Brands Need Agency Strategists, Not Planners

Originally published in

But they’re not talking titles. They’re talking about an industry that doesn’t exist anymore. They’re talking about a dot-com boom. A dot-com bust. A tech renaissance. A recession. They’re talking about the fact that the ad industry is no longer in the business of making ads. Not solely.

For my part, the answer is clear. If we’re to continue making a difference for clients, we need strategists. We need to embody all that the word stands for.

In the 1990s, as the discipline gained traction beyond the U.K., the planner was charged with inspiring creatives to devise award-winning campaigns. Then it made sense to say we planned. Ads have beginnings and endings. So do plans.

I started my career at this time. To me, planning seemed like magic. I wouldn’t have been totally surprised if my boss unveiled a planning machine in the back room: Feed ethnography into input tray. Set to 360. Wait for campaigns and gold pencils.

It was messier than all that. But it was, in relative terms, a more orderly world. Imagine: Six-month time frames to conduct focus groups and qualitative and quantitative research. Thereafter, we devised set-in-stone strategic plans to guide campaigns for 12 to 24 months.

That world is gone. Chronology is gone. Six-month time frames? Very funny.

Agencies that continue to matter have TNTed a new plot of land for themselves. They now solve increasingly thorny business problems—problems no campaign alone could fix. They’re problems you can’t plan for.  

Now strategists leverage technology, design thinking, mobile, commerce, business strategy—and traditional digital and creative. Strategists concern themselves with improving business outcomes, creating movements, and bringing the previously unimaginable into the world.

Ultimately, strategists are creating transformations.

And they can’t plan that. Instead, they follow principles. They ask questions: What’s our starting point? What do we seek to impact? What’s the big question? 

Working with principles suits a nonlinear context because a strategist can grab them from the sky and drop them into lines of inquiry at any point. Examples:

  • Find the impossible truth: It’s often not what it seems. For instance, a commerce site assumes its checkout process needs a revamp. By asking the right questions, a strategist discovers that checkout isn’t the core issue. Consumers, in truth, don’t trust the company. The problem just got bigger.  
  • Fear no change: Today, the winners are often the most disruptive. Strategies must be monitored continually, tweaked—or even jettisoned—in real time.  
  • Locate the transformation: Will it live at the intersection of content and community? Product and retail environment? Also, size it out: Can the transformation be incremental, or does it need a flashbulb, big-bang revolution?

Once the transformation is envisioned, it must be translated to multidisciplinary teams—creatives, technologists, analysts—with clear direction for the new way forward. Strategists who make a difference don’t work in terms of theory alone. That’s too high in the stratosphere. They implement in the real world.

With all of these changes in approach, team structures have changed, too. In the past, a diamond-shaped team sufficed. Because the sequential process and outcomes (ad-like objects) were generally the same, work could be delegated. Teams formed around a director, expanded out with senior planners, and contracted again with fewer junior planners.

Today, clients demand access to senior talent virtually 24/7 from day one. That calls for a rectangular structure, whereby senior strategists engage in the account’s day-to-day work. Junior people, attached at the hip of senior mentors, provide support throughout.

If strategy as I’ve defined it sounds daunting, that’s because it is. But then, there never was a planning machine. And the pressure comes with the potential to exert more influence than ever, solving more types of problems in more ways.

So when I advocate for calling ourselves strategists, I’m not talking titles either. I’m talking transformation. And as a discipline, we can either lead this one or be left in the dust.

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