A Talk with STRV’s Mr. Strategy: Milan Semelak

Over the years he’s made quite a reputation for himself in the world of international marketing strategy as someone who doesn’t shy away from implementing tactics many might describe as “eccentric.”  The thing is, regardless of his unorthodox approach to business, a devil may care attitude, and a use of language at times hinging on “colorful,” one thing is certain: When it comes to thinking differently — Milan Semelak doesn't play around.    

To get a better idea of what makes STRV’s strategic mind tick, we sat down with Milan to get his points of view on the importance of value, fearlessness, and the changing face of the tech marketing landscape.

Milan Semelak at the whiteboard

You’ve been working with STRV in various capacities for roughly the last two years. What inspired the recent jump to head of strategy?

Business (at STRV) has been doing very well.  At this scale — this size, however, the company now needs a strategic direction to bring all key pieces together. Simple function of a good strategy is to integrate. Bring all the critical pieces together so they work towards one goal.

And so the ball began rolling this past October?

Yes.  We’re still figuring out how to to connect all the dots. STRV moves somewhere very fluidly between this cool, crazy startup and also a company that’s well-financed; becoming bigger and bigger and getting respect.  So what we’re trying to build here we can’t really follow any usual corporate templates. The trick, the magic we’re looking for now, is to find that perfect balance that enables us to have control but also gives enough freedom to explore.

You’ve helped shape hundreds of companies and their brands, ranging from family businesses and scrappy startups to venture capital funds and mega-corporations.  With such a broad range of experience and disciplines under your belt, what is it you hope to bring to STRV’s particular flavor of tech-based business?

Many tech companies hugely underestimate brand as a key strategic element because they don’t feel they need it. Most of the time they don’t even have an idea what it is.  Business is comfortable because the demand is bigger than supply in tech as it’s the hottest industry of this century. This is a big challenge and unfortunate at the same time. It’s easy to go with the flow because you’re still making money. At some point — and this point will come — there will be a financial crisis again and then only those who bring strategic value will survive.   Companies with branding and a story to tell while also producing the right kind of content will rise to the top.  Those companies will stay. This is why we (STRV) partnered up.

To put it bluntly, the phrase “politically correct” isn’t exactly words one would use to describe your personal style.  How did this nonconformist attitude become part of the approach?

I believe that with career and life if you don't make an effort, you’re going to look and sound like everyone else. If you’re bringing value then why be afraid of bringing attention? But you have to create value. You can’t just go up on stage and tell me I’m a bullshitter without bringing any value; then you’re just an asshole. If you have something to say and you use this nonpolitically-correct language to point to that, then I can respect it.  Today, you can’t be boring. You have to create provocative conversations. You’ll never get attention sounding like everyone else.

In the past, you’ve referred to job titles in general as being, and I quote, “bullshit.” What’s the thinking there?

I started studying advertising and then moved over to marketing. I never could fit in just one position. If the title is, for example, to show a client, I can respect the sales pitch. The truth though is that people take titles too seriously.  I’m a strategist, I’m a creator, I’m a marketer, but I don’t really care about the titles. What’s important is what you do and how important your skills are. Which is why I’m glad STRV dropped C level titles last year.  The biggest CEO’s I ever met don’t act like CEO’s at all. They’re so down to earth. When you hear them speak, you know — this is a brilliant brain. It’s clear they know what they’re doing.  

What would you say to someone breaking into the business who’s considering a “guts over fear” approach?

I don’t always calculate the risks, but I do choose to go for it instead of being afraid. It might not pay off immediately, but it always pays back. When I’m hiring people, for example, the first thing I look for is ambition, not skill. Skill can be learned. Ambition, guts over fear, I believe that this is the principle of life. It’s something that’s inside all of us but has been destroyed throughout our lives. If I have an idea to do something crazy on social media, I’ll do it.  I’ll do it because I believe that the learning or the failure from it is worth more than being afraid of it. If you’re afraid, you’re done. You’ll just stay in the same place.

Work and strategy aside, how’s life treating you these days?

I have a crazy life because I have three little girls. That’s the biggest job actually, of all jobs. (laughs)

Thanks, Milan.

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James Christopher Lacek

James Christopher Lacek

JC is a US journalist, graphic novelist, and playwright currently living in Prague with his lovely wife, their well-mannered cat, and a border collie that has eaten more than one pair of his shoes.

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