There seems to have been a spate of articles and conversations recently, debating what advertising is today. My simple answer is: “Its whatever people want it to be.” And that answer isn’t as much of a cop out as it sounds.
In the last few years, we’ve seen an extraordinary convergence between what was once advertising, journalism and entertainment, driven by technology, social media and big data. This transformation has occurred because people, (not “consumers” because people create and consume) dictate that they should be reached if, where, when and in whatever way they chose. And of course technology allows them to instantly block anything that doesn’t match their criteria.
For me a more interesting question is, what is strategy today? When I first moved to the US almost twenty years ago and tried to explain to people that my job was a strategist at an advertising agency, people would look mildly perplexed and say something like, “oh so your job is to help organize advertising?”
With hindsight those were simple conversations. Today no one exactly knows what a strategist does – after all you have lots of varieties including media, digital, social, interactive, integrated, content – and of course you have the added issue that we are adapting to the new definition of advertising. Perhaps it’s not surprising therefore that people are struggling to grasp the role of today’s strategist, including many people who work at ad agencies!
Going back to basics, one dictionary definition of strategy is quite revealing: strat–e-gy (noun), adaptation important to evolutionary success. Said another way in the commercial context, strategy is essential to an organization and a brand’s survival. How then have we managed to so co-opt, confuse and relegate this word in the communications space?
The reason the definition matters is because not only has the word strategy become relegated, but also the role of strategy in communication and marketing organizations has been equally downgraded. Ask yourself why so much smart strategic thinking from agencies fails to deliver the kind of breakthroughs that were intended? It’s too easy to suggest that it’s because creative missed the mark!
Sadly, both agencies and marketers have come to think about strategy as something that only drives communications, rather than something that’s essential to the evolution of an organization. And it’s also too easy to label this as a failure of risk averse, short tenured CMO’s. Rather it’s a by-product of the narrow definition and application of strategy by communication agencies.
Strategy, when it’s interpreted as simply delivering a brief, is small. Strategy that drives business growth – that lives internally and externally, and that can fuel a brand movement is big - because it was conceived to be. A brand movement is distinct and recognizable through tangible measures like the powerful advocacy that delivers a high paid-earned media ratio, and the almost cult like devotion and defense of brand’s advocates, as well as in the reverence displayed by the internal audience acting like proud and protective parents.
Labels matter because not only can they elevate the importance of a discipline, but also it’s basic function, and so I say its time for “Big Strategy”. And what should Big Strategy encapsulate? At Clean Strategy we believe it can’t just be about a communication platform, but also an organization’s singular vision, integration strategy, structural map, partner and key player roles, technology and financial logistics, as well as the overall execution plan.
Do we imagine that any political or altruistic group would try to fuel a brand movement without first tackling these foundational elements within their own organization? Of course not. So why do so many marketers and agencies think that they can fuel a brand movement based on external communications alone? Big Strategy must be a living reflection of the total organization.
How many times has a marketer said in a briefing, “we want to be the Apple of our category”? Actually the notion isn’t absurd because a category isn’t perceptually cool, any brand can fuel a movement in any space, with virtually any audience. The absurdity lives in the failure to recognize that if an entire organization isn’t structured towards and aligned around a Big Strategy, then it’s just superficial, and people will smell it a mile away.
So lets rebrand strategy in the way we’ve rebranded data, and in the process elevate the function of strategy, closer to its original meaning and purpose. Big Strategy should dictate how a company operates internally and speaks externally, and therefore have the potential to fuel a brand movement. Otherwise it really isn’t a strategy at all, it’s simply a shallow marketing veneer that technology obligingly has enabled people to instantly tune out.