Back to the Future: Rethinking the role of the strategist

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No longer just the researcher, culture expert, anthropologist and analyst, the strategist now needs to be the futurist too, writes a senior strategist at Sylvain Labs.

The role of the strategist is in need of a serious reboot. As businesses struggle to keep up with an increasingly unpredictable world, it is no longer enough to plan for the current climate and the inevitable, we must plan for the future climate and the unknown.

Almost every brief we get from our clients these days is centered around solving for "the future of ______." From the future of the connected car, to the future of fandoms, to the future of deodorant, the way that strategists are being engaged is changing. Strategy used to be about solving for problems that exist in the here and now—what does news mean to young people today—but we are increasingly asked to provide a longer term, almost prophetic outlook. How are young people shaping the face of news tomorrow?

This marks a significant shift for one of the industry’s long-standing disciplines. The strategist must now adapt with the changing times. No longer just the researcher, the culture expert, the anthropologist and the analyst, but now too the futurist.

In a way, it is a bigger reflection of where we are as a culture: we’ve become obsessed with the future and those who are able to give us insight into it. Canadian cultural critic Hal Niedzviecki observed, "we may for the first time in history be more focused on what is going to happen in the future than on what is happening right now".

We aren’t in the business of strategy anymore, we’re in the business of future-proofing.

Most strategists are near-sighted; we are skilled at predicting things in the short-term because that’s how the industry has trained us. We are expected to see the hidden things in the present and we pride ourselves on uncovering a big truth or insight lurking just below the surface. But we are also expected to turn these insights into actionable, "turn-key" solutions for our clients. Into one-page briefs and cut-down decks. And often times that means taking our golden insight or strategy and throwing it an arm’s length into the future, just far enough that you can call it new but just near enough that people don’t question it.

But are we strategists holding ourselves back? Are we short-changing our thought process to suit the ever-changing demands of our clients? And if so, would we be providing clients even greater value by following our strategic instincts to their very end? A brilliant example of this is "A History of the Future in 100 Objects," in which futurist Adrian Hon projects the 100 objects that will define the 21st century in chronological order from 2014 to 2079. Each story is rooted in a truth that undeniably exists today but can be reasonably projected into the future. One of Hon’s predictions for 2014 discussed Speeky, an interactive toy that is brought to life via remote puppet/voice actors and seems strangely reminiscent of this year’s biggest toy fad, Hatchimal. In 2030, he describes the rise of reading rooms that block all electromagnetic transmissions and allow people to indulge in silence and thought as a luxury—not too great a leap from today’s sensory deprivation tanks and digital detoxes.

The secret to great strategy is the secret to great fortune-telling: the notion of taking something that is true today, examining it from all angles to understand why it is true, and making an educated guess around how this behavior will pan out in the short-term and then just as reasonably in the long-term.

This is the reason that BBC series "Black Mirror" is so disturbing to watch, or that HBO’s "Westworld" doesn’t seem that impossible. They are wild, exaggerated interpretations of the very things we see in the world and in ourselves today, and that’s why they feel so real. The most powerful strategic narratives are those that reveal hidden truths in ourselves and help us understand the lasting benefits or consequences of our actions over time. We are fast becoming consumers of the future and this has direct implications for brands and strategists.

There is a growing need today for strategists to take on more of a bi-focal perspective, to identify short-term insights/trends/behaviors and to predict the patterns of their outcome with long-term confidence. It is important that any strategy whether it is one year out, five years out, or 25 years out is rooted in the reality of today and can be plotted to a future trajectory. In doing so, strategists can help companies break free from their current limitations and swap small steps for giant leaps.

So what does this actually mean for strategists? Here are three things you can start doing right now:

Always question the brief. Is it focused on the right problem at hand? Will this matter next year? If not, ask what will matter next year or the year after that? Even if this does not change the current objective, asking these questions will give you valuable insight into your client’s long-term plans.

Throw your insight farther than you can see it. Don’t just stop at why, but instead ask yourself what next? When talking to consumers, make sure you understand the staying power of an insight, and how it might evolve over time. For example, if someone says they wouldn’t feel comfortable in a driverless car, push them to explain where the discomfort comes from and what would make them change their mind until you reach the point they would feel comfortable in a driverless car.

Build strategies that brands can grow into. Just like Mom always said, "you’ll grow into it," the best strategies are the ones that allow brands room to grow and give them the option to course-correct as needed.

Debi Blizard is a senior strategist at Sylvain Labs.