In a year of division, strategy is in the balance

With a mid-term election that felt more like a battle than a peaceful democratic process, a severely debated Supreme Court selection that had the nation clutching their moral corners, and a heated immigration debate that shows no sign of cooling down, 2018 proved to be the year of the division. A great deal of ink has been spilled on this ever-widening polarization of our political landscape. What is spoken of less is the insidious effect this has on the polarization of, well, everything else.

We have accepted and promoted an arena in which the loudest, most outrageous voices are not just heard, but often believed. And media, both traditional and social, are the serial offenders.

It’s not just that we have created a culture of “he who shouts loudest,” but one of “he who shouts loudest, shouts first, and shouts the most outrageous.” This has become our baseline and is affecting our industry, too. It used to be that the brave position was the one out on the edge, out on a limb. But I would argue that, in 2019 and beyond, the more courageous position will increasingly be the center, because the voice of reason is often not only drowned out, but also ridiculed.

We have the incessant barrage of Gary Vaynerchuck’s “social or nothing” narrative, fighting for column inches with many others who are so totally convinced of their rightness that we are left wondering which way to turn. TV is simultaneously “dead” and “very much alive”; digital and programmatic media are both our savior and our doom.

But the fate of marketing writ large isn’t the topic here, rather the discipline of strategy within it.

We’ve not been left untouched by this growing trend in extremism. Provocation and positioning are core to what we do. We often push our brands to edges, but usually for good reason, and not simply for the sake of being there.

We have seen it affect the way we’ve built our departments. I personally have gone through four cycles of “generalist versus experts” as the organizing principle and titling of the strategy department. It’s exhausting. I’ve come to the belief that we need more balance in our business —both the generalist and the specialist. As our industry evolves, many strategy leaders I talk to are building teams that embrace a huge diversity of skills and are actively trying to create teams and generalists who are able to join the dots.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This should be a foundational skill for all strategists.

I predict that we will see even more voices begin to emerge that talk to this middle ground, which may be a little less sexy, but certainly a lot more effective.

It seems that compromise is becoming the brave person’s position. It doesn’t get headlines, it doesn’t benefit from the ideological comfort blanket that aligning with popular “truths” provides. But it gets results. All that said, there’s a fine balance between this breed of balance and a no-man’s land of mediocrity.

The difference is found in ambition. Balance does not equal average. It can still forge a path to extraordinary so long as the ambition, expertise, and discipline remain intact. We still strive to create things that have never been seen or attempted before, audacious and brave, not born of bravado, but of brains.

The world is falling onto the edges, but in our own little way, strategists can help re-center, rebalance — bring a little sanity to the dialogue. We can reject the didactic “my way or the highway” mentality that is encroaching on us all and begin to be a trusted voice of reason within it and beyond. The edges tempt us with the promise of consistency, simplicity, and conviction; black-and-white answers to complex questions.But it’s a mirage, it doesn’t really exist.

Our industry is going to continue to get more complex and those willing to accept that they don’t know everything with certainty, but can instead put in the hard work to understand and integrate many perspectives, recognize their prejudices, and still push for brilliance, will have a conviction worth hearing.

Matt Baker is chief strategy officer of Deutsch NY

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