Are we too hung up on the term ‘strategy’?

Are we too hung up on the term ‘strategy’?
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Sitting in a cross agency meeting, having just done the obligatory round the table introductions, it struck me that at least 80% of the people around me had the word ‘strategy’ in their title (disclaimer: myself included).

It got me thinking about how useful that noun was at defining our different roles, and whether as an industry we’ve bought too much into the idea of ‘strategy’ and lost the focus of our core competences.

‘Strategy’ does sound exciting. It conjures up impressive images of clever people debating and deliberating, using a multitude of coloured Sharpies on big pieces of paper, constructing beautifully drawn mind maps and strategies. It’s a glamorous term.

In fact having been recently involved in our agency gradate recruitment program, I was astonished by the sheer number of candidates who desperately wanted to work in strategy. Without having a clear understanding of what that actually meant or involved, not to mention whether or not they could actually do it.

From a media agency perspective the ‘strategy’ role was traditionally born out of communication planning that gained momentum in the UK and US in the '90s.

Agencies soon realised that they could directly or indirectly, get incremental income from clients by packaging up those people who were particularly good at media planning, moving them further upstream and charging a premium for their specialism.

The role of strategy therefore was basically ‘super comms planning’ or ‘planning plus’, helping clients push the current planning product to create more innovative or more business critical solutions.

The Australian market has evolved differently. As considerable emphasis is still placed on buying power, media agencies still retain the legacy of the traditional buying shops that first broke away from creative agencies. 

Communication planning is still a relatively new discipline and has yet to fully come into its own.

The result of this is that in Australia ‘strategy’ has become the term to define communications planning, it has potentially leap frogged this seeming less sexier discipline and has become synonymous with the process by which communication plans are created .

 ‘Strategy’ in this context simply doesn’t do communication planning justice, there is so much more to this discipline that goes way beyond just strategy.

Strategy is a bit like a set of train tracks, a clearly defined route that guides the train from one point to another and helps it avoid going in different directions.  

The art of communications planning goes beyond this, it’s about working collaboratively to understand and identify the right brief and putting the task in context, it’s about being guardians of the consumer as well as brand ambassadors.

The most important skillset, that’s lost in the current strategy definition, is channel and market place expertise. This isn’t about trading; it’s working closely with media and being at the forefront of different opportunities and channel innovation, ensuring they can strive to bring the latest and most relevant opportunities to their clients.

This art isn’t just strategy creation; it’s an exciting mix of account management, relationship building, research, media expertise, not to mention ideation and the creation of some brilliant communication solutions. 

Use of the term 'strategy' is not dissimilar from the term ‘digital’. 'Digital' rose to popularity in agency land as it helped demystify the encroaching threat of something that very few clients could understand, that was evidently impacting the world around them and rapidly changing their businesses. 

In today’s modern media agency, while digital specialisms might exist in some capacity (a bit like the ‘planning plus’ role that strategy traditionally stands for) the word digital in a job title is a little redundant. Everything is digital, all channels are digital in some capacity, digital is so all encompassing that it means very little.

'Strategy' is equally vague. Everything should have a strategy; our understanding of media has evolved to the point that most people acknowledge this. Be it a communication strategy, an implementation strategy, a channel strategy or a business plan, strategy is undoubtedly part of what we do, so do we really need to constantly remind ourselves of it?

Continuing the over-emphasis of ‘strategy’ across the industry could result in some potentially negative consequences. 

Firstly, we run the risk of confusing roles across different advertising disciplines making it even harder to foster genuine collaboration (in meetings I often get sneering looks from other strategists).

Secondly, we attract a specific type of people to the role that may not have the right ability.

Thirdly we devalue the ‘strategy’ until it becomes commoditised and (even) harder to remunerate. Media agencies already find it very difficult to generate value from IP and ideas. 

Finally, and possibly most importantly, we lose sight of the importance of media expertise. Focusing on strategy potentially moves us away from the coal face of our industry. No client wants an un-buyable or unrealistic media strategy. It could prevent us from staying close to an ever evolving media market place, and subsequently providing innovative, cost effective and relevant new opportunities to our clients.

The creation of a strategy is an important part of comms planning, but it shouldn’t be the definition of a very complex and important set of skills that clients find invaluable.

Strategy is just the journey; communication planning is the departure point and most importantly the destination.

Stewart Gurney is strategy director at PHD. 

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