The industry has changed – strategists need to change with it

It's time to evolve, argues Havas Media Group head of integrated strategy and planning Nick Kavanagh.

From speaking less and listening more (Mike Wilson), to remembering that you’re paid for your opinion, “so speak-up” (Joe Lunn), there are certain pieces of wisdom, passed on by bosses and mentors over my career, that have really stuck. But there’s one morsel that’s proving particularly resonant at the moment.

While at Naked Communications, my then head of planning Karla Pritchard warned me of the dangers of the “muffin-top strategy”: work that’s all high-level insight, perfectly honed platform idea and comms architecture, but very little in terms of explicit implementational direction or creative stimulus. 

Now I reckon this was given to me ten years ago, but two things about it have stuck with me. The first is that Karla must have been a big Seinfeld fan, the other is that never has this pearl of wisdom been more important than right now.

The previous 12 months will prove to be a watershed in the industry, speeding up the rate of digitisation as it has. Go look at your agency channel investment forecasts for this year versus the previous three if you don’t believe me.

But, what does this mean for strategy and – more importantly – strategists?

Well, we can no longer simply be the first leg of the agency planning and implementation relay; setting the direction for a campaign and then hoping it will be implemented accordingly as it passes through the agency.

Comms strategy leads to more creative, more effective work. Indeed, as our understanding of customer journeys becomes more sophisticated, campaign data richer and more responsive and creative opportunities ever more innumerable, clients need strategy now more than ever. But we, as a strategic community, must evolve accordingly.

How we approached strategy pre-COVID is no longer going to serve our clients and their brands going forward. The game has changed so we must change with it.

Instead, we have to become integrationists

We have to be the glue that binds all the specialist services that define the modern communications agency. We have to be as proficient and knowledgeable about performance digital as we are talking about the tenets of brand building and long-term effectiveness.

Which isn’t a new thought. As far back as 1996, WARC spoke about integration helping to ‘…create competitive advantage, boost profits and sales, help customers, while strengthening relationships and simultaneously saving time, money and stress’.

So what does this mean in terms of our role and how we, as strategists, operate within our agencies?

Well, firstly, some things remain the same. 

The primary aspect of our role is to catalyse the long and the short of it for our clients. We must continue to have a deep understanding of our client’s businesses, the nuances of their respective categories and how advertising works more generally. But if we are to stretch further into the implementational work, something’s got to give. 

To a person, the strategists I know working across Sydney and Melbourne are already under an enormous amount of pressure. Never more so post-COVID.

So we need to be working with our agency leaders to question whether that brief really needs a strategist. We need to bring non-strategy colleagues into the process earlier to share the strategic burden and hasten the delivery of insight work. And, dare I say it, we need to do less of the stuff that we might like doing, but has no bearing on the success of our client’s brands. 

If we’re to evolve, we’ve got to let go of a few things. After all, as a very cerebral creative Paul Swann once said to me, “It’s all about the work”.

So remember. Although the muffin-top might be the best bit, as a strategist, it’s a waste not to eat the whole thing. 

Nick Kavanagh is the head of integrated strategy and planning at Havas Media Group.


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