The life of a strategist is complex. You operate as the hub between the consumer, the client (if you’re at an agency), and internal stakeholders. A rubber band that holds it all together and yet gets pulled in all directions.
And yes, you are supposed to be the voice of the consumer as well, but that’s easier said than done. Often, navigating the political waters takes precedence.
I’ve been there, I’m still there, and I’ve found that holding to these 3 truths makes your day a lot simpler — and more effective!
1. You don’t need to know everything
“Even if the answers are blowing in the wind, maybe having an answer that is too certain can destroy us, also.” — Flossie Lewis
Several years ago I was in a boardroom with a major client talking about this year’s campaign and looking into future ones. My team had our recommendation ready.
Their V.P. Marketing looked at one of the tactics and suggested something else that she thought would work better. She had an agenda, I knew that, it happens all the time. “What if we do it this way?” she said.
The room went silent. Everyone looked at our agency CEO for an answer. As if he somehow knew for a certainty — that he could magically predict the future.
But instead he shrugged and said: “I don’t know — let’s do both.”
The words he said weren’t so surprising to me as much as how he said them. He was almost to a fault comfortable with not knowing the answer. He was even surprised that people expected him to.
Here’s the thing. After the meeting he pulled me aside and said: “Design a test!” And that was the answer.
And this isn’t about agile marketing or designing sprints, or staying nimble. Or any other new buzzword that really means “winging it.” It’s about simple business math. In the absence of knowledge and data, we need to design sandboxes that minimize risk and maximize impact.
Great executives are really good at making (and not postponing) the best decision with the information available. It’s tremendously beneficial for strategists to work the same way.
2. You are a business leader
Which brings me to my next point. You are a business leader. At least you ought to be! And every agency, every organization has a bias as to what should drive marketing strategy. That bias comes from the leadership team.
The trick for a successful strategist is to merge organizational priorities and biases with strategies that consumers can respond to. And the key to that is to spend time outside of the organization, with consumers, in the field. But also, to spend time within it.
Tip for those of you who are actively job searching and thinking of joining an agency — take a look at the leadership team and their background. Is it sales? Creative? Media? Odds are, that background will greatly influence agency priorities.
Learning to speak the language of different business leaders — CFO, CEO, Head of HR — is crucial to a winning strategy. So is understanding their priorities.
In the agency world that task becomes even more complex, as you need to consider the agency’s organizational goals as well as the client’s. But it’s a necessary step to setting meaningful objectives and building supporting strategies.
3. Sales is not a goal
Speaking of goals? Sales is not a goal. Or at least not a good enough one.
I’ve been in enough meetings where I asked: “What’s the objective of the campaign?” only to be met with: “Of course it’s sales!” As if driving sales growth is the only reason marketing exists.
Declaring that sales is the goal is lazy goal-setting. I am not saying that marketing efforts should be solely evaluated on how much buzz they generate, or likes they earn, or any other awareness-based metrics. What I am saying is that sales is but one dimension of business success.
Using sales numbers as the key or only success metric leads to a short-term focus, one that, on its own, influences leadership to avoid innovation or change. As an example, It can lead an executive to keep milking a cash cow when its days are numbered (hello, cable companies …) and it’s time to make the investment in a new direction, and/or find a way to innovate.
You might argue: “But we don’t know our client’s actual business costs — how can we determine profitability?” But Remember points 1 and 2 — you don’t need to know everything. You’re a business leader, aka skilled decision-maker.
Here’s a real life example from a client that sells online. Our campaign could have focused on simply increasing online sales. Instead, we focused on increasing sales in areas where shipping costs cut least into margins. True, shipping costs are only one variable that influences profitability … but if you can improve one variable, you can improve the outcome.
From first-hand experience, I can tell you that option 2 is a lot cheaper to execute and a lot more effective.
Second, sales as a KPI is ridiculously foggy. Even ‘revenue growth’ is an improvement. You can grow revenue with new customer acquisition, better customer retention, or just increase of customer lifetime value. All those things require different strategies, different insights and different conversations.
As a business leader — a strategist — you can work with your clients and stakeholders to hone in more precisely on the objective and set your team up for success. Even if you don’t have all the answers.