“Every single time there is an introduction of a new tool or a new platform – whether that might be the internet or forums or AI image tools, we see fans as some of the first people to jump into experimenting with that technology. We witness them bringing their own ideas – ideas that riff off stories and products that are in the public domain - to life.”

Little Grey Cells: Your strategic marketing and business advice has been drawn upon by brands as diverse as L'Oreal, Lego, Netflix, Nike, Amazon, Oatly, Mars and Sony - and those are just the ones I've pulled out of the long list. You have to be one of the most in demand keynote speakers I'm aware of at the moment with over 45 engagements since 2021. You've been listed as a trailblazer in Campaign Magazine and Adweek. And you've worked as strategy lead, at 77X, MCX Mark Cuban experiments, Global Head of strategy for filmmaker Ridley Scott. Along the way you have worked at Droga 5, consulted for Adidas and for a number of other ad and strategy agencies. Please walk us through your career path from your first hire to now that you've ‘niched’ into your fascinating area of specialism. 

Zoe Scaman: It seems to have been a series of happy accidents and bizarre decisions that have led me to an okay place - that's pretty much as planned as it has been. 

I didn't go to university. I dropped out of college when I was 18. I just didn't really know what I wanted to do. On the table at the time were bog standard generic subjects: economics, business studies - those kinds of things. I didn't have a vocation in mind. I felt that university would be a bit of a waste of time if I didn't have a plan. So I didn't go. 

Instead, I decided to answer an advert in a local paper - because that's what you did back then: it read:’ junior person wanted for small ad agency, in Guildford, Surrey’. I joined. It was £11,000 a year, and I mostly made coffee. But I was in the right place at the right time: search engine marketing was taking off. Thanks to pay-per-click, you could tell who went to your website from a particular Google ad and you could start to track it. The agency that I worked at created a white label piece of software that allowed clients to track this for the very first time. 

I found myself in a variety of ad agencies, selling them this software. That was the first big exposure that I had to ‘’the world of advertising”. I’d never seen it before. I didn't know it existed. I found it compelling, aspirational - and sexy. 

I wanted to be a part of it. I didn't have any qualifications - but at that time, you didn't really need any. I stayed at this agency for a couple of years. And then I decided to go to London and get a “proper job” and started at Booth, Lockett and Makin. It was a small agency, which no longer exists.  They had a digital arm called Quantum. And I was really interested in digital marketing. 

Initially, I was working with Search Marketing, but then moved into things like Second Life. We launched the very first Domino's pizza store in Second Life - it was a virtual pizza store, which took a huge amount of time and energy and money… and we managed to sell one pizza – not the most successful mission… But it was a really interesting eye opener into this bigger digital world that I had never seen before. 

I stayed there for a couple of years. And then I decided to move to Australia to join my partner at the time who was travelling. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had never been to Sydney before and I decided to plant myself there for a while. I joined Mediacom around 2007-2008 – when Facebook and Twitter were starting up, andI thought: “there's something in this”. I started experimenting with it and attending a couple of different evening conferences on social media to meet kindred spirits. 

Next I joined Australia's first social media agency, which was a collaboration between Naked Communications, PepsiCo, and others. Mediacom suggested I should stay with the promise of a director role in a couple of years - but it didn’t appeal to me. I didn't want to stick to one path, and one career. I wanted to go and learn something else entirely. 

Admittedly, it was very early in the social space. Clients were saying: “Here's two grand, what can you do with this?”. And we didn't make any money. But it was such a fascinating ride to be on - being at the forefront of all of this stuff. We lasted about nine months or so before we went bankrupt, which was a real shame but also a huge learning experience. It opened up my worldview, in terms of what other work opportunities were out there. 

Naked Communications, at the time, was one of the best agencies in the world. They had a very strict policy of only hiring people who had done their time in the agency world. The idea being that if you worked with Naked, you would be working with people who have ‘been there, done that’, and spent 10 to 15 years in the industry. 

I didn't have that - I was 24 - so to convince them to hire me, I had to be persistent and I knocked the door down. It took me months – but eventually they let me in - and I was the youngest person that they had ever hired in a strategy position. The best thing about Naked was the exposure that you got to the brilliant minds in their team. It was a goldmine of creativity: amazing out-of-the-box thinkers. 

They paired strategists together, which I hadn’t seen before - and I haven't seen since; a junior person with a senior person. And I was lucky enough to be paired with the incredible Karla Pritchard on the Coca Cola account and that launched me into this world of big, creative communications. 

On my watch we came up with the idea of ‘Share A Coke’ – which rolled out firstly in Australia and then to 70+ countries around the world. I was only 25. I thought my career had peaked! The experience taught me what it took to pull off work like that. We had a brand council every single morning for 14 months. We had to deal with Coca Cola’s bottlers, the manufacturers, the trade teams… we had to work out how to get a longer name like ‘Muhammad’ on a can and somehow match the design aesthetic with having a shorter name like ‘Zoe’ - in terms of letter spacing.

We had to solve how to go out to every single corner shop and supermarket in the entire country and convince them to take all of their existing stock out of the fridge - which they've paid for - and then add new stock with the names on cans. And they all needed to do it at exactly the right time - overnight on the same day.

It was an incredible comprehensive lesson in organisational design, coordination, and business strategy. Up until then advertising for me had more-or-less been “lipstick on a pig”. I hadn't really seen all of the other machinations and inner workings of a business. It was exciting – it lit my brain up. Next I was at McCann for a period of time, and then I came back to London. 

Despite all of this experience under my belt, I had to start again. No one knew me. I had no references. Nobody would meet me. And I really struggled to get a job. I had left London as a junior account manager, and I came back as a senior strategy director. My Australia and APAC experience didn't seem to matter. 

I spent a year emailing the ‘heads of strategy’, at every agency across the UK and I got a couple of jobs – including working at LSU - London Strategy Unit. This was new: you were not attached to a specific advertising output, and you were not a client either. You were in this halfway house offering strategic advice. 

It was a little bit like the work that I was doing at Naked, but much more focused on business and organisational strategy. My first role was to move to Nuremberg, and work with Adidas in house to rewrite their global marketing planning process from scratch. I was 29. It was just such a huge wealth of experience and wealth of connections. Crucially, for the first time I saw how the client was feeling about agency relationships, and about creativity and commercialization. 

It was all about pragmatism. In ‘ad agency land’, I was always trying to do the ‘bells and whistles’ and the ‘jazz hands’. And I guess I hadn't really understood how work was landing with clients and where that work fitted in terms of the bigger picture and everything else that they had on their plates. 

Doing this project with Adidas was such an eye opener for me to be able to really get my teeth into and understand it. After LSU I hopped around a lot. I started freelancing: I went to Droga5 and ended up going to Ethiopia with Nike Foundation, which was fascinating and terrifying at the same time. 

That really humbled me. I knew absolutely nothing about Addis Ababa or Ethiopia – I had to completely unlearn and relearn. That was business strategy and fundraising. It was charitable, and about culture - all of that stuff. I had to be open to admitting that I didn’t know it all, or anything really, in that new environment.

After that, I worked in New York for a period of time specialising in organisational transformation with a company called Undercurrent. I worked with Al Gore’s ‘Climate Reality Project’, American Express, PepsiCo. Here I focused on ‘how do you kickstart innovation inside an organisation applying non-hierarchical processes’. But over time I found myself feeling lost.

I was thinking: “What am I doing? I'm 30. I don't have a plan. There's no trajectory for me anymore.” I ended up running a lot of new business across the UK for Droga5 from a strategy perspective - basically I was constantly on pitches - which was exhausting. I burnt out. I pretty much collapsed for a couple of months - I didn't really know which way was up. At the time I felt that Droga5 was the pinnacle of where I could hope to get to – so what was next? 

When I got headhunted by Ridley Scott - it was a huge shock and surprise. Initially, I honestly thought it was a joke. I said “I've not worked in entertainment, I know nothing about movies”. But they said: “Perfect, that's why you're going to be so great for this role. We need someone outside of this ecosystem, because it's so navel gazey here, that I want to bring someone from the outside, in”. 

My remit was the dream, I had the freedom to dive down so many different rabbit holes; the future of entertainment, immersive gaming, open intellectual property, fandom – it turned my brain on again. Then came COVID. Hollywood ground to a halt. Everything obviously went to sh*t . Ridley wasn't leaving his house in LA and nothing was really getting done. And I decided that I couldn't stay there anymore. 

I thought: I'm going to continue on this path and try and do my own thing. I launched my consultancy: Bodacious. I wanted to have the ability to bring in other consultants as in when I need to. But I really wanted to stick with this stream of thinking around fandom and entertainment: blending the stuff that I've done with brand strategy with the work I’d done in organisational design and innovation, pulling all of these different threads together into something that resembled a portfolio approach. And that's what I've been doing ever since.  

LGC: What a journey. The words on your Bodacious website say that you're ‘fueled by bold and audacious thinking, creating culturally compelling dynamic brands leaning into the rapidly emerging shifts in the world of entertainment and fandom, building out new business and monetization models to fit this new reality, exploring and implementing the technologies that are underpinning it all’. For the benefit of our readers, I'd love to hear you unpick some of that for us.

ZS: The way that I tend to approach any project that I do is: how can I do it differently from what’s expected. Previously, I had this idea of brand strategy and comms strategy that felt so repetitive and so formulaic. When I spent time in agencies and with clients, we were filling out brand frameworks over and over. We would spend ages wordsmithing this thing to the nth degree, and then everyone would pat themselves on the back.

But after all that work, that document would go into a file server and nobody would ever open it again. I found myself really questioning the value of strategy as a practice as a result, not just in terms of my own contribution to it, but everybody's contribution to it. 

I really struggled to see the benefit that we were providing clients. In many cases the process could have been streamlined to half a day and then passed onto the creative teams where the magic happens. To me it seemed like we were all ‘painting by numbers’ to produce no real value. I started to feel: “am I a bit of a charlatan here? Are we actually doing anything that is worth the money that we're charging?” 

With Bodacious, when it comes to my own strategy, my practice - I have no formula. I have nothing that I repeat. Everything is from scratch, and I don't look at it through the lens of traditional advertising agency strategy. I’m just asking logical questions, trying to get to the nub of what the issue is - pressing on the right buttons. ‘Bold and audacious thinking’ comes in where I ask what may appear to be dumb questions but which ultimately help to unlock different directions.

I will push a client and say: “Why haven't you considered this?” “Could we actually scrap this product completely and go down a different route?” Or “is the way that you're servicing clients a positive experience for anybody - or do we need to unpick this as well?” My approach is something that clients either gravitate towards - or they run away from. 

And if they run away - that's absolutely fine, because I find that people self-select. The result is that the people I am working with are the ones that I should be working with - as opposed to trying to drag them along behind me. And this method is so much more interesting. You have no idea where you're going to end up. There's no defined output in terms of what you're actually aiming for. In turn this means that you can have much more in depth and honest discussions. 

LGC: I'd love to really dig into your much-feted area of specialism: the new fandom formula. I was looking at it this morning. In your recent work, you explain that there's a new formula for fandom: fandom = community x autonomy x equity. Could you walk us through what that means?

ZS: I've been tracking the evolution of fandom for the last seven or eight years: watching how it's moving and how it's changing in terms of the dynamics. First and foremost it’s worth saying that fandom has been around forever, or at least since the early 1800s. It really solidified in the 1890s when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictitious character, Sherlock Holmes was killed off. People took to the streets with black armbands demanding his return. And it’s evolved rapidly since then.

Every single time there is an introduction of a new tool or a new platform – whether that might be the internet or forums or AI image tools, we see fans as some of the first people to jump into experimenting with that technology. We witness them bringing their own ideas – ideas that riff off stories and products that are in the public domain - to life. That might be: tangents on existing IPs (Intellectual Properties) and universes that they love - or new characters that they want to create - or spin-off love stories. A famous example of this is how fans have developed the storyline around Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock actually being lovers - that's been around in Star Trek fan communities for many years. 

Right now, we are seeing more and more power concentrating into the hands of the fans – especially now that we have all of these cloud-based creation tools in the mix. That's where the community autonomy and equity piece came from. I was starting to see a new formula for how fans can actually coalesce, how they could create and then also how they could potentially think about being remunerated for their efforts. 

Over the last couple of years, there has been this move away from bigger, more traditional social networks – like Facebook and Instagram - where everything is moderated by an algorithm. People are feeling more and more disconnected from those that they would like to be connected with. This is because these platforms have changed. To users they’re no longer about the social network anymore. People are being served whatever the algorithm wants to feed them. And that's making them feel lonely, quite cut off. 

In response, a lot of people are saying: “I don't want to do this anymore”. Instead, they are moving towards more closed off community spaces - whether that's a WhatsApp group, a Discord server, a Mighty Network, a Circle – there are lots of options - but there’s a key difference: there’s no algorithm. Instead, people are gathering in these places where they share passions, contexts, values and interests. And they want to hang out and see what happens. 

This move from ‘big social’ towards the real origins of community is something that I've been tracking for the last couple of years too, and it's getting more and more pronounced - and that is powering this idea of ‘fan autonomy’. 

If these communities are coming together with their shared passions and interests, and suddenly they're being given powerful artificial intelligence tools, edit suites, Canva, Adobe Photoshop, all of their ideas can come to life in a way that feels powerful.

Rather than having to ask a studio, the available software allows fans to borrow a little bit of an existing IP. These fans are then ‘re-mixing’, and they're coming up with a tonne of different ideas and they are able to bring these ideas to life. 

Fans are now able to write and distribute new chapters and whole new stories, creating tangential worlds. And as a phenomenon, it's just getting bigger and bigger. We’ve even seen fanfiction crossover into real world production. The film franchise ‘After’ was originally a fanfiction story about popstar Harry Style and this was turned into a multi-film blockbuster on Netflix. Another example was The Kissing Booth, which was written by a 15 year old Welsh girl and turned into a series of movies on Netflix too. In 2018, per Variety, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said it was "one of the most-watched movies in the country, and maybe in the world." It was then followed by two sequels

And so, looking at these examples and others, the last piece of this new paradigm is this idea of equity. We’re seeing more and more brands really start to understand the power of co-creation – between them and their fans. But this is not crowdsourcing - in which we ask ‘Doris’ what the next flavour of Walkers crisps should be. Far from it – that’s the lowest common denominator of creativity. 

Instead, we're starting to see brands really take the creative abilities of their fans seriously. LEGO is a great example, they’ve been at the forefront of this for a while with initiatives such as ‘LEGO World Builder’. Here, LEGO put out a brief, with very clear parameters, and they asked their fans to come back and help them co-create new characters, new franchises, and new kits. This has been going for the last couple of years. 

If LEGO then decide to move forward with any of the fan submissions, the person responsible for the design gets an equity stake. Nike have ‘Dot Swoosh’: they’ve been saying: “We want you to take the 3D files for our Dunks and we want you to design incredible virtual creations”. Companies like Roblox are asking fans to create an ecosystem within the Roblox universe. Why? Because if they don't offer this, Roblox knows they will lose fans, who will find somewhere else to express their creativity and somewhere else to funnel their efforts. And that would drastically reduce the value of Roblox. 

Things have developed so fast that we're seeing all of these different companies squabbling over what incentives they should be offering to fans so that they can keep them close and loyal to their particular brand ecosystem. Epic, for example – offers 88% of everything you earn from the creations that you make which you can sell via their FAB marketplace. 

Roblox is a little bit more convoluted, but it's close to 70%. With Nike - it's 100%. Nike don't expect fans to do all of this work out of the goodness of their heart. Instead they expect fans to co-create within the brand ecosystem and build together, in a way that develops mutual value.

This is where the formula comes together. You've got your community spaces, you've suddenly got the autonomy and the power that's been placed in their hands with these tools. And you've got this idea of equity and monetizable contribution. And so these three elements are turbocharging what these fandoms are doing today and what they're capable of.

LGC: In a past role, I was working as a creative director in an ad agency and I was given a research project. It was: ‘Star Wars x Google? Can you bring them together?’ It was about 15 years ago now. So ahead of all these new behaviours that you're talking about. My conclusion was that there was lots of really cool stuff being done by fans: I found evidence of a bass guitar made out of a model of the iconic Millennium Falcon spaceship. But actually, at the time, Star Wars/Disney wouldn't let anyone make anything because the current view was that their IP was so precious. For me, it's really exciting to hear you saying this and hearing that actually people are coming around to the fact that of course, if someone's going to go to the trouble of making a bass guitar out of the Millennium Falcon - this should be celebrated - not told to ‘cease and desist’. 

ZC: We've just seen the announcement from Disney that they’re partnering with Epic to create an entire multi-IP universe within Fortnite. And they’ll be offering co-creation opportunities. So for the very first time, fans will be able to mess around with Disney IP. That's never happened before. Having Disney’s Bob Iger actually saying “this is the future and we need to have much more openness when it comes to our IP” - that is massive. 

LGC: I attended a lecture where I heard acclaimed US business strategist, Roger Martin explain that, in his opinion, corporate strategy and marketing strategy have come together, especially looking at ‘the three C's’: company, customer and competition. He argues that if you're not across those ‘three C's’, you can't make good decisions in corporate strategy or marketing strategy. Is that a view that you share?

ZC: Absolutely: the more separated that advertising and marketing is from the business, the less effective it is. I think that has been one of the biggest problems we’ve suffered over the last 20 years or so in the ad agency world. We divorced it from the reality of distribution, from trade negotiations from r&d and pricing.  

As a result, I believe that advertising has been taken less and less seriously as a practice. Another considerable issue is the lifespan of a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). They are someone who's on the board: they have a seat at the decision-making table. But a typical CMO tenure has reduced to around 18 months - which is frankly ridiculous. You can't make any kind of impression in that time period. Whenever a new person takes on their role, they want to put their own stamp on stuff, which inevitably means that they undo much of what the prior person has done. And so it goes on. 

Increasingly, Ad Agencies are used as suppliers, as opposed to partners, collaborators and proper strategic thinkers. They then become ‘sausage factories’ - a conveyor belt of repetition. The process becomes formulaic. They produce assets, which they put out into the world and people scroll past in two seconds. Then they start the whole process all over again. 

In so many cases these days, if there’s a problem with a business, then there’s a need for comprehensive diagnosis: to go on a wider journey around the organisation to see what needs fixing but agencies are not given that remit. That's one of the big reasons why I moved away: I wanted to have the ability to jump into any problem regardless of where it sat. I didn't want to just be constrained to making ads.

LGC: What draws you into strategy as a discipline?

ZS: If you really identify what strategy is - it's ‘problem definition and solution’. As a practice, you can put that anywhere within your organisation. It could be a problem definition and solution in terms of research and development for a new product. Or it could be ‘what's our TikTok strategy?’ Or it might be what new categories do we want to move into? Do we have the right skills in house to be able to move at speed? 

I think the freedom and the range of the work that you can do if you really define strategy, in its most simple terms, is liberating. I always felt that strategy purely within an ad agency was - as I said - lipstick on a pig. A couple of weeks ago a CMO was saying on LinkedIn, that she didn't see the value of strategy as part of the ad agency process. Everyone was up in arms about it, but I agreed with her.

Strategy teams within ad agencies often take the client's brief and then pick it apart and rework it, passing a diluted or dismembered version of the client’s strategy back to them. Then you jump into creative. In literally every single agency that I worked in, apart from maybe naked, I felt that way about the strategic practice and the offering – and it’ a waste of time.

LGC: I've definitely experienced that myself working for a series of ad agencies as a creative. My feeling was that when a client had been won by an ad agency, they weren't going to do anything to upset the applecart. You know, if the work was there, they would do it, rather than perhaps take your slightly more challenging approach, which is, you believe it's in the best interest of the client to reexamine what it is they're thinking of doing for various reasons, rather than just taking the work and executing it. 

ZS: You know, if an agency feels like the client’s strategy has been set five years ago, and they don't need to change it, they just need some new creative assets to put out into the wild as part of a marketing campaign, that's okay. But I think in many instances we were guilty of wedging strategy into the process, without really questioning why we were doing it or the value of it.

LGC: In my conversations with senior marketers, I'm sensing a return in businesses to more strategic and long term thinking after several years, when I think the ROI of digital advertising was something that most financial directors seem to care about the most. Is this something you're witnessing? 

ZS: I think so for some clients, I'm definitely still seeing a lot of clients stuck in the workflow: can we improve our TikTok strategy for ‘Gen Z’; should we have a YouTube channel? In these cases they are not usually thinking about strategy. They're just thinking about the pieces of this overall ecosystem that they've compiled. 

I think there's a lot of misunderstanding and lots of gaps within a business’ overall marketing ecosystem. I think communications platforms have exploded from a fixed number of channels into infinite channels and infinite fragmented audiences. I don't think many people have stopped to consider what that looks like, or how it should be reconstructed. 

As a result a lot of marketing is reactive as opposed to proactive. But this is not true everywhere: some of the best brands are really starting to think about how they combine everything from point of sale all the way back through to brand strategy… all the way back through to fandoms, and the communities that they're engaging with. I’m seeing the best brands start to stick these bits together. But I think on the whole, marketers are often very much headless chickens, and really struggling to figure out where all of these new bits should go.

LGC: I read with great interest, your blog post: ‘Mad Men, Furious Women’. I found it genuinely shocking, and it made me feel embarrassed, awkward and upset. Quite rightly, you kick out against, appalling behaviour from men in the ad industry, and back up your opinion piece with not only your own experiences, but with anonymized quotes from a huge number of other women working in advertising. Not being female, I can't claim to have shared those experiences. But I can say that I did lose a job for calling out a bullying and misogynistic ECD at an ad agency. I wasn’t a victim, but I had seen how he openly treated others. I went to HR, who listened and then they cancelled my contract. The behaviour that you call out definitely exists. I've witnessed it first hand and my gut response then was: “that's just not on”. But I left advertising over 10 years ago. Where are you today? Do you think anything's changing? 

ZS: Not really, no, I don't think that much has changed, which is such a shame. There was a study published in The Guardian two months ago. It explored ‘old boys clubs’, misogyny - not necessarily just in advertising, but in city-based businesses. The article used the exact language that I used in my piece a few years ago: like me, they said that the behaviour has become less overt – but instead is more insidious and still going on behind closed doors. 

I'm still getting emails and DMS, from young women and from older women who are all experiencing these horrific things. I spoke to one woman - only last week - who's very high up at a very well known agency in London. She returned from maternity leave, only to find that the person that was her maternity leave replacement has now taken over her job. 

She is now seen as ‘being less ambitious, less capable, less committed’ and all because she's now a mother – and the company hasn’t consulted her on any of this. Essentially she’s been pushed out, bit by bit, so she's actually had to negotiate a redundancy deal. That's weeks after going back having had her leave. Imagine all the hormones, that kind of confidence drop that first-time motherhood gives you - only to then be compounded by dreadful agency culture and treatment. It’s abhorrent.

That's not the only person that I've heard of this happening to. And these are very, very high up women. Another woman – working for another company - messaged me last year. She was made redundant while she was on maternity leave only to find out that someone had replaced her position: they just slightly renamed it. This stuff happens all the time. Like Christmas periods at companies: I get inundated with messages from mostly young women saying that they've been put in awful situations - what should they do? Who should they talk to? Should they keep quiet? It’s everywhere - and I want to keep trying to shine a big spotlight on it. 

LGC: I hope I'm not sounding too flippant, when I move on to my next question, which is on a decidedly lighter note: you must be aware of this, but in my research prepping for this interview with you, I was googling the word ‘bodacious’. I found this: “Bodacious, or otherwise known as J-31, was an American bucking bull, who was known throughout the rodeo world as the world's most dangerous bull, and also known as the greatest bull ever to buck.” My understanding is that he was one of two bulls that have reached that standard in US rodeo. Were you aware of this? 

ZS: I was not. I quite like it.

LGC: As a strategy sensei: if there's one thing you know about strategy, it is?

ZS: Strategy is all about intuition - as opposed to formula.

Zoe Scaman was interviewed by Tim. Healey for Worth Your WhileLittle Grey Cells and MAD//Fest Insights.

Award-winning consultant, Tim Healey ‘makes your marketing the best it can be’ through his marketing and brand management agency, Shoot 4 the Moon. His ‘white glove’ approach assesses what’s working and what isn’t, establishes business and marketing goals and then overlays the most appropriate current industry best practice. The resulting bespoke solution ensures that your marketing is super-efficient and measurably effective.” Talk to Tim.

You might die tomorrow so make it worth your while. Worth Your While is an independent creative agency helping brands do spectacular stuff people like to talk about. wyw.agency.