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Charting a new course for strategy

“The problem with planning is planners”.

This was the outcome of a lunch conversation with a former boss of mine. Loathe as I am to admit it, we planners/strategists are a precious, sensitive bunch. He has a point.

And strategy as an abstract entity is having a bit of a cultural moment - which is turbo-charging many egos about town.

The cult of the ‘Strategist’ is bubbling up; in presidential politics, business, even sport, today few terms have more value than being hailed as ‘the strategist’.

Which is probably why I have a problem with it.

Don’t get me wrong, strategic minds have never been more in demand but in Adland we’re in peril of fetishising ‘strategy’, transforming it from being part of the process to being the product itself, divorced from doing.

This is really dangerous.

Because shaping a proposition around the selling of strategy as the product is killing the creativity that fuels our business.

Too often planning has become the substitute for creative and that 100 slide keynote deck, the ultimate comfort blanket for clients grappling with a market that morphs with startling velocity and consumers that seem to shape shift in the space of a tweet.

The term strategist itself has become weaponised, embodying both threat and opportunity depending on where you sit in the agency.

Strategists are quick to point out that their ideas aren’t only geared toward the executional. That our role is to unlock value, to chart growth.

On the other hand, creatives complain that strategy has become the new creative. That planning ‘lines’ or territories, thoughts and concepts are muddying the already clouded water of communications for clients.

Client services just want it to work. And work well.

For me, this is nothing short of the messy rebirth of the agency, where ideology, insight and ideas are going to have to collide – and at times conflict - to create the work that will mean something in an always-on, always-connected, highly-metabolised market.

When I teach on the subject, I often quote Drucker: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Therein lies the challenge. Strategy is culture and the role of the agency strategist is to be the cultural agitator – to seek the themes and trends, to feel out the insight and pulse of the consumer – not to own the answer but to shape a better question.

Strategists need to storm the hill of a problem and bring creative – and the client - with them.

Practically, I believe this means killing the idea of the ‘planning team’ or planning department – it means understanding that agencies still trade in ideas and that strategists need to be less aligned to being clever in a stand-alone way and cleverer in the service of better creative.

When you kick the tires of agencies that consistently outperform their peers in creativity and innovation the way they create is less linear or static, brief in, an idea out, pass the hand grenade methodology.

These shops tend to have a more ‘flat’ and ‘fluid’ structure and iterative process, even the big ones. All have a ‘blended’ ideas department, where strategists, conceptualists, technologists and craft seamlessly sit and work together. Flat, fluid, but highly focused.

As an industry, we need more strategists. We need more smart people. But to be better at shaping and solving the strategic challenges facing our clients’ brands and businesses we need to shut down the strategic silo.