Brand Strategy Agencies Agency Culture

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


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

May 26, 2022 | 7 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.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

There’s no room for ivory-tower strategists any more, our expert panelists tell us / Heidi Kaden via Unsplash

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.

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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.

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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