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Who killed creative strategy? You don’t have to be a True Detective to work it out

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By Miriam Plon Sauer | Executive strategy director

February 12, 2024 | 8 min read

AKQA’s Miriam Plon Sauer, inspired by Jodie Foster, wonders if creative strategists need to ask forensic questions. If strategy is as important as they believe, why is it falling out of favor?

True Detective still

/ HBO

Who killed creative strategy? In the new season of True Detective, police chief Danvers (Jodie Foster) leverages the power of the right questions to uncover the truth behind her crime scene. “Wrong question,” she tells her young police apprentice when his questions are too obvious, not leading to new discoveries.

And although in the case of creative strategy, we’re not looking at a crime scene in the true sense of the word, something seems to be off.

The latest Future of Strategy report from WARC exposed some worrying tendencies for the strategy discipline: Reduced client demand as well as reduced compensation for strategic services, a significant decrease in strategists agreeing that planning has gained more influence with clients, and shrinking strategy teams.

We shouldn’t be concerned with whether we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg but rather how fast the ship is sinking.

While as strategists, we pride ourselves on the very same technique chief Danvers champions: the ability to ask the right questions and look beyond, I’m wondering if we have been asking the wrong questions about ourselves and our role in the industry.

Perhaps our discipline ideals and training are getting in the way. We have an inherent inclination towards the open questions. Those that rely on subjective experience don’t have a clear endpoint.

“What is strategy?” That seems to be a question we love to ask. There is no right or wrong answer. But it’s a great stimulus for endless exploration and esoteric debate.

“What are the different types of strategy?” is another question we spend a lot of time perusing. What is the difference between a planner and a strategist? What about a consultant and a strategist? The latter was recently fueled by the blurring of lines and paradoxical mutual envy between consultancies and creative agencies.

All these open questions lead to great musings and interesting reads (if you’re a strategist at least – or a planner, I don’t judge). But they don’t lead to new discoveries on the crime scene. And they don’t change anything.

“Wrong question!” as chief Danvers would say.

So maybe it is time we start asking more pointed questions. Maybe even some of the questions that might hurt a bit.

What do strategists contribute to a creative agency? What is the value of strategy? Is it need-to-have or nice-to-have? And first and foremost, Why is the value of strategy declining?

The inconvenient truth is you can do creative without strategy. The number of creative briefs out there that are just edited versions of the client brief attest to that. However, and luckily, there is a silver lining here: the creative has a much smaller chance of being effective without strategy.

David Cowan, who was a planner at Pritchard Wood in the late 1960s and effectively one of the first planners in the world of advertising, explains the origin of planning this way: “[…] the whole thing was how do you create effective outstanding advertising? It was about understand relevance, cause and effect.” (Griffiths & Follows, 98% Pure Potato, 2016).

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The job of strategy in a creative agency is to understand what it will take to solve a client’s problem and translate that understanding into something that inspires the creative solution. In essence, strategy makes the creative effective.

For some, this conclusion will go down easier with a bit of creative juice: ”I always saw the creative dept as troops and the planning dept as helicopters. The helicopters, used properly, are the unfair advantage, they deliver the troops to the most effective place to do their job. However good the troops are, the result is determined by putting them in the best place. That’s why creativity starts in the planning dept.” (Dave Trott, Planning is Strategy, Creative is Tactics, 2023)

In 2019, Peter Field and IPA published the report ‘The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness’ at Cannes Lions. The report showed that creative effectiveness was at a 20-year low and seemed to continue declining. One of the report’s main explanations of this effectiveness crisis was the move away from long-term brand building to short-term activations.

But what if that is only part of the truth? What if the reason behind this move towards short-term activations is that creative strategy has lost its voice? That we have too few helicopters and too many randomly deployed troops?

I believe that to save not only strategy in the creative industry but also creativity itself as a means to solve business problems, we need to renew our commitment to creative strategy.

In the WARC report referenced above, the conclusion is quite different. ”54% of strategists see working on upstream business problems as the biggest opportunity to bring value, +15pp since 2021.”

I wonder if we have become so blinded by the envy of consultants’ C-level access that we have forgotten our main objective as strategists in the creative industry. Our focus should not be on upstream strategy right now. If we want to survive, our focus should be downstream. On the art of flying those creative troops to the right location.

The remaining question is whether we as strategists, know what it takes to revive this art form. Here is a first attempt to define some principles for creative strategy:

1. Be creative. It is not about the numbers and facts but the story they tell.

2. Be inspiring. Strategy is a creative discipline. Aim to make your words matter.

3. Be bold. Strategy is the art of decision-making. Don’t be afraid to make them.

4. Be intuitive. A hunch is often the first glimpse of an insight.

5. Be specific. Generic observations lead to me-too thinking.

6. Be collaborative. Leaps in creative thinking rarely happen in silos.

7. Be open. Curiosity shouldn’t end with the creative brief. Keep being open to new paths.

These principles in themselves won’t change anything. And neither will the words preceding them. But hopefully, it can inspire more pointed questions. And who knows, maybe these questions can lead to new discoveries on how to revive creative strategy.

So who killed creative strategy? Well, as Danvers says, “Wrong question.” How do we get it back on track? That’s what we need an answer for.

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