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Leaving the ivory tower: beyond the genius strategist in an era of uncertainty

By Sam Anderson | Editor, The Drum Network

Jack Morton Worldwide

|

Strategy article

May 26, 2022 | 5 min read

Strategists are the marketing industry’s left-brain: rational, predictive and grounded in the real world. As the world has shifted – as the future feels less certain, as data has monopolized everything, as marketer-client relationships have deepened – the strategist’s role has shifted too. We sit down with leading strategists from The Drum Network to talk about the new breed of strategist: down from the ivory tower, hands dirty, grappling with uncertainty.

Progress giveth, and progress taketh away. At least, that seems to be strategists’ impression of the data tools and other tech that have revolutionized the industry over the last decade or two. As tools for understanding the world get more sophisticated, the world gets more complicated; while they can reach insights quicker, clients demand answers faster still; as their knowledge deepens, certainty becomes more elusive, replaced by probabilities, possibilities and risks.

Running at a wall more quickly

Descriptions of strategists’ role remain familiar: giving “an informed opinion on how to win,” says Jack Morton’s global head of strategy Martyn Clarkson; “helping clients make choices about where they should be prioritizing marketing investment to deliver best effect,” says Oliver’s chief strategy officer Rachel Hatton.

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But underneath that, the task has shifted. With the proliferation of data sources, tools and platforms, brands can get results and take action far quicker than ever before. Take Agile methodology, says Foolproof’s David Rogerson: “Some have come out getting it; some have come out with all the right language but not doing any of the right things. They’re running faster at a wall. They’re going in the wrong direction, quicker than they were before.”

Helping brands to avoid these pitfalls of complexity, across what Adapt Worldwide’s strategy director Melanie Hyde calls the “multitude of different decisions” those same platforms and techniques present, has become part of the strategist’s remit.

As a result, the strategist’s skillset has diversified. Longtime inquisitive generalists, strategists are increasingly called on for real data expertise, as well as cross-organizational knowhow to spot on-the-horizon pain points, wherever they are. “You can’t be a good strategist unless you’re prepared to get your hands dirty,” says Hatton. “The notion of the strategist in the ivory tower is a completely redundant, anachronistic thing.”

Hatton goes on: “Strategy is about what gets done in the organization. So often, we find that a lot of our job is helping to connect the dots within different parts of the organization that don’t necessarily talk to one another ... that way, the nirvana of the joined-up customer experience can stand a chance of being delivered.” Or as Relevance’s commercial director Niki McMorrough summarizes, “culture will eat strategy for breakfast ... the best strategy in the world will fail if it doesn’t suit the culture.”

Out with certainty; in with probability

As the ivory tower crumbles, we’ve moved on from looking for the geniuses it was said to contain. For Rogerson, we’re seeing a “shift from the genius strategist or the genius designer to be much more responsive. That’s part of a shortening of the learning loop. Before, the typical management strategy would be: ‘We’ll tell you what to do and we’ll know if it works in three years, in which case, you’ll probably hire us again’ ... that loop has come down right into months or weeks or days.”

As those loops tighten and knowledge proliferates, one might expect greater certainty – as our panel tells us, clients certainly do. As Clarkson says, “a big misunderstanding of data is the expectation of certainty.”

Adrian Langford, director of strategy and planning at Jaywing, has it, “a lot of clients have cut their teeth in the performance area” and so have been “brought up to think that everything can be taken to a couple of decimal points.”

But certainty isn’t the product of good strategy work, data-led or otherwise. Rogerson says that a challenge for the industry is to shift the conversation toward an understanding of less certainty, not more. “People often hire agencies because they want the right answers: ‘I’ve paid you lots of money – give me the answers.’” But as knowledge becomes more complete, it doesn’t become more certain, but more probabilistic. The agency’s job is to communicate something like: ’I could tell you probably the best answer out of the information that we have; then we can go and test and then build from there.’

“That’s the essence of why strategy is growing in its importance,” says Clarkson. “Things get more complicated and more layered. There’s more indecision, and more pressure to move more quickly. Our role is to create a clear, simple path that everyone can feel excited about ... Information is not knowledge; the more information we get, the harder it is to have the knowledge we need to do what we need to do. There’s a lot of sifting; interconnected thinking, but it’s more and more difficult. We don’t always get the acknowledgement that it is getting harder by clients or even within the organizations in which we work. It’s always lots of fun.”

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Jack Morton Worldwide is an American multinational brand experience agency. It is a subsidiary of the Interpublic Group of Companies, Inc. The company’s current chairman and CEO is Josh McCall.

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Our unique model moves at the speed of modern business to drive change from the inside out; working smarter to make our clients’ money go further, and helping them build better solutions, systems and brands. Client solutions include Unilever’s U-Studio (a platform used by almost three-quarters of Unilever's brands globally), adidas’ off-shore hub and PepsiCo’s global digital team. In 2020 we were ranked #1 in Adweek’s Fastest Growing list (US) and featured in The Drum’s Honours List of the best businesses that helped shape the year. We are part of the Inside Ideas Group (IIG), which combines specialisms from Adjust Your Set (content and culture), Dare (design, experience and engineering) and Aylesworth Fleming (property marketing). IIG joined the world’s first brandtech™ group You & Mr Jones in January 2019 to give their clients access to the latest marketing technology solutions. The group includes tech-driven marketing companies, 55, Mofilm, Collectively, Gravity Road, Blood and Mobkoi, and holds strategic investments in leading technology businesses including Pinterest, Niantic, AI Foundation, VidMob, Jivox, Zappar, EVRYTHNG, Automat, Blacktag and Beeswax.

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We are specialists in experience design. We create value for you by creating value for your customers.

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We're Adapt, a digital performance marketing agency. Here to help you achieve Growth Without Boundaries – whatever your market, whoever your audience and however you measure success.

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Relevance is a strategic and creative digital agency specialised in profiling and targeting Ultra-High-Net-Worth Individuals for the world's most exclusive brands and companies.

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At Jaywing, we’ve made it our mission to help clients establish concrete foundations in a world of shifting sands. As a data-powered integrated agency, we bring together the best minds in data intelligence, creative engagement and channel performance to uncover unique insights that enable smarter outcomes. The result? Better performing, effective solutions that create certainty, maximise opportunity and eliminate chance.

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