Fashion, Rhetoric And Ass-Backwards Strategy: A Corrective


“That’s what we’re teaching people about the business.
Bluff, jargon, and vacuity”

Dave Trott


Stephen King  – the father of all planners – resisted any suggestion that there was one, universal, all-encompassing theory or model of how advertising worked. Rather, he argued for dealing with the specific, understanding that clients’ business circumstances and needs were specific.

His “useful, if perhaps a little over-simple” Planning Cycle would still seem to be an eminently sensible approach to thinking about addressing any client’s business needs:

Planning cycle2.001

Crucially, rather than pre-judge it, it leaves entirely open the nature of solution.

Poor Stephen King. He must find himself rolling in his grave a great deal.

Because it would seem that swathes of both marketing- and adland would rather practice ass-backwards strategy.

Ass-backwards strategy is easy.

First you making a sweeping generalization:

Interruption is dead.

Advertising is the price you pay for having an unremarkable product or service

Campaigns are dead.

Advertising is dead.

Marketing is dead.

Permission marketing is the new marketing.

Content not campaigns.

Interruption marketing is a race to the bottom.

Utility trumps image.

Traditional advertising is passé

People trust people, not marketing.

The big idea is dead – you need lots of little ideas.

It’s all about the interest graph.

Be in beta.

It’s about fans, not consumers.

It’s about communities, not consumers.

Word of mouth trumps messaging.

Be mobile first.

Make products that communicate.

If it’s not participative, it’s not an idea.

Content is where it’s at.

You have to have a cultural purpose.

Passive consumption is dead.

It’s all about the social graph

Lightweight social interactions are the future.

Mass-marketing is dead

You’ve got to aggregate and curate

It’s about transmedia narratives

Always on content is essential.

Do, don’t say.

Light lots of little fires.


Take your pick.

Then and only then do you ask:

“Now what’s your problem?”

In other words ass-backwards strategy works like this:

Planning cycle2.002
It relies on making specific recommendations based on very general – and more often than not entirely superficial – evaluations: “I read some half-baked research supporting my prejudice and given my lack of interest/skills in rigorous data analysis I’m inclined to believe it.”

Or it indulges in the fantasy that there is a formula for success: “Whatever the nature of your particular and unique business and marketing needs, this is the template for success.”  

Or it assumes the standards and rigour of cheap and lazy journalism: “Hey, let’s not allow lack of evidence and real enquiry get in the way of a good headline.”

Or it denies uncertainty and forgets that business performance in any competitive marketplace is relative, not absolute: “Do this and you will succeed. Never mind the competition and what they are doing.”

Or it argues backwards from channel, technology or platform characteristics to a client business issue: “This is what people can do with our channel/platform/technology. And that’s the key to solving your problem.”

Or it assumes that correlating factors are causal factors: “Company A is doing X. Company A is growing. Therefore X is the reason.”

Or it puts vested interest ahead of real analysis and problem-solving: “I’m from a design/word of mouth/social media/advertising/mobile/activation agency. The key to solving your business problem is design/word of mouth/social media/advertising/mobile/activation.”

Or it puts doing what’s fashionable ahead of doing what’s right: “I read about it in Contagious/saw it on some guru’s blog/heard about it at SXSW/it’s what everybody else is talking about/it’s won lots of creative awards/my resume needs this to be credible.”

Ass-backwards strategy can most certainly make for fun (and sometimes thought-provoking) conference and blog fodder.

It might provide agencies with the comforting illusion that they have a unique ‘positioning’ in an over-supplied marketplace.

It can provoke entertaining pub arguments.

More helpfully and importantly, it can help stimulate real and genuinely valuable debate and speculation.

And it certainly can make for some tediously self-regarding and shamelessly self-promoting books that succeed only in robbing Shakespeare’s language of all its elegance.

But it is not strategy.

It hardly goes without saying that technology is opening up all manner of new and exciting ways of connecting with consumers, so of course we should be exploring, testing, prototyping, discussing and evaluating their potential. There can, after all, be no creativity without innovation.

But we’d do well to distinguish between speculating (however valuable a role that might play) and legislating.

For I’d like to think that we’re able to approach our client’s business needs with a genuinely open mind as to what the solution might be. Rather than just an open mouth.

Perhaps we could more frequently recall that our task is to find the right (i.e. effective) thing to do. Not advocate the most fashionable.

And in doing so, we might perhaps recognize that sometimes the most fashionable thing we could do might well turn out to be precisely the wrong thing to do.


Dave Trott for planting the seed:

Paul Colman, whose brain I have plundered.

Judie Lannon, Merry Baskin eds. A Masterclass In Brand Planning: The Timeless Works Of Stephen King (the one don’t-apply-if-you-haven’t-read-it, mandatory piece of reading for every planner)


  1. Stefano

    I couldn’t agree more.
    (And you missed the two I loath the most: “Consumers own brands” and “Join the conversation”.)

  2. Juliana

    The other day I was reading an interview with someone very very very “cool” and he said: “I don´t use the word journalism, I don´t use the word media, I don´t use the word news”… this “something is dead” is so stupid – at least it made me laugh! for a week my friends and I were like “I don´t use the word brief, I don´t use the word chocolate” and so on…

  3. Emma

    Diagram 14.2: “How do we get there? Where are we?”
    Sounds like my family going on holiday.

  4. faris

    Lovely! Super important.
    I feel we [as an industry] – especially the people charged with strategy at agencies – need constant reminding of this.
    We throw the word strategy around without a clear grasp of what it is, or what it means outside of advertising, to the business minded.
    Humble contribution to that conversation:
    I wrote a section about the conflation of strategy and account / media planning in my ADAMP paper thing – will publish that at some point. One must inform the need for the other.
    But – to consider the aphoristic…in “The King Cycle” – the element of ‘why’ must include cultural context – the rapidly changing nature of which throws up endless challenges to the efficacy of standard models of persuasion focused, propositionally derived broadcast communication.
    Not just in the options available to us – but in the very foundation of how communication works, as message transmission, or not, how decision making happens, how behavior changes and habits are established, as we make steps to better understand the counter-intuitive ways the minds work.
    It’s the numerous challenges to the established, common sense foundations of AIDA, and the manifold increase in possible solutions we can recommend, that have led people to coin these.
    Now, by definition, everything can’t be right for every problem – the essence of strategy is trade offs, a function of finite resource, and differentiation – not in product or service claims, but in the path the company chooses.
    But the changing context is changing for all.
    That, obviously, doesn’t mean working ass backwards from tactics.
    But the kinds of HOW we now need to consider are far broader.
    To approach our clients problems with an open mind as to the solution, we have to accept it may not include any advertising at all.

  5. mweigel

    In as much ‘channel’ and idea are increasingly inseparable, I’m with you on the need for strategy and coms/media planning to inform each other.
    And while the fundamentals of human nature haven’t changed I do agree that the HOW’s have expanded in nature and variety.
    My own view is that the very plenitude of options before us compels us to be clearer than ever in identifying and understanding the WHAT.