Strategy vs Tactics: The Battle of the Somme

From 1st July to 18th November 1916 raged one of the bloodiest battles in human history resulting in the deaths and injuries of over one million men. Around five miles of enemy territory was gained at a shameful cost.

This was a war of attrition, numbers and tools stacked against each other.
Enemy superiority is so great that we are not in a position either to fix their forces in position or to prevent them from launching an offensive elsewhere. We just do not have the troops…. We cannot prevail in a second battle of the Somme with our men; they cannot achieve that any more. (20 January 1917)[56]
Hermann von Kuhl

The purpose of this piece is not to negate or minimise the loss of life nor its historical importance.

The purpose of this piece is to draw human behavioural parallels in the world of business.

The entirety of the first world war was fought in a similar fashion to the battle of the Somme. Millions of men neatly arranged across a field in trenches, charging back and forth and dying in vast numbers for nothing but a few miles gained.

Many businesses today are guilty of similar behaviours.

The belief that through the mastery of tactics, through rigid conformation and efficiency that the battle in the marketplace can be won by simply following the predetermined rules of mutual honour. And if you throw enough money at a problem, it’ll just disappear eventually.

WW1 was a short-term war, fought through tradition and conformity, through logic and numbers.

Scoresheets of the dead.

Whoever had the highest number of enemies killed was the overall winner.

The logical thing and the right thing to do, was to do things the way they had always been done, to march millions of men forward and with some self-belief the war would be won.

A war fought from a war room, detached from the day to day bloodshed.

Business today is a short-term world, fought with logic and numbers and traditions. With detached men and women who haven’t been outside of their bubble for quite some time, if ever.

Spreadsheets of the day, of the hour. Patience has gone out of the window.

Whoever has the most data, wins the game now.

The logical thing to do is to analyse and optimise every part of the business from an immediate point of view, everything is a cost. Certainty is required. McNamara is the icon for efficiency. We need numbers people, more machines apply. There are lots of rules. We can’t break them.

If costs can be cut, then business is booming. Ignore the rest. But, we must copy the competition.

Take for example Accounting, it’s quite clear that clients pay for the services of the provider offering the most rational benefits. Such as tax saved, the experience of their handlers and the offloading of stressful financial matters to a trusted third party.

This is what an accountant may think, but they’d be wrong. Because they aren’t the customer. They don’t understand what people really think and how they really make their decisions.

But those are just clichés and rules, which are made to be broken.

KPMG, one of the top global accountancy practices launched a new campaign to the cost of £650,000. Generating around £35 million in revenue. The target was a mere £3.2 in comparison. By building a mass reach, multi channel, brand building campaign they advertised themselves as a modern and digitally transformed business using pictures of Whales and Birds which had nothing to do with accounting. It was playful, nice while still clear about what was actually on offer. A rare thing in today’s advertising.

They even had taxis with advertising on them park up at competitor events, dirty move and hardly professional I would argue. But that’s the point, competition isn’t fair. Fair leads to a lack of competition, fair is a stalemate.

Fair is the assumption that the Maginot line would keep Hitler out of France as long as he played by the rules.

As Dave Trott says, creativity is the last legal competitive advantage that businesses have.

And Dave Trott isn’t wrong, creative execution is quantifiably demonstrated as the leading reason for advertising success after the size of a potential market. If the message is shit, no one cares about your strategy or planning or how clever you are. Advertising’s first job is to get noticed.

However, I would argue the main reason for the overwhelming success of this campaign is simply the inherent notion that accounting is above advertising and that it dirties the professional image. So no one else was bothering with it. Most people made a load of assumptions based on their culture and their own biases as money men and women.

KPMG however, they decided to go against the grain and advertise en masse and laughed all the way to the bank.

It’s easy to shout your competition down when they are silent.

KPMG didn’t line up it’s troops and play by the rules of their category and all it’s baseless assumptions built around a conservative ideology. Instead, they played a different game and by default, they won.

Good marketing and advertising is not about victory above all else, it’s about redefining what victory actually is and how it can be achieved. It’s about shattering conventions when possible to generate substantial returns for a business. It’s about doing the unexpected, the risky and the apparently nonsensical.

While there is evidence, there are rules and there certainly are things you shouldn’t do in business. Don’t let accepted cultural norms and what’s current be the defining approach to tackling issues.

Let the rest of the competition fight in the trenches, your job is to go around them and take them out before they even notice.


I’m a Marketing consultant. I help my clients make more money. Better Marketing means better business. Offering strategic advice and services that will help you to focus on the areas that matter most.