Strategy is bullshit.
Strategy is about sacrifice. You should not show everything.
We run a training programme at The Mix for our whole team.
In the programme we cover basic competency skills such as writing an insight, presentation skills, and client handling skills and then also sessions designed to support strategists to think.
This week we ran a session called ‘strategy is bullshit’.
The purpose of this, is that as we help our strategists develop that they avoid the worst traps that you can fall into.
We wrote up the good and bad things about being a strategist.
Getting to work on brands
Getting to work on different things
Making things happen
Using it to justify your own smarts
People not knowing what you do
Not putting in the hard work
It just being an opinion on paper
Too much theory not enough practice
The bad things all seemed to talk to strategy as being an isolated act done by one person who comes across as a bit of a dick. The good things were much more to do with the social aspect of strategy, working together, listening to people, making things happen.
Here are the key takeouts from the presentation if they are helpful for your teams:
1 Strategists tend to think that strategy is very clever and important.
The reality outside of agency and marketing land, is that most people don’t.
The evidence for this is all around.
My mum for example thinks I make ads for a living. I do not.
When my title was planner, my brother in law and I chatted and we realised we had the same job titles but very different applications.
He planned lorries in and out of a huge manufacturing warehouse.
I planned for brands on who to target.
This is a good reminder that there are very many professions in the world that do good and important things in society, nurses, doctors, teachers, lorry drivers, checkout operators for example.
These people are all much more important than strategists.
However, whilst we save no lives it is possible for us to do things that help companies make fewer bad decisions, and sometimes make some really good ones.
I like to think for example that lady pens from Bic wouldn’t have happened on my watch for example.
2. Strategy needs to stop being a black box exercise
We see some real commercial challenges with the application of strategy in business. Mostly because strategy is overly reliant on some clever dick, using secondary source material at best as evidence of their recommendation.
The consequence is that often the evidence is thin and sometimes lacking altogether, meaning that businesses are being asked to make decisions on the basis of opinion.
This is not very compelling and also commercially risky.
It’s also harder to then convince broader communities to work with your strategy.
It’s harder still to convince a board. This reinforces the idea that marketing is fluffy and not especially commercially savvy.
3. Clients spend too long observing, strategists spend too long deciding
Fun fact, the military do lots of business consulting. One of the findings they made is that businesses spend a disproportionate amount of time in observation mode, and not enough time implementing and putting their observations into action.
On the field of battle there is a military principle called the OODA cycle.
Observation, Orientation, Decision making, Action.
You should spend an equal amount of time in the decision making and action portion as you do in observation. Afterall if you are just observing in battle you are liable to get shot.
Companies generally navel gaze more than they should and don’t take decisions quickly enough.
By contrast what we observe is that strategists skip the observation part.
They spend too long thinking up solutions and not enough time grappling with primary evidence – to find the intimate tiny details that make the difference between generic strategy and strategy that challenges stereotypes and platitudes.
4. Our job is to help people see clearly
To help people see clearly, you need to be incredibly close to the evidence and then make choices about how you share that.
As Martin Weigel puts it:
“Situational awareness, knowledge of the knowable, starting where you are - they all point to the need to pay attention, and to see clearly. But the simplicity of this advice belies the discipline, rigour, and silencing of ego required to exercise this.”
There are four key skills we talk about to get to being a great strategic partner:
Rigour is all about knowing the work deeply. Knowing your evidence and being able to use it well. You can’t speak with authority if you don’t get your hands dirty in primary evidence.
Moderating gives you skin in the game, confidence to present well and a chance to be really useful for clients - you know something they don’t.
Decisiveness means making choices about what you share. Every project is different but a logical place to start is always the people part.
/It’s the part clients will know the least
/It’s your chance to build empathy
/It sets up the insight for the resolution later on
After that it makes sense to go from category into their brand and the way to overcome the challenges.
With this simple framework in place, you can then make choices about what you choose to share and what you don’t.
Strategy is about sacrifice.
You should not show everything.
You should also ask yourself, have you answered the brief?
Not just the written brief, but the brief based on listening to your client so you know what they need to deliver the work really well. The unacknowledged aspects which come from really listening.
Clarity is about being inclusive. Words and jargon that are confusing exclude people from conversations and reduce the chance of your work having impact.
Make a list of jargon you don’t understand or words that are complex and don’t use them. Even if others are, you should always aim for maximum ease of understanding.
If a short word explains just as well as a long word use the short word.
Don’t use acronyms, don’t use abstract jargon.
Ask yourself – could you explain this to a friend who doesn’t work in the same field? Would they get it?
Short and simple.
Clear not clever.
• Don’t sit in a room thinking up strategy
• Talk a lot to your team
• Mull ideas, talk about people not consumers
• Talk to people outside the project to sense check whether it is clear
Strategy is only good if it gets used. Do you know what happened to your last project?