Be a 5% Better Ad Strategist

Over-coming everyday errors of creative strategy

Becoming a more effective ad strategist takes time. Yet, most strategists (or “planners,” in industry terms) I meet are extremely impatient. Impatient with ideas. Impatient with others. And most frequently, impatient with their own growth.

It’s not a bad thing. Impatience is passion— the fuel that drives constant improvement. But many times, in the constant pursuit of the sexy “big ideas”— strategist forget the little things that matter. Everyday, frequent, tactical errors that hold their ideas back. Invisibly but insidiously.

Here are three little mistakes I wish I had learned earlier. Trade-craft not found in the textbooks. Bad habits I wished someone had pulled me aside and just told me. Knowing them won’t transform you overnight in the uber-strategist, you aim to be. But if overlooked too long, they can hold you back without you knowing it. Try to catch them, fix them and you’ll find yourself being just a little bit more effective. Approximately 5% more effective, in my estimation.

Mistake #1: Perfecting the Brief. Fumbling the Briefing.

The creative brief is a mystical document. The one piece of paper both clients and agencies obsess over. And rightfully so, because the creative brief is a business contract. Months of research, debate and expense are filtered down to what is essentially a formal agreement of “what kind” of creative work will be made, with what strategic intent and to what standard pf success. Without a doubt, it’s critical to the creative process. And writing the brief is often the strategist’s most important responsibility.

It will be written. Then rewritten. Then rewritten again. Finding the “right words” will be agonizing. Bosses will have feedback. Persuading clients to agree will be painful. But at some point, the brief will done and this is exactly when many strategist screw up: when the brief is briefed. As in, during the actual briefing— the transmission to the creative people who will ultimately do the creative work.

Come the briefing, many strategists expect creatives to marvel at all the fine words on that one piece of paper. They think the brief can simply be printed, passed around and its brilliance will be so apparent that it lurch creatives to their feet, springing them to bold action. Like it’s some reborn Declaration of Independence. Trust me, creative will not do that. Ever. More likely, they’ll yawn.

What I am saying is this: a good brief is useless without a good briefing. Yes, the brief is the valuable piece of paper, but the briefing is the invaluable conversation that must inspire creative people.

The brief is not just a contract, it’s a plea. It’s an internal advertisement persuading people who make a living making ads to do what you want. And only when it’s done with the same vigor, energy and originality as the paper will it effectively intoxicate creative people to do great work. Never forget that— the paper is worthless without the plea.

Mistake #2: Articulation without Recommendation.

Strategists are masters of articulation. Charts, graphs, numbers, photography, quotes, models, anecdotes— all wielded to define the “true nature” or “fresh perspective” of a problem. It’s true — a clear, precise articulation of an issue is extremely important, but at some point, a recommendation needs to be made. A stake has to be planted. A trade-off needs to be embraced. A bet needs to be placed. And many strategists forget to do this.

Many strategists get so caught up in the explaining they forget they’re paid for solutions, not problem articulations. Next time, get to the recommendation much faster, much sooner. Spend the most energy on defining the solution and its intended effect — not showing the audience how well you understand what’s wrong.

Mistake #3: Letting the Obvious Bore You.

Defining strategy is like solving a crime mystery. You’re collecting clues and corroborating evidence from consumers, clients and culture to craft the best solution to a problem. You’re mapping the most efficient route to a business objective.

There will be theories and hunches. Misfires and mulligans. It’s all part of the strategic process. It’s frustrating, nuanced and full of debate.

Here’s the mistake: strategists like to put cleverness on a pedestal. There’s an incredible rush in finding the answer in some dark corner where nobody has looked before. Using sophisticated tools, data and analysis to wow a client or creative. Using the perfect, esoteric quote from Greek mythology…while completely overlooking the obvious solution.

Obvious feels boring. Pursuing them can feel like leaving some superpower (i.e. brain power) unused. Obvious feels stupid. Like you’re not looking or thinking hard enough. “Easy” doesn't feel good for someone so smart.

What most strategists don’t understand is that often the real superpower not finding the obscure, but seeing the obvious when others can’t. Or are afraid to admit it.

Obvious is powerful. Obvious is easy to understand. Obvious is inspiring. Do not let it bore you.


Try these out and let me know how they work for you @edtsue.