Do agencies need planners and not strategists?

Campaign columnist Dave Trott recently called out problem with agency job titles.

We’re often surrounded by opinions lamenting a focus on tactics over strategy – here’s one such example from last year (although it’s debatable the extent to which either Joe Biden’s tactics or strategy influenced the US election result, compared with the unique attributes of his opponent).

But as Dave Trott argued last week in his latest column for Campaign, exalting strategy over tactics is not necessarily such a good thing either. Trott believes it is this tendency that has led agency departments and job titles to opt for the word “strategy” over “planning”, a discipline he points out requires a command of both strategy and tactics.

Perhaps there is an innate bias that causes us to regard strategy as more significant, maybe even more noble, than tactics. Tactics are associated with short-term gain – and the value of resisting short-term gratification for long-term benefit is something that is hammered into everyone as they’re growing up.

Mastering that skill is perhaps as hard for adult marketers as it is for kids; most people in the industry recognise the arguments made for the importance of long-term brand-building by the likes of Les Binet and Peter Field, but are often swayed into short-term decision-making by immediate concerns such as stagnating sales.

With that in mind, the choice to emphasise strategy in the job titles of industry leaders such as most of those below is perhaps not such a surprise. But Trott is surely correct that tactical thinking is a vital part of their work – perhaps the majority. So is he right to lump them in with Japanese war criminals?

Jo Arden

Chief strategy officer, Publicis.Poke

Our industry needs people who can think about the long term and react in the moment. Just like people do. Whether they are called strategists, planners, Churchill or Admiral Yamamoto, I don’t much care. Let’s call them the thinkers. The thinkers need to be able to determine a strategy and think about the steps along the path to achieving it. Seems odd that you would want to (or be unable to) think well about one when disconnected from the other.

Or, to stick with the overblown military analogy:
“Our battles are directed sir?”
“Well, of course they are, Blackadder, directed according to the Grand Plan.”

Nicole Armstrong

Executive strategy director, R/GA London

It’s a relevant question and depends on how an agency has been engaged by the client. When a client comes to you asking how they need to evolve their proposition to appeal to the new generation of consumers, you need a strategist. But when they come to you to launch a product or promote a new product feature, you need a planner.

But I don’t see these as two different roles. I see them as two different mindsets, and it starts by being a great problem-solver. We need to be the person who enters the room (or, rather, the Zoom call these days), who can hear the client’s ask, synthesise that information and begin to shape the type of solution required. Then at that point we can decide if we are to be the strategist or the planner.

Gen Kobayashi

Chief strategy officer, Engine Creative

I think Dave Trott is right to highlight the distinction between “strategy” and “planning”. Strategy speaks more to the long-term vision (the what) and planning speaks more to the tactics (the how). But I disagree with his headline that “we don’t need strategists”. As ever in our industry, we’re drawn to pitching binary arguments against each other, but I think the answer to this question isn’t strategists or planners, but it’s strategists and planners.

The breadth of what most modern agencies offer today means that we need people that can set the course and the vision, but we also need people that can think more executionally about what we produce… whatever we choose to call them.

Tom Roach

Vice-president of brand planning, Jellyfish

You need both. Marketing loves a false dichotomy (brand or performance, creativity or technology) – let’s not add another. You need a blend of people with a smorgasbord of superpowers, from the strategic skills to set an exciting new vision to the tactical skills to make it a reality.

There’s a world of untapped opportunity out there right now for strategy. We have a seemingly infinite variety of tactics at our disposal today. But strategy has barely scratched the surface in terms of maximising the impact we can make across them. There’s never been a greater opportunity for strategy to help weave them together to achieve something far greater than they ever would in isolation.

Damien Le Castrec

Head of strategy, Droga5 London

A strategy without a plan of action is useless. A plan of action without a strategy is aimless. Strategies need to be visionary and tangible at the same time. Hence great strategists are great planners. And vice versa.

But when it comes to the job title, I choose "strategist" over "planner". Planning is done in advance. It is about thinking and then doing. It succeeds or fails based on carrying out the pre-planned actions. The world moves too fast for rigid planning (as per 2020). We need to harness opportunities as they emerge. We need to be strategic throughout the action, not just in advance of it. To think like a strategist and act like a planner, perhaps?


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