Strategists have failed the advertising industry

Y&R ANZ's Henry Innis calls out the narrow, confusing box the ad industry's strategists have unfortunately found themselves in.

When it comes to strategy and planning today, it’s hard to know where to start in marketing agencies. You have someone who’s a traditional brand planner. Then you’ve got the digital strategist. The social strategist.

The list goes on.

I’ve even seen the term ‘conversion rate strategist’ thrown about. It’s no wonder clients are confused about what ‘strategy’ even means.

In our industry, clarity should matter. Strategy is not just clarifying a brief or crafting an insight. But as time has gone by, we’ve confused these common deliverables with strategic craft.

People tend to think strategists are responsible for a ‘part’ of the creative process because of this. Strategists are then expected to have a fixed output. Social strategy? Go find the social strategist. Content strategy? Go find the content strategist.

But we’ve forgotten the craft of strategy in agencies. Strategy is not about a brief or about an understanding of a specific topic. Strategy is about identifying problems and finding solutions.

In a creative or agency context, this means good strategists provide good parameters for creatives to create work that works.

Richard Rumelt, in his excellent book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, defines it very clearly:

  • Identifying the unique attributes (kernels or in marketing terms, insights)
  • Leverage them into unique competitive advantage
  • Create a plan to direct resources in the most effective way

Those unique attributes mean understanding human behaviours across multiple contexts. Not just consumer insights, but behaviours that shape campaigns across media, content, creative and operations. It should be the strategist shaping the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ across these areas.

In our quest for specialisation, up-selling and business relevance, we’ve bastardised the craft of strategy, instead selling topical knowledge. A social analyst or manager becomes a social strategist not because they are strategic, but to sell better to clients.

These skills should of course exist in the arsenal of the modern strategist. But a strategist should be as comfortable talking consumer behaviour in creative as they are in media. They should understand how to rollout a campaign as well as they do frame an insight.

When digital came along, strategists and planners should have led the way in integrating thinking and campaigns. But what have we got now? Digital strategists, brand planners and a multitude of other ‘specialised’ versions.

Instead of T-shaped thinkers obsessed with strategic craft, we’ve got I-shaped thinkers obsessed with tactical skills.

Fortunately the solution is simple. If you want a creative agency to be truly digital, look to your strategy or planning department to champion integrated thinking. It’s the strategists who should be shaping the strategic territory, media thinking and making sure ideas work in the modern context.

It’s funny reading some of the thinking coming out of other agencies. BBDO likes to say brand planners focus on the ‘who’ and ‘what’ whilst comms planners focus on the ‘how’ and ‘when’.

Who would be better to figure out ‘how’ and ‘when’ someone would like to engage with something than someone who knew ‘who’ they were and ‘what’ they wanted?

The distinction feels forced and is what will drive less effective thinking from strategists.

In short, strategy and planning have let our industry down. We should have been championing integrated thinking and understanding the consumer. Instead, we’ve let thinking become fragmented and digital be someone else’s problem.

If you’re in an agency and reading this — it’s time to change that.

Henry Innis is the engagement planning director for Y&R ANZ.


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