The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Let’s Have Another Bonfire …

A few weeks ago, the lovely/stupid folks at WARC asked me to be part of a conversation to discuss whether strategists were well equipped to embrace the opportunity that clients valued brand strategy more than any other discipline.

If you’re a WARC member, you can watch the whole discussion here, but all the panelists were asked to give a 5 minute introductory talk about their perspective on the issue.

I used no slides, but if I had, I’d have used the image at the top of this page that comes from a presentation I recently gave to Rockstar Games. Not because it’s arresting, but because if no one paid any attention to what I said, they’d still get a good idea about where I stand on things.

But for those who want to know a bit more detail, this is what I said.


“We are in an interesting situation.

We have more flavours and capabilities in strategy than ever before.
We have more opportunities to learn the craft of strategy than ever before.
And – according to reports – we have more demand from clients for strategy than ever before.

That all sounds fucking fantastic for the strategy discipline, except we continue to see …

+ Strategic thinking being given away or discounted.
+ Tighter and tighter deadlines for strategy to be concluded.
+ The abdication of strategic thought to ‘whatever the data or platform owners say’.
+ More value placed on the process of strategy than the outcome of it.
+ A reduction in strategic training and development from agencies and companies alike.
+ Huge swathes of strategists being made redundant every single day.
+ A continued reluctance to hire people of colour or people born outside of capital cities
[and when we do, we tell them they’ll only be valued if they act exactly like the incumbents]
+ And from my view, less distinctive, disruptive and long-term strategy than we’ve seen before.

So when I compare the claims ‘the strategy future is rosie’ with the reality going down all around us, something doesn’t add up.

Which leads me to think there are 3 possibilities.

1. The strategy clients want is less about strategy and more about repackaging what they’ve already decided or simply don’t want to have to deal with.

2. The strategy companies/agencies want is less about strategy and more about doing whatever will keep the client relationship happy.

3. The strategy strategists do is less about taking lateral leaps forward and more literal shuffles towards the justification of whatever our clients want to have justified.

OK, I’m being a prick … but only partially.

Somewhere along the line we all seem to have forgotten what strategy is and what it is supposed to do.

To quote my planning husband, Mr Weigel, strategy should …

+ Make things happen
+ Move things forward
+ Create new possibilities
+ Create greater value for the audience and the business.

Or said another way, strategy is about movement, momentum and direction. Where the day after a strategy is engaged, the behaviour of the company or brand is fundamentally different to the day before. A distinctive, sustainable difference designed to deliver breakthrough results born from identifying a real business problem, nuanced understanding of the audience [rather than convenient generalisations] and commercial intimacy … by that I mean knowing who the company actually is, how they operate and how they need to in these modern times.

Prof Lawrence Freedman, the author of A History of Strategy … said it best:

“Strategy is about revolution. Anything else is just tactics.”

And we’re seeing a lot of tactics these days.

And while eco-systems, frameworks, brand onions, data, D2C, UX, creative briefs, ads and comms are all parts of the strategic journey, they’re rarely THE strategy.

Nor is creating endless sub-thinking for every decision, implication or possibility because, at best – they can paralyse the potential of the strategy and end up just creating incremental change rather than fundamental or – at worse – just cause mass fucking confusion.

And don’t get me started on optimisation or user journeys or white-label solutions or writing endless decks that go nowhere … because they’re often more about keeping things the same than moving things forward.

This discipline has been my life. I believe in it and I’m employed because of it. It can create incredible opportunity and value and has some incredible talent working in it and – more excitedly – wanting to work in it. But the reality is for all the people who have strategy in their title, few are setting the stage for brilliantly creative, commercially advantageous, progressive revolution … most of us are simply executing a small part of someone else’s thinking and then going off thinking we’re hot shit.

What this means is as a discipline, we’re in danger of becoming like a contestant on Love Island, initially interesting to meet but ultimately blunt, disposable and forgettable.

And while there’s many reasons for this – some beyond our control – we are contributing to it by acting like our own worst enemy. Doing things like arguing about which ‘flavour of strategy’ is the right ‘flavour of strategy’ for the modern age.

Apart from the fact most of the ‘new flavours’ are just re-badged versions of old strategic rigour – albeit with some more consideration and expression in it – this is just an argument of ego that’s distracting us from the real issue …

We can be so much more than we think we are.

We need to be so much more than we think we are.

But to realise this we need to stop thinking of strategy as if it’s engineering or simply the act of being able to think strategically … and get back to objective, distinctive and focused revolution.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from Prof Freedman:

“Strategy is getting more from a situation than the starting balance of power suggests”.

If we’re not doing that, then we’re not just kidding ourselves … but also our entire discipline and our clients trust.

And while they’re many reasons for it – as I have already mentioned – we’re all kidding ourselves a lot these days.

As with everything, what happens next is up to us. But I hope it results in us being strategically dangerous because when we’re in full flight, that’s when we’ll show how much value we can add to commerce, culture and creativity”.

28 Comments so far
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Comment by George

So many great things in this piece Robert. Truth. Judgement. Inspiration. It reminds me when we started to see “innovation” become a job title in agencies. It sounded good. It appealed to clients. But the innovation they did was centred more on processes than shifts in any output created. Except for when it was award season. I agree with everything you say here and assure you this is not just limited to the marketing industry.

Comment by George

My issue is not the quality of strategists. Frankly there’s more brilliant minds right now than I’ve seen at any point in my career. My issue is what they are being allowed to do (by clients and companies alike) and – as a byproduct – what they now think qualifies as strategy, when a lot is either writing decks that sound good but impact nothing or are simply curating the execution of someone else’s strategy.

Comment by Rob

I have met a lot of strategists with titles above their current ability. It’s not their fault, I would not turn down a promotion if I was offered one either, but the knock-on effects are dangerous.

Comment by George

Couldn’t agree more. I wrote this back in 2011 when someone I worked with – who was a suit their whole career – turned up as the head of strategy in another agency.

Do I blame him? No.

But I do think we have this weird cult where ‘speed of promotion’ is more highly regarded than quality of work. Again, like you, I don’t blame people for taking what’s on offer – but it can also end up costing them more down the line than they realise.

Or maybe that’s just me trying to justify why it took me so long to get anywhere … hahahaha.

As for the suit who became the head of planning? They’re now back being a brilliant suit.

Comment by Rob


Comment by George

That’s one hell of an opening speech. And that gif is amazing.

Comment by Pete

Your gifs have come a long way Rob.

Comment by Bazza

This is good Rob. As George said, it stings and inspires at the same time. I agree with you though. I recently read a strategic response to a brief that had no actual strategy in it. Instead it was pages of frameworks that dealt with the ask of the brief without specifically telling anyone how they were answering the brief.

I like a good framework as much as the next person, but there appears to be a lot of people who think that’s where the job ends. Maybe even worse is there appears lots of clients who agree.

Comment by Bazza

Oh I’ve seen those. 100 page decks where you either still don’t know what the strategy actually is or it ends up being a literal expression of what the client asked for in the brief.

You said: “how do we get people passionate about fashion to come to us?”
We said: “create an ecosystem where people passionate about fashion can indulge in their passion”.

My issue isn’t the methodology people are using, but the lack of strategy actually being developed. Then there’s the arrogance of superiority that is going on within the community where the approach is seemingly the battle as opposed to the quality of the work and impact that it produces.

And I’ve put ‘work’ in that statement because while the effect made is vital, HOW you did it is seemingly being forgotten when that is – to me – the difference between strategy and tactics.

Comment by Rob

Thank you for saying this Robert.

Comment by EW

Agree with everything you said except for a minor quibble about this sentence

“And while eco-systems, frameworks, brand onions, data, D2C, UX, creative briefs, ads and comms are all parts of the strategic journey, they’re rarely THE strategy.”

You said rarely when you meant never. They’re all tactics.

Comment by John

The definition of strategy has not changed. Just the standards and the understanding. Excellent article Robert.

Comment by Lee Hill

I’m a planner who recently went client side. What I’ve learned is that people love the process of strategy. The process is reassuring, it feels like progress. What people don’t want is the actual strategy, because that means change and change is really hard, change requires political dexterity and change is an affront to whoever is steering the ship. The process is good for your career progression, the output might harm it.

And because agency relationships are so precarious, strategists add more and more garnish to the process, and care less and less about the output. I’m not sure it’s even tactics. Theatrics, maybe.

Agencies are rewarded by pleasing the client, and clients are rewarded by pleasing their bosses. The busywork of strategy is more pleasing than the outcome, especially at a time when most companies need a strategy that’s less a buff-and-polish and more a raging inferno.

Comment by F

This is a very good comment, though what you’re describing is the quest for mediocrity.

I think everyone agrees that process is a vitally important factor in the development of a strategy, but when it becomes the most important factor then strategy loses its meaning. But as you say, many favor this approach as it protects their career rather than running the risk of results damaging it.

This attitude highlights what is wrong in so many agencies and organisations. Placing huge value on a process that is designed to not actually achieve results but consensus.

Great agencies and strategists do not please the ego of the company, they help the company gain an ego because of the work they create due to the strategy they execute. While this time is hugely challenging for so many people and organisations, they are the conditions that people that truly value strategy dream of having as this is where rampant change of order can occur.

My comment is not challenging your view F. I appreciate your honesty and agree with your view for how many companies and strategists approach their role. But it does reiterate Robert’s point.

Comment by George

This is so depressing because it’s so true and I’m not even a strategist.

Comment by DH

Thank you F. This is great.

You have brilliantly articulated so many [tragically sad, but utterly accurate] points in terms of what a lot of clients, agencies, companies and/or strategists either want, expect or do.

“The process is reassuring, it feels like progress”

“The process is good for your career progression, the output might harm it”

“The busywork of strategy is more pleasing than the outcome”

“At a time when most companies need a strategy that’s less a buff-and-polish and more a raging inferno”

You have just explained why strategy is in so much demand … because it enables everyone to look like they’re moving things forward while keeping everything the same.

Now don’t get me wrong, I get in these tough times, the pressure to not fuck up is huge, so looking like you’re doing the right thing, rather than doing something that can truly be measured is very appealing.

Add to that this approach you can still ‘move up the ladder’ because you’re seen as having not fucked up [even though they’ve also not really moved anything forward] and you realise why it can be so tempting.

Except in the end, while everyone is complicit all you’re doing is establishing mediocrity and while there are many people who will choose that path for a whole host of reasons, I’d rather drink bleach. This might explain why I work with a certain sort of client … but I can tell you, your comment has never made me appreciate so many of them as you have just made me feel now.

Strategists should be about strategy. Sadly, it seems there’s a lot about the job that is the craft of illusion.

Thank you so much for your comment F.

Comment by Rob

No wonder they only signed their comment with a single letter, because that is the sort of truth that is likely to get you fired if you are discovered. Which highlights another issue with the current standards of strategy being promoted and demanded.

Comment by Pete

How did such a concise and well-written comment end up on this blog?

Comment by John

Amateur mistake.

Comment by Bazza

ive been telling you pricks for 20 years planners are a bunch of useful fucks. dont know who f is but good work.

Comment by andy@cynic

Give this man a beer! Wait, change that to a Diet Coke.

This is a great post. It’s refreshing to read a case of well written truth at this time, especially against a backdrop of US politics.

As strategy’s primary role / perceived value – not everywhere but typically – is frequently reduced to providing little more than safety under the guise of progress, the industry has primed itself for busywork, as you point out. Sadly, it’s become the primary way agencies make money.

Not only does this play right into the hands of the hourly pricing model, dominated by margin-squeezing client procurement, it arguably also alters the demand for talent. More specifically, strategists/planners are (inadvertently or not) being evaluated and rewarded based on their abilities to do said busywork rather than their abilities to develop actual strategy. There is a difference.

Planners who enter the industry on the agency side today may logically conclude that their worth is derived from producing evidence of busywork, as opposed to bold, strategic thinking that enables what Freedman talks about: “Strategy is getting more from a situation than the starting balance of power suggests”. I fucking love this quote.

I desperately hope I am wrong about this, but until client organizations begin to reward and incentivize their CMOs not only by not fucking up, but by beating category growth, I can’t see this situation changing drastically, sadly. And I am not seeing shareholder pressure pushing organizations in this direction today. Fortunately, there are still a few brave souls out there both with clients and in agencies, willing to take personal risks for greater rewards, but these peeps are in a minority. A vast minority. More bravery, please!

Comment by fredrik sarnblad

[…] Let’s Have Another Bonfire … […]

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I refuse to take advice from a foul-mouthed, Birkenstock-wearing, British provocateur. Whoever this “Rob” character is he looks ridiculous, and sounds dangerous. He could have gotten someone killed making that gif.

Comment by Jason Bagley

What the ….

You are way too smart and talented to come here Jason. But I am also thrilled by it. Hope you’re good mate and would love to catch up soon.

Comment by Rob

[…] Driven by a pinch of arrogance here … a sliver of laziness there … and underpinned by a big dollop of what I wrote about a while back. […]

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[…] Except we haven’t and we aren’t. […]

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[…] talked a lot about this – and the reasons behind it – in my rant at WARC, but it still blows my mind that companies and agencies expect planners to adopt this approach when […]

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