From Creative Producer to Creative Strategist: Zanah Thirus Joins Highdive

2023 is off to a stellar start for Chicago’s Zanah Thirus. The talented filmmaker and longtime agency producer is making a career shift, and doing so with one of the advertising industry’s most sought-after shops. Thirus will be joining Ad Age’s two-time Small Agency of the Year Highdive as a Creative Strategist, and the new journey begins Tuesday. Thirus’ road to Highdive has included tenures as Producer at Leo Burnett, Havas, and FCB Chicago. Before heading to Highdive, Zanah graciously stopped by SCREEN to tell us all about the move.

SCREEN: Thank you for stopping by, Zanah, and congratulations! What prompted this pivot for you? 

ZANAH: I jokingly say that I got into agency production by accident, but it’s true. I have a bachelor’s degree in Marketing Communication and a Master’s Degree in Cinema Production. The semester that I graduated with my masters, I posted my film producer reel on Linkedin. Shortly after, an EP at FCB Chicago reached out to me about an associate producer role and the rest was history. 

Commercial production came to me really naturally because there were a lot of similarities with producing films. Overseeing the logistical aspects of production – hiring crew, bidding, managing the budget, the production schedule, and bringing a creative team’s vision to life – is all part of a producer’s role, no matter if it’s a commercial or indie film. 

For awhile, making commercials by day really helped sharpen my skill sets as a filmmaker. I was able to take a lot of learning from commercial production into my film process and grow as both a producer and filmmaker. 

Once I reached senior level, something shifted. I really started longing for purpose and direction in my career. I was no longer excited about making things – quite frankly, I was exhausted by it. Advertising is already a tough (and at times grueling) industry. I wanted to feel like I was making an impact on each project that I was a part of. It became clearer and clearer that I couldn’t make the impact I wanted to make on projects on the producing side of things. I wanted to be a part of a project/campaign’s inception rather than on the tail end of it. 

After a bit of digging, I landed on creative strategy. 

SCREEN: And you also landed at one of the top agencies in town! What excites you about joining the team at Highdive? 

ZANAH: Highdive was an agency that saw beyond a title and looked at what skills I was bringing to the table. It’s also more of a creative incubator rather than a traditional shop. Everyone I met during the interview process was intriguing in their own way, and I look forward to collaborating with all of them! 

SCREEN: What interests you about creative strategy as a career? 

ZANAH: In this crazy world of advertising, there are a TON of different roles. A producer comes in at the very end of creative development and brings a creative idea to life. I wanted to be a part of a project’s inception rather than at the tail end of things. There are lots of different types of strategists (cultural, social, brand, creative, etc.) but Creative Strategy interested me the most because these are the strategists that work closely with creative teams to sell through creative ideas. 

I also wanted my day job to consist of activities that I found interesting. I wanted research and interpreting data into storytelling insights to be a part of my daily work. Strategy is what crafts the story, and that’s really intriguing to me because it gives the creative a sense of direction and purpose. 

SCREEN: What was your process of searching for a strategy role? 

ZANAH: Once I landed on strategy, I started revising my portfolio to reflect the skill sets that a strategist needs. For example, I translated a lot of data, research, and interviews into stories through documentary filmmaking. I’ve crafted marketing and distribution strategies for several of my internationally awarded films. I’ve translated RFPs into pitch decks for new business pitches. 

I pretty much took existing strategy related work and crafted my portfolio accordingly. 

Then, anytime a recruiter reached out to me or I met a recruiter about a producer opportunity, I started by saying ‘Oh hey, I’m actually pivoting to creative strategy. Would love to chat.” 

Until something stuck lol…

SCREEN: What do you feel you bring to the table as a creative strategist that can prove to be unique and impactful? 

ZANAH: To start, I think my background. My BA is in marketing communication and my MS is in Cinema Production. My entirety of college was spent doing market research, writing case studies, and learning the marketing ropes while grad school was a deep dive into creative storytelling. After grad school I went straight into commercial production for some HUGE agencies. 

Quite frankly, a lot of strategists don’t actually know how to make things. I’ve spent six years as an agency producer and I’ve directed eight films. I think having a creative strategist who can translate marketing jargon and research into actionable storytelling guidance for creatives is a huge asset. Also, being able to think strategically through the entire process, including production, is huge. My creative strategies will also include production vendor suggestions and directors whose work aligns with the overall strategic goals of the campaign. 

SCREEN: Last but not least, do you have any advice for an aspiring advertising professional trying to find their path in the industry?

ZANAH: Take the time you need to explore and dig into the exact role that suits your interests. This has been a long road for me, for over a year. 

You have to knock on a lot of doors and be ready for when one opens. You also can’t be discouraged if you knock and no one answers. Keep trying.

Thank you so much for stopping by SCREEN, Zanah, and congratulations once again! For more about Zanah’s past and present projects, you can visit her online hub by clicking right here.

Be sure to check back here at SCREEN Magazine for all the latest in advertising and creative content production between the coasts. You can also click right here to subscribe to our weekly email newsletter.

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