Death of Strategy in Marketing

Strategy is not dead, but telling clients that your work is strategic is definitely not a differentiator. Even so, you might be surprised at how many creative firms tell me something like this.

“Yes, David, but our work is very strategic. Our clients tell us that all the time.”

That’s a selection bias issue, my friend, because you’re only listening to firms who work with you, and only ones who love you at that. Besides, no firm I know of is saying: “Well, you know what, we tried that strategy thing for a bit and it really seemed like more work than it was worth. So we’ve backed away from that, now, and you can take the high ground instead. We’ll muddle around down here.” Right? The point is that everyone is saying that they are strategic.

About 12 years ago I tried to minimize my use of the word “strategy” and I will admit to not being terribly successful. Nevertheless, let me pen a few things for you to think about as you describe your work:

  1. You have to play the game a bit and call it strategy. But recognize that everyone else is doing the same thing. It’s just a starting place and doesn’t take you far.
  2. Beef that up by mixing in some other words, too, like insight, game plan, diagnostic, modeling, prototype, scheme, approach, plan, or blueprint.
  3. Back it up with real research. Ideally this will be primary (vs. secondary) research that’s built around a repeatable method. One that you could train a new, smart, but inexperienced employee to execute reliably. The new client won’t know if your promises about strategy are real until later, but they’ll stay with you longer if you fulfill that promise.
  4. In-house departments aren’t terribly excited about buying your strategy. That’s not a reflection of whether they need it or not, because they frequently do, but that they are more interested in getting great work done quickly. So that will be your Trojan Horse. After they’ve held their fire while you crossed the moat and walked through the castle doors, your strategy team will crawl out of the rolling implementation beast–all wearing matching “STRATEGY” t-shirts–and start impressing them. But they do not think they really need you…unless they are a smaller company without much sophistication.

Hearing someone talk about strategy all the time is like hearing someone apologize to you repeatedly for the same thing. At some point you get tired of hearing it and you just want to see it with your own eyes. Here are a few examples of how you might be doing strategy better than your peers:

  • You require most clients to engage you for your thinking, and the only deliverable they get could be contained in a text-only document without graphic treatments. And the price is divisible by $10,000.
  • You have an “account planner” on staff who knows what an “account planner” does.
  • You subscribe to an expensive media planning package and use it regularly.
  • There’s real user testing with supporting summaries of the research results.
  • Your data gathering was developed by a survey design expert and is standardized (and proprietary) across engagements.
  • New employees can’t be all that effective until they go through several days of training to learn your firm’s methodology, and it’ll be quite different from anything else they’ve seen.
  • You don’t have to look up SPSS in Google right now.
  • Is there data to back up the statements? Strategy is really tenuous without data.

If you’d like to beef up your strategy offering quickly, considering working with a contractor and learning all you can. Next, hire that person or someone else and stiffen your offerings. It may not be as difficult as you think.

If you really want to impress someone, just call yourself an SME. Or better yet, a Ninja [something or other] or a Guru. I’m kidding! I’m kidding! Please don’t. See this guy’s recent cataloging of those titles on LinkedIn.

I’m kicking myself that I didn’t write down the source, but there was a large recent study of conference attendees. They registered an overwhelming distaste of any session titles that had “Thought Leader” in the title. If you’re struggling with what to name your session or brilliant article, this title generator might help. It’s hilarious.

That’s it for now. I’m going to go shave my head, change my first name to Alex, get a black t-shirt that’s a little too tight, shorten my TED talk, and put “thought leader” in my Twitter bio. Apparently that stuff helps. Be right back.

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