Year ahead for strategy: Be honest

Chaos seems an appropriate theme to hold on to.

Ditch the chin-stroking, gear up for action and be honest

Something stirred in the Cannes air last June, provoking even milder members of the strategy community into emotional outbursts of feeling.

The most impassioned cri de coeur emanated from perhaps the unlikeliest of sources, the urbane father of effectiveness, Peter Field. Describing an end-of-days scenario in his The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness report for the IPA, unveiled during Cannes, Field argued that the industry faces an existential threat due to the overuse of strategic and creative "firepower" on tactical, short-term initiatives.

Field’s conclusion was both bleak and motivational: "We cannot afford to go on being complacent. Left unchecked, the catastrophic decline in creative effectiveness will ultimately weaken support for creativity amongst general management. Money spent on creativity will become ‘non-working’ budget and will be cut."

To its credit, the IPA wasn’t finished. Later in the year, it wheeled out Orlando Wood of System1, and his new book Lemon, to continue the warning about the effectiveness crisis and "advertising that doesn’t move people". It remains unclear to what degree brands – so busy posting immaculate images on Instagram and planning stunts down at Boxpark – were really taking notice, but at least it constituted action, of a sort.

Also in Cannes, two more strategy veterans, Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam’s Martin Weigel and R/GA’s Rob Campbell, fuelled conversations with a presentation entitled "Why your strategy needs more chaos". The essential argument was that chaos and creativity are natural bedfellows, and that, in order to free the creative spirit, it’s far better to be interesting than to be right. This shouldn’t necessarily frighten advertisers because, in Weigel and Campbell’s view, chaos is best delivered by rigour and sound, best-practice strategy – meeting people, being interested in culture, and "playing at the edges", where these people and cultures meet. 

While chaos seems an appropriate theme to hold on to as we lurch uncertainly into a new decade, there are some clear challenges for the strategy community identified by Campaign’s four Year Ahead strategists. These include putting a stronger emphasis on longer-term business transformation, building a greater understanding of real people, and drawing inspiration from the activism in the world around us.

Lucky Generals’ Andy Nairn paints the 10 years that have just passed as a decade dominated by tactical work, and it seems clear there are opportunities for strategy beyond this, especially in the form of aiding brands in wider business transformation. This would allow agencies not only to test their mettle against the might of the consultancies but also enter the new Cannes Lions Business Transformation category, launched by a conference organiser that never fails to monetise a trend. Such a shift in focus would also provide the possibility of a more meaningful future for strategists, taking them beyond Field’s nightmare vision of short-term efficiency.

A greater concentration on people-based strategy would represent progress, too. Leo Burnett’s Josh Bullmore makes a point about creating ideas that range beyond individual echo chambers and "marry the personal and the universal". Realisation of this vision will require inspiration fuelled by a greater range of people from all backgrounds, both in strategy departments and across entire agencies, MullenLowe’s Jo Arden argues. Adam & Eve/DDB’s Imali Hettiarachchi suggests planners spend at least one day a week talking to consumers.

In 2020, we should also expect a more pronounced interest in action, instead of concerned chin-stroking about the state of the world. This has taken shape already in the form of APG London’s climate-change-themed Thinking Around Corners event in November 2019, and cross-agency involvement in the Climate Strike initiative. 

Perhaps appreciating the achievements of strategic minds beyond advertising – such as Led by Donkeys – strategists are spying opportunities on behalf of brands to be braver and embrace chaos, in its best sense. And, on this theme, many were encouraged to see Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s strategy for Libresse/Bodyfrom taking home the Grand Prix at the APG’s Creative Strategy Awards – a manifestation of bravery, honesty and activism that celebrated a taboo subject and highlighted insidious body-shaming.

Beyond this, some feel that strategy’s greatest role will be to persuade brands to be more honest – both with themselves and the people to whom they sell. These voices believe the erosion of trust is a fundamental reason for declining ad effectiveness, and that strategists should take on more responsibility in the new decade by espousing true brand transparency and highlighting the fault lines in the behaviour of their clients. As Jim Carroll said in his chair of judges speech at the aforementioned Creative Strategy Awards: "In the age of transparency, brands need to be prepared to recognise their flaws and failings – indeed, sometimes to celebrate them. This entails being positive and proactive around issues that were hitherto regarded as unappealing and unattractive. It means telling the truth."

Get out of the boardroom and into the living room

Jo Arden

Chief strategy officer, MullenLowe London

I’m writing this in mid-November 2019. Peak-prediction period. 

James Blunt has just thrown shade on Mariah for not being on the Christmas number-one shortlist and people are getting revved up for the final weeks of Strictly. Plus, there’s the distinct possibility of stockings full of P45s for the election pollsters. 

Hmmmm, what does the year ahead hold for strategy? Let me pause I’m a Celebrity (Roman Kemp, nailed on) and have a think. 

There has been a lot of talk about strategists (and agencies, generally) moving more upstream. As an industry, we’re borderline obsessive about being in the boardroom, in making the commercial people "get us". 

Last year, and the past decade, was dominated by our insistence on our own importance. Don’t misunderstand me, I want the value of our work to be recognised as much as the next strategist, with several papers in the IPA Effectiveness Awards this year, but I think that value might come from us thinking about living rooms more than boardrooms. 

Strategy is simple. Get people to want the specific thing you’re selling. An idea, a thing, a service or a cause – the skills are the same. It comes down to understanding people, to being fascinated by what makes them tick, by hearing what hacks them off. In that respect I think we could all do a bit better. 

We have shown ourselves to be collectively out of touch with mainstream Britain. The brilliant Empathy Delusion report, based on work by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, gives us a temporary excuse for our blinkered views because, well, science says it’s not entirely our fault. But we need to sort our shit out. In 2020, strategists will rightly get back to spending a a lot of time with the people they are there to represent. We’ll challenge our own bias and that of our colleagues, be aware of the privileged baggage we bring.   

And our colleagues will be different, too. M&C Saatchi’s Raquel Chicourel suggested last year that greater diversity will make us all better. Our industry-wide, shameful progress on diversity and inclusion, married with the new mood of action, not words, means 2020 has to be a step-change year. 

It’ll start with strategy (like all good stuff does). We’ll build teams that are a lot more like the people in our shops, on our buses, down the road – people who really get real people.

Talk to consumers once a week and get beyond 'spray-on' tactics

Imali Hettiarachchi

Planning director, Adam & Eve/DDB

We’re all more than familiar with the market forces at play: revenue migrating to Google and Facebook, short-term efficiency winning, over long-term effectiveness, shrinking budgets, consolidation. Yes, these are serious issues, but I’m not convinced they’re going to fundamentally change the day job in the next 12 months. 

What should occupy us is the rapid rate of cultural change combined with the staggering reality that 84% of our industry’s output doesn’t achieve branded recall. As planners, I think these things should light a bigger fire under us as we strive to make brands famous in 2020. With that in mind, here’s where I hope to see planning going in 2020.

Getting to know our audience

Ever since the 2016 EU referendum, there has been much hand-wringing about how our industry is out of touch. But this year, we learned, through The Empathy Delusion research, that we’re much less empathetic than we thought. 

This double whammy raises the threat level on the issue and, I hope, creates a sense of urgency to make primary research an essential part of the job. Would it be radical to suggest that talking to consumers becomes mandatory one day a week? That’s how we’ll get beyond "spray-on facts" (as they’re called around here) and uncover the kind of insights that make the base of your spine tingle.

Tapping into uglier truths

In these times of call-out culture and "wokeness" minefields, it’s easier for planners to sell in strategies rooted in positive human truths, such as generosity and courage. 

 But what happens when we base our thinking on less virtuous qualities? I love the way that Harvey Nichols tapped into our desire for self-indulgence, and Burger King knew that people are such suckers for a deal they’ll drive to McDonald’s and ask for a Whopper. Spotlighting our darker sides can get us to funnier, cheekier work, and I hope we get a few more of those strategies over the line in 2020.  

Moving closer to execution

In the past few years we’ve seen three billboards being driven around London to protest against Grenfell, 5G allowing Rick and Morty fans to put themselves inside its world and Led By Donkeys raising £500,000 in a crowd-funded campaign. Today, ideas are increasingly coming to life in more weird and wonderful ways.

Essential to the role of planning is helping to define big, truth-driven territories, but, as the shape of work continues to proliferate, let’s take more time to better understand the groundbreaking ways our ideas could show up in the modern world.

…And don’t forget, in divisive times fun brings people together

Josh Bullmore

Chief strategy officer, Leo Burnett London

Stop contemplating your navel. Bust out of your adland bubble. Go forth into the world for inspiration. These would normally be rock-solid New Year’s resolutions for our introverted industry. But, in 2020, we need to slap a "handle with care" sticker on that advice, because many of the lessons the wider world has to offer are as misleading as a Brexit ad campaign.

Look no further than our era of tribal strategy. Around the world, political strategists tap into tribal loyalties to energise their base. This has obvious crossover appeal. Which business wouldn’t want its base energised? And, let’s face it, agencies make willing enablers. We love nothing better than a bit of tribal thinking, merrily segmenting and micro-segmenting audiences, obsessing over generational differences and mapping out social tribes.

The trouble is that today’s go-to political strategy fills voters’ minds, which evolved for tribal warfare, with binary "us versus them" thinking. Left versus  right, red versus blue, leave versus remain. One side is good, the other bad, and nations get pulled apart by what social scientist Jonathan Haidt calls "common enemy" strategy.

In the year – and decade – ahead, marketing strategy must be built on something very different: our common humanity. And, no, these are not (just) the bleatings of a bleeding-heart, woolly headed, mollycoddled liberal. This is cold, hard and commercial logic.

Marketing science tells us brands grow by reaching out to everyone who buys in a category. Everyone. And, in a world of precision targeting, we need to remember that both parts of this word matter – the "every" is as important as the "one". 

It’s not enough to reach individuals or micro-segments. Brands exist in the "every", in the spaces between people. A brand isn’t built just out of my perceptions, but my perceptions of your perceptions. I need to know that you know.

So the winners of this decade will be brands that don’t just reverberate around individual echo chambers but create ideas that transcend them, that marry the personal and the universal.

In these times of division, businesses and brands provide one of a dwindling number of ties that bind. This is a responsibility and opportunity to embrace for everyone’s benefit. And it doesn’t need to be weighty or worthy. Fun brings people together, too. 

So here’s my recommendation for your New Year’s resolution: develop strategy that transcends the tribal to make your brand a tie that binds.

So stand by for the new 'roaring twenties'

Andy Nairn

Co-founder, Lucky Generals

I’m the worst person to ask about the year ahead, because I always find myself quoting Bill Bernbach’s advice that we should pay attention to the things that won’t change, rather than the stuff that will. However, in the interests of playing ball, I’m going to resort to that trusty planning tool the acronym and predict that the TWENTies will be all about: talent, wisdom, export, networks and transformation.


It’s shocking that this needs restating but, after a decade of apparently forgetting that we’re a people business, we need to focus more energy on recruiting the sparkiest thinkers to our industry. We also need to see diversity and inclusion as an opportunity, not a problem, and do more to nurture and retain our stars. If we get this one right, all the other stuff will fall into place.


We currently know more about the ways communications and brands work than ever – and yet much contemporary marketing seems wilfully ignorant of all this learning. This might be symptomatic of a wider rejection of expertise in society but surely we can’t ignore the evidence much longer. Note that this isn’t about collecting loads more useless data (boring) or dressing up truisms as insights (they rarely are). It’s about applying accumulated knowledge in brilliant, new ways.


The Advertising Association and IPA have recently pointed out that, in a post-Brexit world, we will all need to get much better at selling our wares internationally. That’s especially the case for strategists: if we’re honest, we’ve sometimes looked down our noses at this global planning malarkey. In the next 10 years, I think a lot of our most interesting work is going to be done across borders. Dig out your passport (whatever colour it turns out to be).


Don’t worry, I’m not referring to the old-fashioned holding companies, I mean looser collectives. So many of the world’s challenges require collaboration that we’re all going to have to widen our circle of friends (and include a few frenemies, too). Lone strategists, this means you as well.


I feel like a lot of planning in the past 10 years has been pretty tactical. One-off initiatives. Short-term campaigns. CSR bolt-ons. But now, the world needs big ideas that can transform organisations and behaviours. Just remember that one of the best ways to drive change is to think about what doesn’t change. Which brings me back to Bernbach.

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