Welcome to 2019: Strategists can better sell themselves

The big thinkers who like big problems to solve have got plenty to get their teeth into... not least their own obsolescence.

If the industry’s big thinkers like big problems to solve, they have certainly been supplied with a large helping of them to wrestle with in recent times. 

Automation, the breaking down of traditional agency business models, rapid leadership changes, the advance of management consultants and the big tech groups sucking in ad revenue are just some of the issues keeping planners busy.

Adland may be experiencing unprecedented change, but 2019 could be a seminal year for planners if they seize the opportunity. First, the industry needs to stop dismissing management consultancies as the preserve of dull, process-driven thinkers, who can’t do creative, and instead learn from the way that they present themselves.

Agency strategists can more than hold their own against the consultants, but, ironically, they could learn a thing or two about the way they sell themselves to business leaders. The industry needs to ensure clients understand the real value of the brainpower that strategists can bring to thorny business problems.

Not only will this help secure the industry’s future, it will also make more use of the brilliant minds in agencies. Indeed, at a recent event, one senior agency planner said that if they were to start their career again, they would choose to work at a management consultancy, because then they would get more interesting problems to solve.  

Getting more "upstream" has been a wish for several years. Some agencies are already doing it – such as at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, where joint chief strategy officer Craig Mawdsley has been working on Sainsbury’s long-term marketing strategy, a separate account to the creative execution.

Others are beginning to package their strategic offer in a more competitive way. For example, Grey London chief executive Leo Rayman’s move to run a global consulting arm for the agency is an attempt to get more recognition for the effective strategic thinking that ad agencies can provide to help clients solve business problems. Crucially, it will also have a different fee structure, with a more project- and outcome-based approach versus charging by the hour.

Obviously, strategists will remain pivotal to the creation of brilliant creative ideas, but they can, and should, do so much more. It is critical that adland makes the most of its powerful thinking and does a better job of marketing that to clients.

Client caution will continue throughout 2019, not least as the UK heads towards Brexit… possibly. But strategists need to make the case that the goal of marketing is not always short-term efficiency at the expense of longer-term effectiveness and brand-building.

These changes are also important to prevent a brain drain to the big tech companies. As Mawdsley writes, he expects more of the best talent to move to Google or Facebook – the "real advertising industry".

If the tech giants have become the ad industry, perhaps 2019 requires more dramatic change. Will account planning and media planning get closer together? It has been tried before, but maybe this time it will actually fly. Or could strategy move in-house? A bit unlikely, perhaps, given strategy’s connection to the creative, but it’s not totally out of the question.

And with an ever-changing landscape, as the APG chair Matt Tanter writes, maybe it is time to refocus on the constants of human behaviour. The environment might be shifting rapidly, but where it matters, people are still the same.

Strategists will become a highly paid rarity

Raquel Chicourel

Chief strategy officer, M&C Saatchi

When people predict the future, they predict it from where they stand. Their prophecy, more often than not, reflects what they want the future to be, instead of what they fear it might be. So, please forgive me, I won’t double down on adland apocalypse here.

First, I think strategists will be paid more as a result of broader skills and output. But there will be fewer of us. We’ll become a rarity, a legendary breed like the pink dolphins in the Amazon River or Lego’s Unikitty (it’s a thing – Google it).

Strategy has always been at the heart of our value creation but as an input to the creative magic. Strategy will increasingly become an output in its own right. We will broaden the scope from creative ideas (downstream) to living business ideas (upstream).

I also think strategists will start coming from all sorts of industries: from the renegades of consultancy through to the media and data analysts crazy enough to want to enter the stormy but exciting waters of advertising.

Here’s to these crazy ones.

Lastly, I hope we’ll see more diversity of thought. Beyond gender and race, I think strategy, in particular, will be welcoming more people from different walks of life and wider age groups.

So, to sum up, here are my two cents’ worth on the potential themes in strategy for 2019:

• From strategy as an input to strategy as an output (sort of happening already).

• From creative ideas (downstream) to living business ideas (upstream).

• From narrow to broader all-encompassing skillsets.

• Strategists to be paid more, but there will be fewer of us.

• Clients will be spending more on strategy and less on production (I hope not, though).

• More diversity of thought.

• From relatively monochromatic to coat of many colours.

At the end of the day, though, who knows? If only I could remember where I parked my flux-capacitor-equipped DeLorean, I would know for sure.

The value of strategy

Kate Waters

Director of strategy and planning, ITV

There is some glass half-full and glass half-empty stuff in my crystal ball for this year.

On the downside, I suspect we’ll see a lot of caution from advertisers in the wake of Brexit. Hopefully, the mist of uncertainty will clear a little in 2019 but, even so, my hunch is that brands will play it safe and I fear that’s not going to be great news for us in the ad industry.

I predict smaller budgets, an even stronger culture of prioritising short-term efficiency at the expense of longer-term effectiveness and fewer clients prepared to take the "risk" of genuine creativity. Furthermore, I expect that a culture of caution from advertisers, coupled with the seismic changes rippling through agencies, will mean we haven’t seen the last of the headline-grabbing mergers, consolidations and restructures.

But putting my more positive hat on, difficult times and more constraints can often be a breeding ground for innovation. I think we’ll see brands getting smarter and more inventive in how they use the channels and techniques that are now open to them to cut through to an increasingly demanding and cynical public. For example, I expect to see more brands harnessing the power of partnership to build authenticity and trust through co-ownership and creation of content with other brands and media owners.

And I’m sure we’ll see an even greater polarisation between the creative "showstoppers" designed to make a massive impact and create talkability, and a ruthlessly efficient approach to programmatic content. We’ll all be under more pressure to demonstrate to clients and their stakeholders the value of what we do. And I hope that will, in turn, force greater attention onto the measurement and evaluation of what we do.

Lastly, I’d hope that the more progressive advertisers out there – the ones with real purpose, not just a bit of wishful thinking – will continue to use the power and mass reach of advertising to shape culture and society for good, whether that’s by pioneering more diverse and inclusive representations of society or by championing the issues that it is in all our interests to care about.

Moving upstream

Craig Mawdsley

Joint chief strategy officer, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

In January 2017, Saatchi & Saatchi’s Richard Huntington began his "year ahead" piece with the wisdom that "prediction is pointless".

He was right then and he’s right now, although it’s pointless to predict whether he will continue to be right in the future.

So I will embrace Mr Huntington’s true contrarian spirit and make some rash predictions about the year ahead.

In 2019, we will suddenly realise that our main job is creating campaigns for YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, which are sometimes amplified by TV and outdoor.

It has been happening in the background for a while. Most clients are already there. All our audiences are there. We will finally catch up. Those working in agencies, in whatever discipline, at whatever level of seniority, who don’t get this memo will begin to lose their jobs and clients.

In 2019, we will ditch our reliance on outdated creative pretesting systems because it holds back the fundamental shift to truly media-neutral creative thinking. Many clients currently live in a permanent contradiction, where their action-standards for creating work don’t match their media plan or creative briefs. That tension can’t hold much longer and it will break.

In 2019, we will realise that the management consultants were serious about eating our lunch and we were wrong to think they were too square to do creative.

In 2019, we will learn from the management consultants and move upstream, finally realising that making ads is about 5% of the reason why clients work with us and that they’re willing to pay more than we thought for the strategic value we add.

In 2019, more of our best and brightest will move to Google and Facebook, where they will be paid much more, work much harder, but get an insight into how things are done in the real advertising industry (not just the parasitical adjunct we work in).

In 2019, [my joint chief strategy officer] Bridget Angear will give us one more year of effortless brilliance. So that’s your lot. File this away, pull it out at the end of the year, and marvel at my powers of foresight.

Although the only one I’m absolutely guaranteeing is the last one.

The changing and the unchanging

Matt Tanner

Chief strategy officer, Grey London; Chair, APG

It’s January, so it’s time to predict what will change this year. What will be different? How are people’s attitudes shifting?

Immediately I reach for Bill Bernbach: "It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own."

In a world of so much disruption, distraction, disengagement and detachment, never has this been more important.

The responsibility and opportunity for strategists is to put the unchanging nature of people back into planning. Nothing creates more powerful ideas, brands and businesses than this. And it is why the APG will be launching an initiative to inspire and remind planners of this very topic.

Today’s pioneers know this importance only too well. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos (love him or loathe him) proclaims: "When everyone is focusing on what is changing, I focus on what won’t change over the next 10 years and build a business around it."

With this view, Bezos unveils the real challenge for strategists and businesses alike. To identify unchanging motivations, and then look at what is changing in the world of communication, technology, business models, entertainment, distribution and production, so that we can serve these unchanging motivations in previously unimaginable ways.

Too often people champion only what changes, or only the unchanging. Or too often we forget one in pursuit of the other. And in so doing, neither will succeed. But truly, the art is intertwining the two. And the role of strategy and strategists is pivotal in doing so.

Those who can build ideas, brands and businesses that sit at the intersection of the unchanging and the changing will flourish and be more fulfilled. And as we approach the APG Creative Strategy Awards’ 25th year, we hope to see the power of creativity of thought doing just that.

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