Part 2: Is it time to unbundle strategy and creative?

Strategy must drive execution every step of the way, not be siphoned off, says Britt Fero, EVP, chief strategy and media officer of Publicis Seattle

Editor's note: This is the second column in a 2-part series discussing the pros and cons of working with agencies that offer strategic but not creative services. The first column, written by Alain Sylvain, CEO and founder of Sylvain Labs, was published yesterday.

More often than not, agencies excel in one of two areas: They either provide tremendous vision (cue sexy magazine covers) but little execution, or they are tremendous executors (cue companies who do lots of stuff) with little vision.

Strategy is the vital and differentiating link between the two. It connects vision to execution. Today, as businesses need to move and adjust faster than ever to a rapidly changing culture that link is more important than ever.

That’s why an agency’s view of strategy needs to evolve to better fit today’s world. It’s also why the trend toward new "strategy-only" agencies is a move in the wrong direction. 

Strategy is a verb, not a noun.  Too often, a glamorous, catchy phrase is cloaked as strategy. "Warm Hug," "Youthful Brilliance," "Bold Flavor," "Refreshment," are great descriptors and undoubtedly big ideas brands can build on. They look great sitting atop a brand pyramid drawn on a piece of paper (which is unfortunately what strategists and planners are often asked to deliver). But that’s the problem.

Often those pieces of paper are just that — charts that hang on someone’s wall reminding them that there’s a big vision for where the brand can play. They aren’t actionable. People in marketing, let alone across the organization, don’t know how to act on a vision or how to implement that idea into their daily work streams. In reality, it’s that translation that is critical to a brand’s success. 

Strategy needs to be active. It’s not a noun. It needs to direct action and movement — not only in creative work, but for media, PR and the overall business. Strategy should be a filter for decision-making. It gives purpose to action. As a verb, strategy can.

Too often strategists (or better yet, planners) are siphoned off as upstream thinkers, or people who can bring big insights, share cultural trends and create those great words atop the pyramid at the beginning of the process. Once teams have been briefed or there’s a creative idea, strategists are seemingly done. Their role is then greatly diminished, if not removed from the process. This diminishes the value of strategy for clients and brands. 

Strategy is only as good as the ideas that are driven into the world. Because strategy should drive execution, it seems crazy that it wouldn’t be involved in execution. Through the creative development process, great ideas undoubtedly emerge. But sometimes, the sexiness of those ideas can create a life of their own, allowing an idea to morph and grow in ways that leave the strategy behind. 

Similarly, I’ve been involved in many productions where even in the throes of bringing a strategically sound creative idea to life, a seemingly harmless executional change, like talent or changes in language on a landing page, send a strategy astray.  Since we’re now able to learn how people interact with ideas in real time, strategy can uncover opportunities and help shift execution to develop more meaningful connections and results. 

Strategy must be involved in execution. It’s not something that can just be handed off with a hope and a prayer that it will come to life. Great strategy only matters if there are great ideas executed in a way that fulfill the action plan. That’s the only way it ever has an effect.

Strategy-only shops (and as agencies that only involve strategy to do the upfront thinking) are simply think tanks. They fuel insight and great visions of what could be.  But without execution, they are simply that: visions, not reality. 

As a strategist I don’t get satisfaction from the set of words we develop to drive action. I get satisfaction from working side-by-side with my colleagues in the trenches and seeing that strategy driven into the world through smart, strategically sound, stellar creative ideas.

That’s where clients get satisfaction, too. As cultures, markets and consumers change faster and more continuously than ever before, brands need to consistently find ways to stay relevant and maintain momentum. They need to consistently drive and adapt. 

They need strategy in the trenches constantly driving vision into execution. 

Britt Fero is EVP, chief strategy and media officer, Publicis Seattle.

 

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