Why all strategists should fight or lift weights to learn about making shit happen

tom donaldIn this guest post, Tom Donald argues that strategists should face the reality of regular combat.

“The goal is not the thing itself. Talking about it is not execution. Please stop confusing goals and plans with the actual doing of things.” @GymJones

Too often ‘developing strategy’ is a bookish, quasi-academic exercise. Purple Cows are thrown into Blue Oceans to find the Tipping Point that will Nudge the Herd to Eat The Big Fish.

Correspondingly, self-proclaimed ‘strategists’ are often aloof, elite and too removed from the reality of closing sales and making shit happen.

Certainly too few marketing strategists have ever made anything, sold anything or been hands-on responsible for the execution of their plans. The cock is never on the block.  And this is why they confuse planning with doing.  (Which, in turn, is why they drive creatives and clients crazy, but that’s another story…)

But I’ve recently figured out a solution for ensuring your planners or strategists never confuse thinking with doing.  Firstly, try and hire strategists who have owned a business. Secondly, try and hire ex-salespeople.  Failing that – and this is the crux of the solution as there are rarely enough ex-salespeople or ex-business owners available – only hire strategists who lift weights, or play competitive individual sports, ideally combat sports.

Why? Because (to quote Henry Rollins) “the iron never lies to you”. You either pick it up, or you don’t.  You achieve your goal, or you don’t.  Strategizing and thinking will not get the bar off the ground.  The task is clearly in the doing.

The same applies to competitive individual sports. You win, or you don’t.  You can’t post-rationalise away a failed outcome – “the director screwed it up”, “the client’s an idiot”, etc – because if you lose it was because they were better than you and you alone. End of story.  You have to take responsibility for the outcome, positive or negative, hence the genius of weights and fighting: they force you to face reality on a regular basis.

So to make your planning or strategy department better, mandate they go to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes or lift some weights.  You’ll sort the wheat from the chaff in no time.

Some wise words from Joe Rogan on the power of martial arts:

“Of all the shit I’ve done in my life… becoming really good at Jiu Jitsu is probably one of the most difficult things a person can do and I think it helps me with everything I do. I think the more I train and the more I meet people who are in Jiu Jitsu and train on a regular basis, they’re healthier people. Their egos are healthier. Especially men. They’re easier to talk to. They’re easier to hang out with. Because they’re facing reality on a regular basis.

“Something that my Tae Kwon Do teacher told me when I was a little kid that I never forgot was that martial arts are a vehicle for developing your human potential. And nothing in my life has ever put me in face with reality better than Jiu Jitsu. In life, we can all distort our perception of things in order to make ourselves more comfortable, in order to make ourselves accept where we are. And there’s a lot of people out there that are running around in life full of shit. You can’t be full of shit when you do Jiu Jitsu. When you do Jiu Jitsu, its impossible to be full of shit because reality comes at you in the purest form possible: A life or death struggle.”

  • Tom Donald is a planning director at Droga5. He writes about planning, drugs, sex and death at Punk Rock Shop.


  1. ?
    8 Nov 12
    7:21 am

  2. Tom are you PRS or D5?

  3. Bob Loblaw
    8 Nov 12
    8:55 am

  4. @nottheword
    8 Nov 12
    9:26 am

  5. If the strategist is not intimately involved in the work already they are too far away from what’s going on.

  6. Wild Oscar
    8 Nov 12
    9:45 am

  7. Yawn. It’d be more effective if strategists like Tom just got on with it instead of throwing stones.

  8. Mad Hatter
    8 Nov 12
    10:07 am

  9. “Too often ‘developing strategy’ is a bookish, quasi-academic exercise. Purple Cows are thrown into Blue Oceans to find the Tipping Point that will Nudge the Herd to Eat The Big Fish.”

    Am I in wonderland?

  10. goodone
    8 Nov 12
    10:13 am

  11. pfft….that’s rich

  12. Kevin macmillan
    8 Nov 12
    10:17 am

  13. Tom,
    Having recently been working with one, I reckon you could add ‘Ex lawyers (especially German ones)’ to the list of people who make good planners. I guess things like herd nudging and eating big fish don’t go down too well in a court of law.

  14. Shamma
    8 Nov 12
    10:40 am

  15. Rex Kwan Doe

  16. Ash Tag
    8 Nov 12
    10:52 am

  17. @Tomdonald

    I like what you’re saying, but as you point out, there are a lack of suitably experienced people currently within the industry to fit the bill; so your premise seems to me to hinge on agencies being brave enough to make lateral hires. Right?

    That being the case, despite what many might claim, this is an exceptionally rare thing for any of them to do. Which is understandable as there is little time for senior planners to spend training-up people (‘internal cost’ = dirty words), and many clients would balk at the perceived lack of comfort such a situation would bring…

  18. Alison_F
    8 Nov 12
    10:52 am

  19. ie: Don’t tell me how funny you are… Be funny!

  20. Jon Holloway
    8 Nov 12
    11:26 am

  21. T,

    While I totally agree.. I think there are two things to add:

    The line between strategy and creative is blurring, as service design and commercial idea generation become the norm for what most people call ‘advertising’ strategists need to be more creative and creatives need to be more strategic. That sounds like a barrel of shit, and should always have happened.. It’s now truer than ever.

    Also, as someone who has put everything on the line several times, won and lost in equal proportions, this rule should be put across the whole advertising world. The bubble is too small and too many people live in that bubble.The real world is such a scary place it seems 😉

  22. Oli
    8 Nov 12
    12:17 pm

  23. Funny

    Am a strategist
    Was a client
    Started / own a business
    Started / run a non for profit
    Fought in an amateur boxing match
    Occasionally lift weights

    Dislike people who just talk and dont do

    So Agree

  24. JDS
    8 Nov 12
    12:26 pm

  25. Hey I am a serial entrepreneur, been a client, a CD, background in brand strategy, fight at Light Heavyweight in MMA. Anyone want to spar ?

  26. Nic Halley
    8 Nov 12
    12:26 pm

  27. ‘everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the face’
    Mike Tyson

  28. Nic Halley
    8 Nov 12
    12:43 pm

  29. Hey Oli, still up for sparing? JDS, not if your Junior Dos Santos

  30. Oli
    8 Nov 12
    12:46 pm

  31. @ Nick Halley

    ha ha dam right!

  32. Tom
    8 Nov 12
    1:34 pm

  33. Thanks for comments, positive and negative. Always appreciated.

    @? I should have said that I always write for myself, so the piece is from PRS not D5. (And, God willing, there’ll be more from PRS in the future.)

    @jon Totally agree with you. Not a “barrel of shit” at all.

    @acatinatree If you think this is preposterous, wait till I write about how all planners should experience psychedelics… :)

    Cheers gang.

  34. Tom
    8 Nov 12
    1:40 pm

  35. And for the record: There are loads of people who do jiu-jitsu who are full of shit, despite what Joe Rogan (the Oprah for men) says…

  36. Hmmmm...
    8 Nov 12
    3:43 pm

  37. Pffft.

    Lifting weights at some inner suburban gym full of hipster strategists is not reality.

    Reality is having to shift a tonne of fucking bricks from over there to over there so you can make enough money to keep a roof over your head for another month.

  38. Cocks on the Block
    8 Nov 12
    3:58 pm

  39. There are lots of ways to make shit happen.

    I particularly like planners who are Mums. They make a lot of stuff happen (often while their husband’s are out playing sports or pumping iron).

  40. CPM
    8 Nov 12
    4:17 pm

  41. Probably true of strategy types at ad agencies but a bit of a sweeping statement.

  42. Mac
    8 Nov 12
    5:48 pm

  43. Fighting ? Seriously?

    You could easily have a strategist who loses fights continually. You don’t know that they are successful at it. Why not say “You should only hire strategists who have children. ” That at least makes sense.

    If someone hasn’t had their kids taken away by Child Services then they are achieving something. Feeding them. Clothing them.

    And raising kids is, by definition, a vehicle for developing human potential. It is forcing you to face reality on a regular basis.

    Certainly more than having the brain damage caused by sports like boxing. Why would you want a strategist with brain damage?

    And is there any logic in including ‘weight lifting’ rather than ‘knitting’?

    It seems like this is an excuse for people to say “My strategy is only to employ strategists who have a hobby similar to mine.”

    Which sounds like an incompetent strategy.

  44. Marion
    8 Nov 12
    5:49 pm

  45. Agree with Tom on knowing how to DO. How about a former auditor turned marketing client turned planner. Read my view on future planner skills needed on ogilvydo.com: http://goo.gl/XYxPq

  46. Tom
    8 Nov 12
    8:59 pm

  47. Some here (and on Twitter) felt that this was all too testosterone-laden, and I fully understand that criticism. (The whole ramble was inspired by the uber-masculine @gymjones, whom I respect, but it did start from dragging-knuckles place.)

    For the record, I didn’t write the byline. Journos do that, and they’re skilled at writing them to provoke as well as possible (bless ’em). Nowhere in what I wrote did I say that all strategists should fact combat. But they should do something where success or failure is solely in their hands. That’s all. The easiest route to that is lifting (with goals and measurement, not poncing in front of the mirror at Fitness First) or individual competitive sports, ideally combat. But their are other routes: Chess, for one.

    @Cocks on the block: I couldn’t agree more. Most mums (not all) are amazing hires, skilled at doing. More mums in planning would be a good thing.

  48. Myers B
    9 Nov 12
    9:30 am

  49. Certain personalities fit certain roles.

    As humans there are planners who live their lives doing and can’t relax until the doing is done. Do any agencies perform personality tests on candidates before hiring? It could be a very worthwhile exercise to get to know your p’s traits from your j’s…

  50. Oli
    9 Nov 12
    9:35 am

  51. @Tom

    Chess, love it. Fancy a few rounds of this:


  52. Marcus T
    9 Nov 12
    10:32 am

  53. Agree with you Tom, although I’d have to say combat sports are more useful than lifting weights or playing chess for being able to ‘get things done’… in particular the need to clear all the other crap from your mind (hare brain, tortoise mind and all that) and focus down on the problem at hand – the guy in front of you. BJJ in particular is a very mental sport and heavily reliant on strategy, you’ve got to have your game plan and be thinking 3 steps ahead, with back-up plans, counters and escape routes.

    It’s definitely not all ‘knuckle-dragging’. I don’t think people can fully understand the benefits of it until they try it for a while.

  54. JohnW
    9 Nov 12
    10:46 am

  55. I get what you’re saying too Tom. You’re recommending strategists commit to winning, or bear the loss.

    Commitment calls for preparedness to confront. As an ex-cold call salesman and agency business owner, we all know that confrontation, inside an agency between staff, or, especially, towards a client – even when you know your strategy is right – will get you fired.

    Tom, your principle is honourable and sound. The execution, in advertising, will get you executed.

  56. Mac
    9 Nov 12
    11:58 am

  57. “But they should do something where success or failure is solely in their hands. That’s all.”

    The problem with that argument is that fundamentally combat is almost the exact opposite of an example where success or failure is solely in your hands! There is a large factor of it being literally in the other person’s hands.

    The guys behind the Boxer Rebellion were expertly trained in martial arts. But, as it was combat, success or failure was not in their hands it all. It was in the hands of the other side who had a ‘screw this Kung-Fu nonsense, we’ll use modern weapons instead.’

    As Red Lantern Zhu found out the hard way, in the real world of strategy your opponent is free to use new and novel techniques … without worrying about a ‘rule book’.

    So ‘taking part in a competitive environment where the opponent is limited to using exactly the same strategies and technologies that you are using’ is probably a really bad way to demonstrate proficiency !

    Surely we all agree that the real world of strategy doesn’t work that way ?


  58. Peter Rush
    9 Nov 12
    12:20 pm

  59. If ever there was a bullshit activity it’s martial arts. It’s choreography on the level of Dancing with the Stars, or International Wrestling–just quicker. Ever seen a martial arts proponent in a pub fight? He loses. Every time. While he’s doing his little self conscious dancey-wancey, 3 guys jump on him from behind and beat the shit out of him. because they’re not playing by the ancient and honorable rules. You’d have to be pretty dumb to call martial arts “facing reality”. Ditto lifting weights. Opening your eyes in the morning is facing reality. Martial arts is creating a fantasy to dwell in…but it only works if you gather people around you who like to play pretends too.

  60. Alison_F
    9 Nov 12
    1:38 pm

  61. This is a funny thread. It seems a bit like a male pissing competition re who knows how to access ‘real’ reality better than the next guy.
    Maybe all you guys should be sent to war to get your doses of reality?
    As per previous comments, women and mothers know how to deal with serious, ongoing and repetitive pain, blood, childbirth and rearing etc… makes some of the guys in here sound a bit precious, with your chess-boxing and such, hehehe…

  62. north freo
    12 Nov 12
    8:24 pm

  63. Mac I love your mind.

  64. Tom
    20 Nov 12
    9:23 am

  65. Why all planners should do psychedelics: http://vimeo.com/52772505

    And for the guy who said martial arts is “bullshit” like choreographed dancing, I think you’ve missed the MMA revolution of the last 15+ years. I defy you to tell Jon Jones he’s “dancing”: http://youtu.be/lz_qqM9jb6Q

    Mac: You talk a lot of sense. Very Trott-like (which is a compliment). You win at Mumbrella. (Sincerely.)

    Be well beautiful people…

  66. BrentH
    20 Nov 12
    12:13 pm

  67. Silly me – I scanned “fighting and lifting weights” as a metaphor for healthy debate, intellectual rigour and relentless engagement in complex uncertainties.

  68. MattyK
    20 Nov 12
    6:51 pm

  69. There is a big difference between Tactical Management and Strategic Management. Many of the arguments poised are sound for Tactical but probably not strategic (see Mac’s last response which was spot on).

  70. Meg
    21 Nov 12
    1:26 pm

  71. Alison F, I’m with you. You too, ‘cocks on the block’. I think rather than martial arts, all planners should give parenting a go. And I don’t mean conception, I mean 24/7, round the clock, full-time, completely accountable, parenting as the primary carer. And do it while holding down a demanding job as well. I found working parenthood not only offered me a strong dose of reality, but good parenting requires you check-in your Egocentric world-view at the door in favour of a cloak of empathy, goodwill and love. Oh and it sharpens your tactical and strategic and relationship management skills no end.