually lead me. It led me to a place I'm very happy with now. So I'm glad I did it, but I guess it's being okay with taking a chance, even though I'm not sure where I'm going to land.

Chris:

Is there anything that happened in your childhood that started to build confidence in that ability to go somewhere where you're not quite sure?

Mika:

That's a great question. I think it probably started when I went to college. I had a dream always of going to USC. And I wanted a school that was in a big city with palm trees. And my first semester I ended up at Ithaca College because I ended up getting a scholarship there. So it seemed like, well, there's a scholarship, this is a safe thing to do. And I realized that it wasn't the school for me. I didn't really like it. And that was probably the first big leap I took where I realized this doesn't feel right to me, this doesn't feel like a fit. I've always had this dream of being in LA and USC was my dream school, mostly because it's a film school.
So I reapplied, I got in again and it would've been a lot easier to just go back to the college I was at the next year, but I decided to pack everything up about three or four weeks before the semester started, move out to LA and try some something new.

Chris:

Can you tell me a little bit about what the inner voice sounded like? Because I think a lot of people feel what you feel, but they never act on it because they don't recognize the voice or they talk themselves out of it. So in your mind, when you were going to Ithaca, what are you thinking about and what is it that you're saying to yourself and how do you find it that you can say, "Okay, you know what, I'm going to move from one side of the country to the other, in a place where I don't know much about and I'm just going to go for it." What does that voice sound like?

Mika:

I always try to think of how I'm going to feel at the end. And I still have that voice if there's this big presentation that I'm just getting really nervous about and I'm ... Not dreading, but there's a lot going into it and I'm thinking, this is a big hill that I have to climb. But I think of what that feeling is once it's done and how happy I was, that I went through that and I did it.
I think that's what happened when I was transferring too. It would've been a lot more comfortable, like I said, just to stay where I was and ride it out for a few years and then figure it out. But in my head I was thinking, "Imagine where you could be, if you just took this one step." It's one step that could impact years. And it did it, I lived in LA for 17 or 18 years. So it was a big, scary step, but it was just one step that impacted so much more in my life.

Chris:

I just want to clarify one thing, if I remember correctly, you were born and raised in Minneapolis, right?

Mika:

Yeah.

Chris:

And then you said 17, 18 years after you made this decision to, "You know what, I'm going to pack my bags, I'm going to go to USC and see what happens." And that one decision lasted 17 or 18 years, right?

Mika:

Yeah. I moved out to LA in 2004 and I made the move back to Minneapolis in 2020. So yeah, 16 years I ended up out there.

Chris:

Wow. I wanted to clarify something here and I do this as well. So it's interesting for me just to hear someone else say it, is that you looked forward into the future about where this could lead. And instead of going to a dark place, you focused your energy on the positive outcome and that excited you a lot. And sometimes that's enough for you to make that big, bold and courageous decision. Did I hear that right?

Mika:

Absolutely. And I still do that today. Last week there was a big presentation to a few different presidents at a company and I've been doing this for over a decade now, but it's still nerve-wracking and still get anxiety when there's a crowd like that you're presenting to, but again I just think, "Okay, I know how good this feels once I'm done with something like that." And I just try to put myself in that mindset that you're going to get to this place once you just go ahead and make this leap.

Chris:

So I just want to relate the experience and a realization I had recently in that I often am asked to speak and in my schedule such that I don't have a lot of time to prepare and oftentimes I'm writing a new talk. And so I go through that stage, which I think a lot of creative people can relate to, the dreading part, the getting started, getting all your ducks in a row, the procrastination, like I'm going to read a couple more books, I'm going to watch a few more videos, instead of just doing the work.
And I started to feel that weight. But then I thought about something, something that I heard, Eric Edmeades talk about. He does the talk for Mindvalley and public speaking. He says, "You have your primary strategic objective. And then you have your secondary strategic objective. And the secondary strategic objective is where you envision if this goes really well, what might happen. In the world of possibilities, what else might happen?" And so I thought, wow, okay. On the one hand, there's a lot of work and I want to make the producer who booked me really happy. That's my primary objective.
But the secondary objective is if I do really, really well, the people who attend will invite me to speak in their country. And when I started to think about that, it got me really excited and all of a sudden I can feel the pressure lift off me slowly until I was just so amped. Even though physically I was tired, I was up till two, three, four in the morning and then I would go to sleep and go right back at it. I was super pumped up. And I want to capture that feeling I'm trying share, not just with you, but with our audience.
It sounds to me like you went through a very similar thing, leaving one university for another and just thinking, "Wow, I want to be next to those palm trees and be outside in shorts and a t-shirt during winter." And you started looking forward and things sounded really good. So it got you excited to follow that future for yourself?

Mika:

Yeah. I think thinking like that turns that anxiety into excitement. And I should say I also totally get that dreading feeling. I think when I'm in that place, I always equate it to cleaning your room or cleaning a house where everything gets way messier earlier, early in the process for me, before it finally gets cleaner and you can make sense of what it is you're presenting or how this manifests. So yeah, I can totally relate on that level too, because I see the mess the that's going to happen, but then eventually it clears up for me.

Chris:

So let's jump forward in time a little bit. You go to USC, you graduate with a communications major and you wind up at a couple different places. And I see this movement. Where did you land? What did you do? And tell me about the experience of getting your first professional work opportunity.

Mika:

Right after I graduated, I decided to sign a lease without a job. Because I knew I wanted to be in LA and then I was scrambling for a job. So I honestly would've taken the first job I was offered and I did take the first job I was offered, which happened to be a receptionist role at a brand consultancy, they called themselves, called Troika. Which was based in Hollywood. So I was a receptionist for a year. I knew nothing about the industry. They also did at the time, a lot of motion graphics and branding, mostly for entertainment clients.
I didn't know that industry even existed. So for a year I was taking lunch orders, answering phones, taking out the trash, just getting my hands dirty and learning what this industry was. And I was lucky enough to land at an agency like that, where they had a pipeline where each receptionist had moved up through the company. And now there's five or six of us who one was an Executive Producer at Jeopardy. One's a creative director at another agency called we are [Realm Royale 00:13:58]. One was a producer at a TV network. So we all ended up working our way through the industry.
But the typical path was going from a receptionist to a producer. That was the pathway for a receptionist at Troika. And I realized again, that didn't seem like something that was super interesting to me. I had this creativity inside of me and I didn't quite know how to scratch it yet. I didn't know what I was good at. I knew I liked writing. I didn't know if I was good at writing. So I ended up on this pathway that was more an in-house PR person for Troika.
So I worked on the business development side. I was writing press releases and trying to pick up some publications and some press for these projects that these creative directors were leading. And after a couple years I realized, "I think I can do this creative work. It's fine writing about this amazing work that's coming out of this agency, but I'd like to actually be a part of doing that." So I started moonlighting at nights. I was still doing the PR job during the day, but a couple executive producers at the agency knew that I was interested in more creative writing. So I'd throw my ideas into that hat when some pitches came in and got my feet wet that way.

Chris:

There's a couple of parts here. I'm trying to figure out. So you go to USC, presumably a very expensive school to go to, scholarships or any grants aside, it's an expensive school to go to. You get out school, you're going to take any viable job. Of all the different jobs I can think of where you applied to, because you said you didn't know anything about the industry that you were going into, how did Troika even get on your radar as an opening? Did somebody tell you about it? Did you read about it? What happened there?

Mika:

If my memory serves me me correctly, I think there was a website called entertainmentcareers.net, or it was something like that. And I think I was scrolling through there. Mostly just looking if TV networks were going to hire. Because I interned at a TV network in college between my junior and senior year and I was a PA on the biggest loser one summer. So was interested in that space. So I honestly didn't really know of any agencies other than the Leo Burnetts and the [inaudible 00:16:20]. I didn't know there were these brand consultancies until I saw that posting. So I honestly was looking more for TV network gigs and stumbled upon that.

Chris:

Wow. It's quite interesting because like your decision to transfer to USC, that your first job takes you on a whole another adventure. I mean, your life would be totally different now, if it was like a software company, like a startup or something, you'd be doing something totally differently. Right?

Mika:

Yeah. And I could have easily landed there. Like I said, I needed and make rent. They offered me the job. It was the only job offer I had. So I took it.

Chris:

Well, this is where I think your USC pedigree pays off because if it were me sorting through resumes, I'm like, here's a young person, USC communications, major great. Answer of phones. Use that education and use that pedigree to your advantage and there you are. So you said you stayed in that position as a receptionist for about a year and then you moved into doing PR, how did that happen? Because people are listening. It could be four years into receptionist gig and like, "Wait, how come I wasn't offered that? What happened there?" How did you create that opportunity for example? Or how did it materialize?

Mika:

So typically the receptionists were in that role for about a year and then they'd move on to I think it was production coordinator was where they would go on the production side of the house. But for me ... This'll date me. I think it must have been 2008. It was the holiday season and the agency really wanted to get a wee for the studio, and it was impossible to get. And I don't remember how I got my hands on one, but they tasked me with, "Would you be able to find a wee for the studio?" And I got one in there and the sales and marketing team decided that they thought I might be good on their team.
Because I was, I guess, able to get things done. And they liked that moxie so again, I didn't know exactly that PR or business development was the path for me, but they saw something me that they thought it could be a fit. So I ended up going in that direction rather than production, just because that side of the house wanted to use my skillset.

Chris:

It sounds to me like in Troika they seem to say, "You're going to make a one year commitment and as positions open up, we move receptionists out into being a production coordinator, junior producer, something like that, right?

Mika:

Yeah.

Chris:

And then your ability to solve problems, your I'll figure it out at all costs kind of thing earned you the respect of a whole different team. And they're like, "We'd like to draft you for our team." And so you're like, "Okay, that seemed more interesting because I didn't want to become a producer." That's how that happened?

Mika:

Yeah. That's that's exactly how it happened.

Chris:

That's so awesome. So some lessons to learn here, if you're going to be a receptionist at a company, make sure that they have a path forward and that you've spoken to people who were in that position, how long you're making that commitment for. Because look, I'm not trying to judge anybody, if you're the receptionist for the rest of your life and that's what makes you happy and that works for you, more power to you. But if that's not where you want to be, that's not your final station in life, you need to make sure you're smart and you're looking forward.
The company needs to be big enough. This is critical that there's room for you to grow into and departments and nooks and crannies that you can show your value to. So this is a critical skill. And obviously here Mika, you found that and you're able to grow and you keep growing. You keep moving. Now you spend seven years at Troika. What gets you to make the next move?

Mika:

So the next move was, I wanted to be on the creative side. So I was the communications manager at that point. I wanted to start a totally different and path. So the director of business development at Troika, he moved over to another agency who was similar in what they did called Loyalkaspar and knew that I was trying to make this career shift and said, "I'll take a flyer on you. We'll bring you over here if you want to come." So it was thanks to someone knowing that I wanted to shift career paths. They knew the work I was capable of doing and took a chance on me and brought me over there.

Chris:

And was it hard for you to leave or what was the departure like? Because that's a thing that a lot of people struggle with. Like there's an opportunity, there's some security here and I go to work somewhere else, new job, new title. But if it doesn't work out, I'm just screwed. How did that go for you?

Mika:

There is nothing worse or scarier for me than quitting a job. I absolutely dread it. And I get that feeling again of, I really don't want to do this, but I'm picturing where I'm going to be. If I just have one difficult conversation, it could change my trajectory for years to come and it did. So I was definitely dreading it. I hate those conversations, but I'm glad I did because it gave me an opportunity to get more on the brand strategy and the creative marketing side of the industry.

Chris:

Now for people who are listening that feel that deep in their heart like, "Oh yeah." And some people can't make that decision. Can you tell us how you had that conversation and how it went to so see if we can learn something from it?

Mika:

I don't remember the intricacies of how it went down. I do remember that I was sweating and my heart was beating out of my chest and they were very nice about it. Which I am very grateful for. But I cannot remember the specifics of what I said other than, "I think I've carved a really clear path at this agency. I think I could turn over a new leaf and try something else at this other agency." So I didn't feel pigeonholed necessarily, but I was really good at doing this certain thing or I don't know if I was really good. I was doing this certain thing for one agency and they knew me for doing that thing. And so I just said, "There's this other opportunity. They're going to try me out in a different capacity and I'm going to take that chance."

Chris:

So it's a little bit of a blur where you just remember elevated heart rate, maybe a little sweaty here and there and something happened, but then ultimately you did the hard thing and then you could move on to the next thing. So I'm going to just let everybody who's listening know that, Mika graduates from USC and then he goes to Troika and he works there for seven years. Then eventually he becomes a writer, Senior Creative Strategist at another company called Loyalkaspar. And he stays there for four years. Then he moves on to becoming the Director of Creative Strategy.
Now we're starting to see that title at a company called Compadre and he's there for three years. So you moved around a little bit. Now you're at Trollback+Company and with the same title of Director of Creative Strategy. So now we get a sense of the evolution of who you are. And just out of curiosity, you keep in touch with people who graduated with you in communications to see what the heck they're doing today?

Mika:

Yeah. There's a handful of people in the communications school that I still keep in touch with. A lot of my friends weren't in the communications department, they were business and engineering students. But there's a handful of people, I studied abroad in London for a semester through the communications school. So there were about 28 of us who ended up really close. And I still keep in touch with the few of them.

Chris:

Is anybody working in the same industry?

Mika:

Not in the specific branding, creative marketing industry. There's some people in the social media marketing space. One person's doing crazy things with Alexa and Amazon and audio branding, but nobody specifically in this industry.

Chris:

I see, I'm trying to ascertain as to how many of these communication major people wind up in the same industry. It sounds like you're fairly unique in your pursuit and by luck, by chance, by fate or by design, you get this job and it takes you on a journey and you're still in this space. So it's cool to hear that. And the message I'm trying to send out to people here is sometimes the things you do is just very through intentional action and sometimes it's luck. And just to be able to recognize the opportunity when you see it and go on an adventure.
You might wind up being where you're at Mika, which is Director of Creative Strategy at a firm somewhere. That's so cool. I'd like to shift gears here. And I want to talk to you a little bit about authenticity. You have a very strong perspective on this and it is a term that's used a lot. And I remember a conversation with Debbie Millman and she said, "Why are we talking about authenticity? Because it would infer that you're being inauthentic when you about authenticity. Like who here is not being authentic at this moment in time. So why are we championing that as a term to be authentic? Are we saying that everyone is fake? What's going on?" So I'd love to get your perspective on this.

Mika:

So in my role specifically building brand strategy and positioning that word gets thrown out maybe more than any other word, when a brand's trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for. And it sounds really nice. Who doesn't want to be authentic? And on the surface, that seems great. But the definition of being authentic is being true to a character or a spirit. And a lot of times brands they haven't figured out what that character or spirit is yet. Authentic is a word that's used as a workaround when you're not quite sure.
A lot of times you hear, "Well we know it in our gut our brand is an attitude and we're being authentic." But there's this extra layer of figuring out what that attitude is. What is that spirit that you're being true to? I think that the word authentic is used in place of that a lot of the times.

Chris:

How do you help a brand be true to a character or a spirit that they themselves have yet to be able to articulate to you and you are an outsider here presumably?

Mika:

It's workshops, it's a lot of interviews, it's writing down a lot of different ideas and seeing what feels right to them, what doesn't. But that's really the hard work. If you can crack that, then I think you have something a lot more ownable and I think something a lot more actionable. I think the best brand strategies are any teams are able to use. If you're a designer, if you're a writer, there's this foundation that you can build from. But as a designer, you're giving the word authentic, it's really hard to bring that to life. If there's no other context around it.
Are we being authentic to being youthful or rebellious or whatever characteristics are, you need that foundation before you can say that you're being authentic to something.

Chris:

Well, oftentimes when we're trying to figure out the voice and the character for a brand, we trace it back to the founder's story and it's easier for us because there's certain companies, there is a founder, it's not like a co-operation, imagining a new thing because the market requires it. Do you find parallels in what you do in trying to help them discover their true voice, their character and their spirit?

Mika:

Yeah. A lot of times it comes from that. It can also be a blend of where a brand has been and where they want to go. And sometimes that character spirit doesn't exist yet or they're looking to reinvent it. So it can be a mix of the two.

Chris:

So in that case, they're designing the brand, their authenticity is one that's intentional and designed. It's not coming from a place that has a natural origin?

Mika:

Yeah, exactly. And usually that comes through ... We try to look at when building a brand strategy or what's true to the company, we look at the competition. How are you differentiating from your competitors? What is your customer? How are you going to resonate with your audience? And then what's happening in culture? Taking into account what's happening with the world around us. So if we are building something from scratch, that's the different areas we try to hit to make sure that sure we're building this new spirit or character of a brand. We want to be authentic to that, but we have to make sure that that's going to resonate with who we're trying to communicate with.

Chris:

How do you resolve the conflict that inevitably comes up where we pick words and characteristics that feel right to us, but they don't truly reflect the culture that's behind it or that it winds up becoming a composite of many different positive attributes, but don't truly sound or act like anybody that we know?

Mika:

I think that is a great point. I think I'm picking on the word authentic here, but I think there's a lot of words that are easy to use in a strategy. I think we could probably build a strategy right now that would sound good to a whole, a bunch of brands if it was about being authentic and relatable and inclusive and bold. Who doesn't want to be those things? But it's really hard to stand apart or to really create a brand that people love. If you're using these words that are maybe a little watered down or could mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people.
So I always try to use words that are really actionable for people. So again, if you're a designer or a writer, you know what that means. And also an exercise that I do is ... I'm not sure if you do this Chris, but a lot of times in a brand strategy document, you'll see we're blank, not blank. So we're authentic, not fake or something like that. I think the not words are almost just as important in defining what a brand is. But what I try to do is for those not words, don't use something that no one would ever try to be.
So we're authentic, not fake who would ever or build a brand around being fake. So maybe it's, we're rebellious, but not profane or something. I guess no one would be profane either, but we're rebellious, but not brash. You're splitting hairs about what it is about this characteristic that we are and that we aren't without just going to the complete binary of what that word is, because oftentimes a brand would never want to stand for that anyways.

Chris:

I like that explanation. It is an alignment with the concept. When we talk about focus in finding your market. [Seth Godin 00:31:39], I was reading about this, he describes as splitting the market. So you take a group of people and you keep splitting it until you are really clear about who it is that you stand for. And so it's easy to grab a word and that word to mean lots of things to lots of different people and then use the exclusion like we're rebellious, but we're not brash. And that starts, they find, "Oh, oh, okay." It's a certain kind of rebellious spirit.
I guess to the point of which you were saying, don't choose a word that nobody wants to be, because everyone will claim the same thing. But also don't choose a word that also doesn't have any power because what's the point of that too. So it's finding that balance and I guess that must be the role of the strategist, right?

Mika:

Yeah. Absolutely

Greg Gunn:

Time for a quick break, but we'll be right back.

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Six members of the DeFeo family shot dead in their home. Only one left alive to tell the story of what happened. On the new podcast, Very Scary People. How a true crime story was transformed into a piece of horror history. Listen, wherever you get your podcasts.

Greg Gunn:

Welcome back to our conversation.

Chris:

So I have a question for you, just a real, like two people talking about brand strategy here, which is when you encounter a client and typically when I say client, it's plural, there's more than one person in the room and they're picking or making decisions that seem to water down the clarity of what it is that the brand stands for. How do you navigate that?

Mika:

I think that is a great question. And I've definitely been in those situations. I think that's being completely transparent with the client and clients typically don't hire an agency just to be a yes person. I think they value the opinion of a third party. And I think it's my job to give that opinion. If I do feel like we're going down a pathway, that's maybe not going to resonate with their target audience or not going to differentiate them in the landscape.
As you said, that's usually when multiple people come together and maybe there's group think and they can't agree on a word or a phrase. So it gets watered down and watered down into something that everyone can accept and doesn't really stand apart at all. But I've definitely been in those situations and I think it's on the agency on the third party to speak up when it feels like that's happening,

Chris:

How do you typically raise this? What's your style? Are you the Don Draper where you like sign here, pick one word. I'll be ready to work when you start. Or are you more diplomatic or strategic? How do you handle these things where it feels like it's dissipating and versus being concentrated in terms of the direction and the voice? How do you do that?

Mika:

I am so not cool like Don Draper. I could not do that. It's not my personality. In my personal life, I just hate conflict. And so I think that carries over into work too. So I try to go at it the most diplomatic way possible, where I can completely empathize and understand with how we're getting to where we're getting to. But maybe we can take a couple steps back, see maybe why this isn't going to be as powerful or as resonate an option that's going to move the needle as much as we like. And just try to have an honest conversation.
I certainly don't have all the answers. So I don't come in there saying that I do, but I can give my opinion on why I think we might need to course correct a bit and do it from a place of empathy, understanding and being diplomatic about it.

Chris:

I should have known that answer was coming. This is the person who's most difficult thing in life to do is to quit. So getting clients to agree or choosing different words or something like that, you're going to be very diplomatic about it. Totally in keeping with your character. I'm just in here thinking this, and I'm wondering as a person who studied communications and now doing brand strategy, creative strategy, how did you learn how to do this? Was this on the job? Did you figure this out? Like somebody mentored you, how did you learn how to do this?

Mika:

This was a lot of working on the job. I never encountered how to build a brand strategy. What those different strategic pyramids are, those different levels, all those different models. I never encountered that in school. I think if anything school helped me with public speaking and giving those presentations, there were a few of those classes that I had to take. And there was some communication theory as well. But in terms of how to build the foundations of a brand voice guide, that was all on the job.
And Bo Bishop, who was the Executive Creative Director at Loyalkaspar and he is actually now the Executive Creative Director or Executive Director of Creative Strategy, I should say at Trollback now. So that's how I came back to Trollback because I reunited with Bo Bishop, but he was a great mentor for me when I first landed at Loyalkaspar showing me the ropes, showing me how he did things, but still giving me the freedom to build my own systems as I was learning along the way.

Chris:

So you learned on the job, you were able to put your writing skills to play. Here's something that a lot of people might feel in your situation where I didn't study this in school. So the imposter syndrome is going to be yelling quite loudly. Did you have issues with self confidence? Like, "Oh man, I didn't train in this discipline and so many people here did, and I always feel like I'm an outsider looking in." Did you have those moments? And if you did, how did you resolve that?

Mika:

100%. I still have those moments sometimes. I'm much more confident now, but imposter syndrome is definitely a real thing especially when you don't have the skillset already built in. If you go to art school, you learn the tricks of the trade. You feel really confident coming out of school that you know how to do this. And how you get a job as a designer and off you go. Whereas for me, I was learning from scratch and I felt like the first times I was tasked to give a presentation, I remember the first pitch I had to lead, I was scared out of my mind because I had complete creative control, which was awesome but also terrifying to me.
So I definitely empathize with that. And like I said it's something that doesn't ever truly go away from me I don't think. But with each project, with each presentation I get more and more confident and comfortable with the work I do.

Chris:

I want to ask you a little bit about a work experience and then I want to come back maybe to some tips that you might have for people who are in a position where they're working with clients and then want to have help them with their creative strategy. I noticed that Trollback has an impressive list of clients. And you said before, sometimes you can get anxious because these are massive multinational, multi-building dollar corporations. And they're entrusting some initiative to you, either building a new brand or rebranding something that has a lot of equity in it. Can you share a story or two about a client interaction that you found a breakthrough moment or something worth sharing?

Mika:

Yeah. One moment where I had a professional breakthrough I'd say was when I was leading this pitch for the global brand positioning of Marvel. And this was where I had the reins and I could do the pitch my way and it's Marvel. It's the brand I love, I didn't want to mess it up. And so I went all in on this pitch. WonderCon was in Anaheim so I went to WonderCon the weekend before the pitch. I just completely lived this lifestyle that these fans were living and put together the deck.
Mostly after I went to that convention, because there were a few light bulb moments for me. And I learned that I'd say 40% of winning that pitch was probably the creative that was pitched, but 60% of it was showing that we got it and we get why you're doing this. And we get the lifestyle that these people are living. So that helped where, yes of course the creative, the strategy matters a lot. But I think showing clients that you understand their challenges, you can help them through it, these are the solutions we got to because we understand all that was really important to me professionally. And it's influenced a lot of how I approach giving presentations and presenting strategies to clients now.

Chris:

So you credit being immersed in the culture and experiencing it firsthand as helping to create those light bulb moments, these observations that you had?

Mika:

Yeah. I think for that specific one, there's not a WonderCon for every project, but I think if anything, it helped me learn that in a presentation, especially a strategy, the strategy itself might just be a couple pages, but it's taken the client on that journey leading up to how we got to where we got to, because I think that story of why we believe this is the right solution for you is just as important as the solution itself.

Chris:

Can you expand on that? Because a lot of creatives don't think this way. They think this is the solution. This is what it looks like. And I'll reduce it down to its bare essence here, which is I make a logo, I'm going to present the logo, absent any context and you should pick this logo and sign the check and we should be done. Expand on that concept please.

Mika:

I would say I spend as much, if not more time building brand strategy deck on the setup for what that brand strategy is as I do on the positioning statement or the brand attributes or pillars or whatever goes into that. Because I do think it's really important if you just show up in a room and show a positioning statement to a client and they don't know why you got there, how you got there, it's really hard for them to buy-in. But if you take them down this path and leave these breadcrumbs of, "Okay, we notice this about your audience. We notice this about what's happening in culture. We notice this about your competition and this is what you're really good at as a company and together we created this statement."
It might just be a sentence, but they understand, "Okay, this makes sense to me, this is accomplishing my goals for these reasons. So that's what I always try to do is tell the story behind how we got to a solution.

Chris:

So you take them through some narrative I take it. Some kind of narrative, some observations, some insights based on customer interviews or social listening. Some people will call it. And building a composite and making connections where perhaps they knew instinctively, but they couldn't articulate and you hold a mirror up to them. Does that sound about right?

Mika:

Yeah, definitely. A lot of what we do is making the intangible tangible, I'd say when it comes to brand strategy or putting intuition onto paper. So yeah, a lot of times people might have a gut feeling about what they want their brand to stand for and it's codifying that, giving them some tools, but also giving them a reason to understand why that's correct or maybe, and sometimes maybe why we don't feel that's correct, but this other solution is correct. So yeah, it's a lot of digging.
A lot of these insights are the stories that we tell before we get to an actual positioning statement comes from stakeholder interviews to sometimes for a company, it might be interviewing the core two or three people, but I've been in rebrands where we've interviewed, I think 47 people before we even put any strategic document together.

Chris:

So when people like you strategists say we do the research, this is what research sounds like, everybody research isn't getting on Pinterest or Behance and looking at things that you like and saying, "I've researched." This is really combing through the data and trying to look in spot patterns. And I love that expression. It's intuition on paper, which is like, that's a nice juxtaposition of two words there. Because you don't think intuition? Isn't that something we feel and act upon, but you're saying it's on paper? So that's really cool.
And if this idea intrigues you are let's say a logo designer, I'm going to just make a reference point here to Paul Rand's beautifully written and illustrated process books where, when he goes to present a logo to a large corporation, he takes them through the ideational phases and he writes about it. And it's a very logical process of how you start and where you end. Because he's famous for, "I'm going to make you one logo. There are no revisions. You can use it, you don't have to use it, but either way you have to pay me."
And it's quite wonderful just to look at that. And so it's a very logical narrative and you can understand the decisions that are made and why he wound up where he wound up.

Mika:

Yeah, absolutely. I completely agree. And just last week I gave a presentation and 70% of it was what we decided not to do. It wasn't the actual solution. It was, these are all the paths we tried. These aren't working for whatever reason, because of these insights we found. And now here's finally the solution we're arriving to. But again, it's taking clients on a journey to eventually the final solution.

Chris:

Why is that valuable to a client to see all the things that you tried, but didn't work?

Mika:

I think so they can feel good about a final solution. I think a lot of times clients come to agencies because they have an idea, maybe they should do this, maybe they shouldn't. They need either validation somehow or someone to challenge that intuition. So I think part of servicing a client and is showing the process of how we get to where we get to. I think they pay for our thinking just as much as the solutions we arrive at and showing the thinking I think is really valuable.

Chris:

I think what a lot of smaller shops and generally speaking freelance creatives don't realize is when they see the final execution, everyone starts to argue, "Oh, that's so simple. You paid a hundred grand to do that? I could have done that." What they don't realize is the process you just described, which is clients pay you a lot of money to do the due diligence, to explore, to try things, to test things, the prototype, what the general public often never sees is that entire process. And so they've gone through a very controlled process of they limiting things that don't work and exploring what ultimately will be dead end so that they can arrive and be reassured that this is the one correct solution. This is it.
And so you'll see something set in [inaudible 00:48:53] with a very simple modification or a very geometric icon that feels somewhat generic, but they've tried all the other things. And one thing that what design firms will do too, bigger design firms is they'll take a more complicated logo that has more flourishes and personality. And they'll put it against a lot of different things like ads on a bus board or billboard in a newsprint thing. So you can see like, "Ooh, this is competing with the central messaging."
It becomes more important and it doesn't allow the messaging or the tagline to work. So again, oftentimes we very myopic as creative people. We just focus in on the one component. We don't realize it lives in a larger ecosystem. And when you're bigger firm you know that that's part of the process. Has it been your experience as well?

Mika:

Yeah, absolutely. Usually there's some an intake process and whatever project I'm working on and that might be a couple weeks. That might be a couple months. Sometimes we go really deep depending on how big the assignment is or how much change a client is looking for or how much research we need to do to turn over all the stones we need to turn over. And I should say, when I say research, it's not a capital. I'm not doing segmentation studies and focus groups. If we do that, we hire an outside firm because I'm by no means an expert in that. But it is stakeholder interviews, it's workshops with companies, it's desk research of looking at trends and trades and that sort of thing.

Chris:

Have you run into an experience where you go through that process of explaining, like we tried this, that didn't work and you go through it and then you finish with the conclusion, this is why it looks like this today only for the client to say, "Well, well exploration number three, where you say didn't work. I don't know about that." Has that happened?

Mika:

For sure. And I'm trying to remember a specific example because I can picture that conversation happening. And I can't think of a specific example right now, but usually it happens when someone is seeing a presentation for the first time who hasn't been involved from the get go. So maybe they know the whole story, maybe they don't, maybe they're seeing a condensed version of the overall presentation and it gets a lot more subjective. Because I think what we try to do is make a solution as bulletproof as possible to prove out why this works from every angle we can imagine.
And if my memory serves me correctly, when that's happened, it's usually been some consolidated or frankensteined presentation that maybe doesn't have the full context. So it makes the lot easier to subjectively say, "No, I don't really like that." That's not to say every strategy I build is bulletproof and perfect, but it's a pretty collaborative process. So ideally we're working along the way there aren't any surprises and we're taking these baby steps to get to where we get to. So there usually isn't a surprise like that at the end. And if it happens, it's usually someone who's coming in the middle of the process.

Chris:

I also wanted to highlight that bigger firms that work with really big budget clients, high profile clients with really big stakes that are involved. They don't go and disappear into their creative caves and reemerge and say, "Here it is. And, "Tada, do you have it or what?" That's usually the actions a much smaller firm. And what you realize is the bigger the client, the more that's at stake, the more you have to be one with the client that you're taking steps together. You're having a lot of meetings around milestones.
And so that when you of at the end, everybody's on board, because that's probably one of the biggest challenges. It's not so much the designing, the mark, the symbol, the system, the tagline is difficult. It is, but it's not as difficult as getting buy-in from everybody, making sure that all the key stakeholders involved, see what you see and arrive at this very logical conclusion, instead of saying like, "Tada, brilliant." They're saying, "Of course, you've been leading us down this path. And that seems to be the natural evolution. We're all still very excited about doing this together."
Now you mentioned something a couple of times the word workshop. That might be a foreign concept to a lot of smaller design firms. And you talked about stakeholders and stakeholder workshops potentially. Tell us what that looks like. If you can share some insight, a framework or a process that you found to be very helpful so that everybody here can learn from you.

Mika:

I totally used brand speak there. So apologies. But yes, workshops can come in two forms either at the beginning of a process or at the end. So at the beginning of a process, usually that's getting people together who work in different departments at a company. Say company X is doing a rebrand. We typically don't just talk to the marketing or the creative services department. We'll hear from those departments. We'll hear from C-suite people we'll hear from HR. We'll hear from coordinators. We'll hear from people at all levels across all departments just so that we a really thorough understanding and wide base for people's opinions about this brand and why it needs to change and what they'd like to see changed. And get all the color we can get before we do any creative writing or any strategic development.
So since COVID that's typically been on Zoom, but before that it would be four or five hours sometimes where we'd get lunch brought in and throw up a bunch of whiteboards on a wall and just say, "Okay what are some words that come to mind for your brand right now?" Throw those up on a wall. Now, what words do you like? What words don't you like? What words do you want to have associated with your brand? So it's always very collaborative. There's no right or wrong answers. It's usually pretty free flowing.
We have a general agenda maybe we want to figure out the words that people want the brand to stand for. Think the brand should stand for or words that they definitely don't want the brand to stand for. We might come in with those objectives, but it's usually pretty free flowing. I don't have like a set go to exercise. It's usually just figuring out ways to get people comfortable and get people talking about their brand.
I will say sometimes we don't do workshops and instead we do one-on-one interviews. And that's typically, if there is a really big group of people and maybe a coordinator would otherwise be in the room with the CEO. They might not feel comfortable just giving their complete honest opinion about the company or the brand. So we might do one offs in that case, but workshops are generally pretty good because one person tends to build off another person's idea. And it's a very organic process that I think yields some results that maybe we wouldn't get from just doing one on one interviews.

Chris:

So it sounds to me like the workshop is really about involving one or more people in the creative process of talking through the idea so that you can help to generate new ideas or at least get buy-in, or just them familiar with the concepts and the direction in which this seems to be shaping or leaning towards, right?

Mika:

Yeah, exactly. And usually these workshops are early on, so we want to at least get a gauge for what a client is thinking. There's usually a reason behind say a rebrand that they have a gut instinct that we should be doing this, or we shouldn't be doing this. And that's a good starting point. And we like getting those insights on paper. There's still that whole process we talked about of looking at the competition and looking at the customers and making sure whatever we're talking about in this workshop aligns with what we're uncovering and the other research we're doing. But at least it gives us a foundation of this is the general direction. This is why they hired us and where they generally want to go.

Chris:

Wonderful. I had a question about the practical, maybe a little more tactical question about, you're remote, you're based in Minneapolis. Do you fly to where your clients are? Do you meet them in person when you're doing these things? What's life like working remotely with your team, your internal team, but also with the clients? How are you conducting these workshops or these interim meetings where you're going through milestones?

Mika:

It is all completely remote now, which is very different from a couple years ago. Every single time I presented a strategy document or did a stakeholder interview, it was always in person. It's different now, but everything is completely remote. Presentations have all been remote. I have not met anyone in person at Trollback, which is completely crazy to think of. Two years ago, I could not imagine that would be the case, but everything has been remote. I think a silver lining to the world we're in now is there's opportunities to work with people who maybe you never would've been able to work for.
I don't think I would've been able to work for Trollback. Who's a New York based studio if it wasn't for where we found ourselves in right now. So it is what it is in terms of the world we're living in. But at least we have this opportunity and I have this opportunity to reunite with Bo who I loved working with in years past. And work with this team at Trollback who's doing amazing work. And I love working with them, even though I technically haven't actually seen anyone face to face.

Chris:

Wow, that is a sign of the times. You got a job where you're interviewed and you meet the decision makers or whatever power they be and its all done via remote teleconferencing. And now you work with your team and also the clients all remotely. And so this is just very personal question for me here is that, there is something to be said about seeing someone, seeing how they react, their body language, some micro expressions and sometimes on a Zoom call they are just size of a postage stamp and its hard to feed on that energy to notice resistance in the most subtle ways or for the to be destructed.
For all you know it's a frozen picture and they are somewhere else and you need their attention because at some point they are going to say, "Well, who came up with this? When did we sign on this? When did we make this decision?" And you're thinking, "Well you've been at every single meeting theoretically, but you actually weren't here." Have you been able to navigate that pretty seamlessly or has it been a bit of a challenge for you?

Mika:

Pretty seamless. I will say the biggest challenge, I think is the mute button on Zoom, which thankfully most people use on Zoom calls. So there not a lot of distractions in a big presentation, but the flip side to that is you can't hear anything. You can't hear a chuckle. If you're working on a comedy brand, you just get crickets. There's nothing to your point that you can really feed off of, or get a gauge for how a presentation might be going. Especially if you're full screen and presentation mode, and then you can't see anyone's face either. So then you're really flying blind.
So that's definitely been a challenge. I think it is much tougher to read the room. But there is this weird humanizing effect that Zoom tends to have where you see people in their home and you realize that everyone who's working on this is just a person. Everyone's moving towards the same goal. And I think it humanizes people to maybe see them just at home and listening to you while the kids are running around in the background or the dog is barking. There's something calling to that as well.

Chris:

That's a nice way to look at it. Mika, just to be respectful of your time, we're a little bit past the hour mark here. I want to ask you one last question and then feel free to talk about anything. We've been hovering around this concept of 'authenticity'. And I think there's going to be air quotes around that word, because sometimes it can be hard to be authentic when you're inventing something and you're designing a brand. But what we're talking about is just being true to the spirit or the character as you defined before and true to your spirit as a non-confrontational person. I'm going to ask you a slightly confrontational question, which is, looking back on your career that spans 14, 15 years, a little bit more. Is there any moment in that time when you zigged when you should have zagged? And looking back, you're like, "You know what, there's that one moment I should have done this. And that's the one little pebble in my shoe that I'm like walking around with.?

Mika:

That is a great question. I think there were times when I was really hesitant and maybe didn't take on more creative type works that I now enjoy doing. So when I was first moving into the creative strategy and writing side of things, I just saw myself as a writer. And there were some opportunities to, I think, sit in edit phase and help editors creative direct a bit, sit with designers, give my thoughts on maybe how that's working with a specific concept that we were building. And I didn't feel maybe I belonged in those situations, even though I think I could have easily been in those situations and think helped the creative process along.
But I just saw myself as a writer and I guess I didn't have the confidence to maybe expand beyond that. Now I've directed a couple shoots. Definitely wouldn't consider myself a director, but I've at least weighted into those waters a bit. But there were a few times where I just thought I'm really not comfortable doing this. I don't think that's my skillset. So I'm just going to stick to writing a positioning statement, writing some taglines and let the pros handle that. And I think I could have diversified my skillset a lot earlier. And if I put myself in some more of those uncomfortable situations,

Chris:

That's wonderful. Thanks for sharing that. Oftentimes I think there's opportunities to learn when we reflect. I don't know where I heard this from, but wisdom is experience plus reflection. So you have obviously the experience. And then I try and get my guests to reflect on their life, to see like, "Huh, there's a little nugget for you." So what I'm hearing from you in that moment is, sometimes we're a little bit too judgemental. We qualify ourselves too much like, "Oh, who am I to say this? Or I haven't been trained, or I haven't been doing this long enough." To then ultimately censor ourselves and not contribute to the greater creative good.
It's like, we're all putting our heads down to move the ball a few inches or a few yards in one direction. And there could be something that you say that could be the worst idea ever, but then sparks someone else's thinking like, "Wait a minute, hold on a second here. That's a terrible idea. But if we made one tweak to it would be a wonderful idea." And that's how we brainstorm. And I can totally relate. I'm sure everybody who's listening to this can relate in one way or another, at least one point in their life when we felt outmatched, outgunned and underqualified. And so we started to sink into ourselves and feel really awkward and weird.
And so to every one who's ever felt that, or is currently feeling that just remember, you can throw out an idea, you can contribute to the creative process with a healthy caveat that, "Hey, do with it as you wish, but I'm just trying my best to contribute to this conversation. It may or may not help you." So that we don't have to shut ourselves down. And every once in a while, you're going to come up with a jam or you might come up with a bunch of duds, but either way you need to exercise that muscle.

Mika:

Absolutely. I completely agree. And being in the industry, as long as I have been now, I am very comfortable throwing out a million dud ideas because I've seen those duds get transformed by someone else into something great. So I do wish I was sitting in those edit bays earlier on because I might not have had a winning idea, but maybe that could have sparked someone else to come up with a great idea.

Chris:

And in this world, in these larger initiatives, when it comes to design or branding or writing different campaigns, it is truly a team effort. And I say that with all earnestness and respect, because we all put our heads together and it's like the ... What is it? The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And it's all we do, or one part in the machine, but we can contribute and we have value. And with that, I want to thank you Mika for coming on our podcast, for sharing your story. Is there anything that you wanted to talk about before we wrap up here?

Mika:

No, I think this has been a great conversation with you, Chris. I've been listening to you and following you for a long time. So is an honor to speak to you. And I think the information that you share with everyone is invaluable. Especially for young people learning how to pursue their passions. So I just wanted to say, thank you for all that you've done over the years.

Chris:

Thank you so much for saying that. It warms my heart to hear someone who's still in the industry. Who's doing work that's relevant that we're going to see on air, on print or on the side of a building somewhere to say that, because it's been a very long journey for you Mika from being a person who's like you said, on the box and just quietly working or toiling away in very small circles, but then to be able to leave that behind and to have this conversation, it's a real treasure for me.
So I do appreciate you saying that. And on behalf of everyone who's listening to this, you provide yet another shade of paint to this really rich tapestry that we're all trying to build. And so I do appreciate you.

Mika:

Thanks Chris.

Chris:

And if people want to find out more about you, where might they go?

Mika:

I've been weaning myself off social media for the sake of getting to bed at a decent hour. So I think the best way would probably just to connect with me on LinkedIn. There's not a lot of Mika Saulitis in the world, so I'm pretty easy to find there.

Chris:

Wonderful. Okay. So his name is Mika Saulitis. You can find him on LinkedIn. He's off social media. So just connect with him there and continue the dialogue. That's it for us. Thank you so much.

Mika:

Thank you. I'm Mika Saulitis. And you're listening to The Futur.

Greg Gunn:

Thanks for joining us this time. If you haven't already, subscribe to our show on your favorite podcasting app and get a new insightful episode from us every week. The Futur podcast is hosted by Chris Do, and produced by me, Greg Gunn. Thank you to Anthony Barrow for editing and mixing this episode. And thank you to Adam Sanborn for our intro music.


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