Category: Planning

Why ‘strategy’ does not exist. And everything is strategic

Ever committed to complicating things, Ad- and Marketingland have long liked to distinguish between a process called ‘strategy’ and a thing called ‘execution’. Indeed no less than Stephen King, the co-author of the account planning discipline itself, chose to distinguish between the ‘Grand Strategists’ and the ‘Advert Tweakers’:

At one extreme, there are the “grand strategists”, who are intellectual, aim to see the big picture, are a little bit above the fray, and almost economists.  At the other are the advert- tweakers, who peer myopically at advertisements, conduct groups discussions, justify creative work to sceptical clients, and are almost qualitative researchers”

Bundled up with this distinction between strategy and execution come a number of fellow-traveler assumptions – namely that strategy is theory, while the work is action; that strategy is therefore a means, while ‘the work’ is the ends; that strategy is process, while the work is an actual deliverable. King was speaking in 1988. But the assumptions and their consequences live on.

And from these assumptions it is dangerously easy to get to the assumption that strategy is but a means to work, that strategy serves the work, that strategy’s only value lies in getting to that work, and that strategy has no intrinsic value (being but theory and means) but ‘the work’ does (being actual end deliverables).

This has three undesirable effects.

First, as Richard Huntingdon has powerfully argued, treating strategy merely as means a means to an end encourages us to be pusillanimous in advocating and defending it:

Our ambivalence towards promoting and defending powerful strategy has to change. And our readiness to dumb down an idea to get it through the multiple stakeholders sitting in judgement on a positioning or purpose has to stop. We need to be as protective and proud of our strategic thinking as we are the work we make.”

Second, treating strategy as an exercise in abstraction encourages all kinds of quasi-intellectual abstractions to be indulged in, perpetuating for example, the paraphernalia of brand articulations (pyramids, onions, etc.) that do not even try to imagine what tangible action in the marketplace looks like.

It permits ‘strategy’ to be developed by those with absolutely no nose for and sense of taste in making things in the real world, allowing into the organisation Powerpoint jockeys more comfortable with holding the real world at arms’ length, rather imagining what could come next.

Most corrosively, it encourages and legitimises the silo-ing of disciplines that only realise their true potential when fully and seamlessly collaborating. And it encourages and sanctions building into organisations assumptions of primacy and hierarchy. Both get in the way of the creation of effective solutions. As Ed Catmull, cofounder and president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios has written:

Getting people in different disciplines to treat one another as peers is just as important as getting people within disciplines to do so. But it’s much harder. Barriers include the natural class structures that arise in organisations: There always seems to be one function that considers itself and is perceived by others to be the one the organisation values the most… In a creative business like ours, these barriers are impediments to producing great work, and therefore we must do everything we can to tear them down.”

So let’s rewind and go back to what strategy is. For despite the often tortured and painfully abstract arguments filling the business journals, there are voices of clarity.

Laurence Freedman, Professor of War Studies at Kings College London has argued that strategy is about

Getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest.”

The business thinkers Hamel and Prahalad have contended that:

The goal of strategic intent is to fold the future back into the present. The important question is not “How will next year be different from this year?” but “What must we do differently next year to get closer to our strategic intent?”

The business consultant and author of Good Strategy Bad Strategy Richard Rumelt for his part, has written that:

The core of strategy work is always the same: discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors.”

The implication is obvious. In contrast to the depiction of strategy as abstract theory detached from so-called ‘execution’, strategy is a course of action. The distinction between strategy and execution, between theory and practise, between the abstract and the concrete, thinking and doing simply does not exist.

Maintaining that it does exist might serve those who would wish to keep planners or strategists domesticated and compliant, but as Roger Martin professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto suggests, instead we should the thinking of a single continuum of interconnected choices:

We should conceive of the corporation as a white-water river in which choices cascade from the top to the bottom. Each set of rapids is a point in the corporation where choices could be made, with each upstream choice affecting the choice immediately downstream.”

As we make our way along his cascade of choices, there is then, only question that matters – “What shall we do?”

Who we target, what we offer, how we frame the offer, where we distribute it, what price we charge for it, where, when and how we publicise and connect people to that offering, what we look like, how we behave, how we speak, how we interact… They are all choices about courses of action.                                   

So where does this get us to? When so many organisations and their effectiveness are hampered by a self-imposed rift between thinkers and doers, this perspective offers us a way out of the impasse. For if the mark of a strategy is a set of coherent actions driven by intent, it must follow that everything is strategic. Every moment represents a choice as to what to do in the world, and how to do it. And at no point in the process does the engine shift gear from theory to action. Or from abstract thinking to concrete doing. Or, heaven forbid, from ‘strategy’ to ‘creativity’.

In managing organisations and cultures we have then, a choice. We can architect and manage a business’s culture and ways of working in a way that allows for seamless choice cascades. Or not. We can acknowledge the interconnectedness of all things. Or not. We can acknowledge the interdependence of all things. Or not. 

The ambitious marketer whether on the client- or agency-side of the relationship will then need to resist our industry’s muscle memory. He or she will need to resist the pandering rhetoric of “strategy serves the work”, the relegation of strategy as but the disposable, negotiable, and contingent means to something more important, the cordoning off of so-called ‘creativity’ as a specialist discipline, the infantilization of the creative function which allows creatives to get away with being unaccountable for what happens next – (i.e. the consequences and effectiveness of their work), the institutionalised schism between the strategic and the creative processes, the artificial distinction between thinking and doing, the delineation between theory and practice, keeping planners out of the so-called ‘creative process’, keeping creatives out of the so-called ‘strategic process’, permitting the domestication of the planning function, and the assumption that planners are either ill-equipped or uninterested in taking on the most senior of leadership roles within organisations.

Yes. There is much to be resisted.

And coupled with these necessary and overdue acts of constructive resistance, the ambitious marketer will demand more strategic minds (whilst remembering that does not necessarily mean more strategists),  more people with the ability to envision the next step in the choice cascade and the consequences and opportunities of their choices, and more high-performance team players rather mere collaboration lip-service payers.

And perhaps above all the ambitious marketer will recall the words of  Stanley Pollitt – who along with Stephen King was the co-author of the account planning discipline – when he wrote that planning meant “a total agency management commitment to getting the advertising content right at all costs”:

Getting it right being more important than maximising agency profits, than keeping clients happy, or building an agency shop window for distinctive-looking advertising.”

***

Sources

Gary Hamel. & C.K. Prahalad, ‘Strategic Intent’, Harvard Business Review, May-June 1989

Richard Huntingdon, ‘Stand up for strategy

Stephen King,’ Strategic Development of Brands’, Speech at the 20th Anniversary of the founding of Account Planning, APG One Day Event, July 1988

Roger L. Martin, The Execution Trap, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2010

Going beyond ourselves

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Art is one of the prime ways we have of opening ourselves and going beyond ourselves. That’s what art is, it’s the product of the human being in the world and imagination, all coming together. The irrepressibility of the life in the works, regardless of the times, the histories, the life stories, it’s like being given the world, its darks and lights. At which point we can go about the darks and lights with our imagination energised.”

Ali Smith

Going beyond ourselves feels like the most urgent necessity for all those in the marketing community. And yet nothing is no guaranteed to shut out the world and close down minds as the institutional and intellectual paraphernalia with which we surround ourselves. Happily some of us are digging tunnels out into the daylight.

A planner’s guide to reading

12__Reading_young_man

“You adapt yourself to the contents of the paintbox.”

Paul Klee

“What should I read to inform and inspire myself?” I was asked by a planner recently. It’s proven a perennial question, and one I have dodged more often than answered. But I’ve finally given some thought to the kinds of reading we should be doing. For it struck me that if what we read has the capacity to expand our emotional and intellectual resources, then this is a good, necessary, and important question.

The great American writer Annie Dillard was good on the subject of our internal resources. Citing the painter Klee when he said You adapt yourself to the contents of the paintbox” Dillard observes that:

The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.

We can choose how varied our literal or metaphorical paintbox is. The more we invest in it, the more possibilities we have at our disposal. Mastering the technique and craft of our chosen domain is an important first step in developing our paintbox, as is embracing, understanding and appreciating its achievements. But of course we can and must go further. The more we cultivate an interest in what lies outside our domain, the more we open ourselves us to new possibilities, to new and exciting combinations. As the choreographer Twyla Tharp has put it: “Everything is raw material. Everything is valuable.”

So with that in mind, I’d want to suggest that there are seven kinds of reading we (planners) benefit from:

1. That which expands our capacity for empathy

2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy

3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built

4. That which illuminates the present state of things

5. That which lets us peer into the near-future

6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft

7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression

I’ve provided below some humble, and largely subjective serving suggestions, based on reading that’s stayed with me, reading I keep returning to, and more recent reading.

Some observations and caveats:

My point is to provide a point of view on the kinds of reading we benefit from, NOT, heaven forbid, to provide a comprehensive reading list.

Non-fiction does not hold the monopoly on truth and wisdom. The absence of fiction (which arguably contains more truth than any non-fiction) from recommended reading lists for planners is utterly baffling.

The fiction titles included are necessarily very personal and subjective choices – we must each work out our own tastes and preferences.

For the most part I have eschewed those breezily written books usually located in the psychology, business, or marketing sections of bookshops. More often than not they are of dubious methodological integrity. And everybody else has read them.

***

1. That which expands our capacity for empathy

Because without that we fail.

Ali Smith, How to be Both

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins

Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday

James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District

Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk

Fiction teaches us empathy like no other art form.

(These are just some personal and recent favourites).

***

2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy

Because there are basics to be learnt.

Stephen Bungay, The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results

Lawrence Friedman, Strategy: A History

Judie Lannon and Merry Baskin’s (ed.) A Master Class In Brand Planning: The Timeless Works Of Stephen King.

Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference And Why It Matters

***

3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built

Because there are basics to be learnt.

ed., Advertising Works: Cases from the Advertising Effectiveness Awards

Les Binet & Peter Field, The Long and The Short of it: Balancing Short- and Long-Term Marketing Strategies

Paul Feldwick, The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know

Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising

This is the canon. There’s little else to bother with. The rest is just noise.

***

4. That which shines a light on the present state of things

Because insight.

Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology

John Brockman, ed., What Should We Be Worried About? Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up At Night

Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Terminal Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity

Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

Atticus Lish, Preparation For The Next Life

Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems that Don’t Exist

Zia Haider Rahman, In The Light Of What We Know

Laurence Scott, The Four Dimensional Human: Ways Of Being In The Digital World

Duncan Watts, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age

etc.

***

5. That which lets us peer into the near-future

Because our task is creating new futures for our clients’ businesses.

David Brin, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

Don DeLillo, Zero K

David Eggers, The Circle

William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story

Jaron Lanier, Who Owns The Future?

John Markoff, Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground

John Tomlinson, The Culture Of Speed: The Coming Of Immediacy

***

6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft

Obviously.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Harold McGee, McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History, and Culture

Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962-1993

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull, Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas

Sophie Lovell, Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible

***

7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression

Because forward progress depends on convincing others.

All great writing.

***

As I said, my point is to provide a point of view on the kinds of reading we can benefit from, NOT to provide a comprehensive reading list. And when it comes to kinds of reading, I suggest we that range across seven kinds:

1. That which expands our capacity for empathy

2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy

3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built

4. That which illuminates the present state of things

5. That which lets us peer into into the near-future

6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft

7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression

In 2006 the chefs Ferran Adria , Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, and the writer Harold McGee put forward what they termed ‘the international agenda for great cooking’, and while its focus was food, it could well serve as the agenda and manifesto for anyone in the business of ideas and creativity who wishes to nurture and expand their intellectual resources:

We believe that today and in the future, a commitment to excellence requires openness to all resources that can help us give pleasure and meaning to people through the medium of food. In the past, cooks and their dishes were constrained by many factors: the limited availability of ingredients and ways of transforming them, limited understanding of cooking processes, and the necessarily narrow definitions and expectations embodied in local tradition. Today there are many fewer constraints, and tremendous potential for the progress of our craft. We can choose from the entire planet’s ingredients, cooking methods, and traditions, and draw on all of human knowledge, to explore what it is possible to do with food and the experience of eating.”

Happy reading.

Le fou du roi: What he teaches us about the giving of strategic advice

MP 433; Matejko, Jan (1838-1893) (malarz); Stańczyk; 1862; olej; płótno; 88 x 120 [106 x 135 x 9]

It is in the nature of jesters to speak their minds when the mood takes them, regardless of the consequences. They are neither calculating nor circumspect, and this may account for the “foolishness” often ascribed to them. Jesters are also generally of inferior social and political status and are rarely in a position (and rarely inclined) to pose a power threat. They have little to gain by caution and little to lose by candor—apart from liberty, livelihood, and occasionally even life, which hardly seems to have been a deterrent. They are peripheral to the game of politics, and this can reassure a king that their words are unlikely to be geared to their own advancement. Jesters are not noted for flattery or fawning. The ruler can be isolated from his courtiers and ministers, who might conspire against him. The jester too can be an isolated and peripheral figure somehow detached from the intrigues of the court, and this enables him to act as a kind of confidant…

The foolishness of the jester, whether in his odd appearance or his levity, implies that he is not passing judgment from on high, and this may be less galling than the “holier than thou” corrective of an earnest adviser. One of the most effective techniques the jester uses to point out his master’s folly is allowing him to see it for himself. Rather than contradicting the king, the jester will agree with a harebrained scheme so wholeheartedly that the suggestion is taken to a logical extreme, highlighting its stupidity. The king can then decide for himself that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all.

The jester is in a sense on the side of the ruler. The relationship was often very close and amiable, and the jester was almost invariably a cherished rather than a tolerated presence. This leads to the kindliness of jesters: they could be biting in their attacks, but there is usually an undercurrent of good-heartedness and understanding to their words. If they talk the king out of slicing up some innocent, it is not only to save him from the king’s wrath but also to save the king from himself – they can be the only ones who will tell him he suffers from moral halitosis.”

Source: Beatrice Otto, Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World

Looking for the edge effect

055at-the-edge

Fresh from an interesting conversation with a candidate, and our discussion around the necessity of collaboration between strategy and creative, I stumbled across the words of the poet Alison Hawthorne Deming:

In ecology the term “edge effect” refers to a place where a habitat is changing–where a marsh turns into a pond or a forest turns into a field.  These places tend to be rich in life forms and survival strategies.  We are animals that create mental habitats, such as poetry and science, national and ethnic identity.  Each of us lives in several places other than our geographic locale, several life communities, at once.  Each of us feels both the abrasion and the enticement of the edges where we meet other habitats and see ourselves in counterpoint to what we have failed to see. What I am calling for is an ecology of culture in which we look for and foster our relatedness across disciplinary lines without forgetting our differences.  Maybe if more of us could find ways to practice this kind of ecology we would feel a little less fragmented, a little less harried and uncertain about the efficacy of our respective trades and a little more whole.

  ‘Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide’

They illuminated a truth for me – one that the cheap and easy talk of ‘collaboration’ obscures.

It is self-evident that we need specialist disciplines.

But if we find ourselves working in an environment in which the specialisms do not overlap, in which they are doing entirely different jobs, in which they do not speak a common language, in which they do not understand each others’ contribution, and in which there is no edge effect but merely a gaping chasm, then something is seriously, badly wrong.

Deming cites the mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, who in 1925 warned of the risks that came with increasing scientific and technological refinements: 

The specialized functions of the community are performed better and more progressively, but the generalized direction lacks vision.  The progressivism in detail only adds to the danger produced by the feebleness of coordination … in whatever sense you construe the meaning of community … a nation, a city, a district, an institution, a family or even an individual … The whole is lost in one of its aspects.”

Planning, account management, copywriting, art direction, interactive, design, production… whatever our specialism, and whatever new specialisms we might add, we work in the service of a greater whole.

The creation of value through the building of brands through the power of ideas.

That shared purpose demands that we feel and experience our relatedness to one another.

And it demands that rather than stick within our respective habitats, we go out to live and operate where the edge effect happens. Where our respective habitats merge and become the other.

Which is why I’m glad to say, we expect creatives to get involved in the strategic process, and expect planners to get involved in the creative process.

And it’s why we are looking for planners* who can thrive in and nurture the edge effect.

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* 5-10 years’ planning experience – able to engage senior clients in discussions about the things that matter to them, bring both structure and inspiration to the table, play a decisive role in the development of creative solutions, have a proven ability to help develop world-class creative solutions, preferably have experience developing global or multi-market work, be able to work well with internal and external specialist disciplines, be excited at the prospect of a life in Amsterdam… and nice to be around.

If that sounds like you, e-mail sophie.worth@wk.com