The Lost Art of Strategic Thinking.

As seen in ADV Magazine January 2000

This is not the most popular topic among most agencies who still purport to be the keepers of the strategic flame (at least as it relates to communications.) But the reality is that many agencies have fallen into the category of “wrists who execute.”

Where is real strategic thinking being done?

True strategic planning is being done at corporations, marketing & management consultants, and in the rare instance where agencies do contribute strategically, in their media and creative disciplines.

Why has this been happening?

First, most account people have not been trained in deep strategic thinking. Serious business people graduating from college and graduate programs are rarely becoming account executives at ad agencies. They work in corporations, high powered consulting operations, or don’t go into marketing at all. Instead they (rightfully) see a career in finance as the shortest distance between themselves and their first million dollars.

Second, many agencies have virtually abandoned research as a bona fide discipline. As clients started chopping away at agency compensation in the late ’80s and early ’90s, agencies dismantled their “cost centers” (i.e. research department) to cope with the reduced compensation. Understandable? Ultimately, the “cost” was borne by agencies who were losing a key asset of brain power. And yes, strategic planners are supposed to fill that void. And some do (to some extent), but most are a strategic finger in the dike.

Third, strategy is often not being taught by agency elders who don’t spend the time in teaching tomorrow’s leaders how to think. And yet agency management now bemoans that today’s young professional are weak strategic thinkers. Of course they are. Many weren’t the sharpest tools in the collegiate shed to begin with, and more importantly, they have NOT been trained in the “art of thinking”.

Hence, more clients are using management consultants for serious business thinking, media agencies for media planning and execution, and ad agencies to “do some ads” (and we’d like to buy them ala carte, please)… thank you. This disjunctive approach sometimes works, but more often does not.

Ask yourself when the last time was you asked your client to sign off on a focused, coherent, strategy document BEFORE you created a communications program. If the answer is rarely, or worse, never, shame on you. So don’t whine when the same client asks for a new campaign(s). Asking the client to judge a creative beauty pageant against virtually no criteria other than “I like it” has consequences.

Furthermore, an agency should only be showing work that dramatizes a well- crafted, focused strategy. Perhaps in thenew decade things will be different. But don’t count on it. Agencies should start be placing a greater emphasis on strategic thinking. This takes time, money, and talent.

When strategic leaders at agencies send superficially written strategies back for rewrite after rewrite, tomorrow’s leaders will see the light and the need to hone their strategic skills. And only then, will agencies begin to reclaim their place as strategic communications brand leaders.

More Strumings

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