How many strategists does it take to change a light bulb? None; they’re too busy with the brief! Planning & Strategy – the glorious department known to be inhabited by genius know-it-alls, whose primary task it is to propose the direction brands need to take to achieve their marketing and business objectives. While it may seem fancy listening to almost every word that includes ‘strategic’ as the prefix, there is a lot that goes into giving those words their particular meaning. The role of brand planners and strategists in today’s advertising scene has evolved. Gone are the days when strategists could lie back and relax after positioning brands or proposing campaign directions.
Today’s strategists have to be all-round experts in business operations, marketing functions, consumer insights as well as communication design with strong analytical acumen. They have to be constantly up-to-date with market trends and able to customise their approaches in real-time to evolve the ideas they propose across media platforms, especially digital.
• Representatives of the people: Just as senators are the chosen representatives of citizens and tasked with voicing their concerns in Parliament, strategists are the voice of the consumers in the boardroom. One of the roles strategists must take up as part of their brief is that of a psychologist as well as a sociologist. A good planner understands people like he understands himself. From what they want, to how they behave and how much they know – planners are constantly in the process of learning more about what makes people the way they are. When an idea for an ad strikes, it is the responsibility of the strategist to put the idea to the test by gauging how well it connects with people.
• Insights – the holy grail of planning: While it may sound boring to study seemingly mundane consumer behaviours, the truth is that insights are hidden beneath them. Sadly, too many simple observations have been presented in boardrooms as ‘insights’ without doing justice to the strategic integrity of the word. One of the many ways real insights can be uncovered is by spending time with people (stop calling them consumers) and having engaging conversations with them. Value quality over quantity. The most interesting aspect of doing research in this way, is in the not knowing what you are looking for. Almost every time I speak to people on a topic without necessarily asking them questions, I have found that they quite literally ‘tell’ me the insight themselves, without realising it. As a good strategist, you need to be attentive enough to catch the ball flying out of nowhere.
• Knowledge is power: I have been told this ever since I started school, but have only truly understood the meaning behind this since I became a brand strategist. Tyrion Lannister (of Games of Thrones fame and known for his experisein strategy) said it best: “I drink and I know things.” Planners are only as good as the amount of knowledge they have about their clients’ businesses, the market, the consumer, other campaigns and the creative process itself. This is because the strategist acts as a thought partner or even consultant for the client’s business. They are the wingmen whose job it is to marry the brand’s proposition with the consumer’s desires – and it is equally important to know both well.
• Work the tools, not vice-versa: Most agencies use proprietary tools to guide the strategic process within predetermined frameworks in order to reach the right conclusions. Although some planners may get carried away using those tools, it is important to determine whether they are suited to a brief or not. Think about the planning process. It is our job to connect the dots and build a satisfactory logic behind our proposals, not the job of the tools; they are just there to lend a helping hand.
• Be a collaborator: It may seem tempting for a strategist to let their narcissistic side take charge and position themselves as the smartest people in the room, but remember nobody likes a smartass. Instead, be collaborative. Sell your strategy, but don’t hard-sell. Involve creatives early on in the strategic process so you can explore the creative potential of a strategic direction. Research like a journalist and ask tough questions in the boardroom about concepts that you feel do not connect with consumers – but when convinced, be prepared to defend the creative to clients like a public defender. Be the person your agency depends on to make the smart move.
• Keep it simple and tell a story: Too many strategists have it all mixed up – brand identity, brand personality, brand characteristics, strategic positioning, strategic direction, strategic platform, strategic proposition, strategic thought, brand equity, brand relevance – you know what I mean. When building your strategy, it is important to keep things simple. Your logic needs to follow a specific train of thought and tell a story before getting down to the main proposition. Remember that strategy is a creative process – from turning the right kind of data into actionable insights, proposing the direction the brand must take to developing the creative brief.
• Be a jack-of-all-trades: Strategists need to be multi-talented. Consumers. Businesses. Ideas. Awards (who doesn’t want them). Develop and strengthen your creative foresight. Think commercially and creatively at the same time. There is only so much we can master, which is why it is important we roll up our sleeves up and take on business as well as creative challenges by the horns, while evolving our expertise in strategy development by keeping the learning process alive As Jef Richards, Professor & Chairman, Department of Advertising & PR, Michigan State University, put it: Creative without strategy is art; creative with strategy is advertising.”
Muhammad Ali Khan is Associate Director Creative & Strategy at Spectrum VMLY&R. He also teaches in the Masters of Advertising program at SZABIST-Karachi.