The Why of the What

I feel like at least half of my job as a strategist at an advertising agency is asking “Why?” Of my coworkers, of our clients, about our process, about our projects, and on it goes. And I feel like everyone, at every company, in every position, should adopt this philosophy.

Sometimes strategy is a bad word for what strategists do and it only emphasizes the clarity problem with the strategy department. My brother plays in a band in Brooklyn. They’re signed to a label, they produce songs, you can listen to them. No one struggles to understand what my brother does. And people even understand what is required of a musician to make a decent living, what qualifies a good musician from a bad one.

On the other hand, I’ve literally never introduced myself as a strategist without having to, in the next breath, clarify what the hell that means. I’ve taken to simply saying I work in advertising when meeting someone for the first time. Precious few people really knows what strategists do and even fewer know what denotes a good one from a bad one.

Well, I find that most of my time is enveloped in the question of “Why?” And although it sounds like a petulant five-year-old could accomplish this for a bag of M&Ms and a glass of orange soda rather than a salary plus benefits, there’s an interesting dynamism that grows out of the strategist’s bent towards clarification.


For the client of the agency, often when briefing in a project or even explaining a common element of their line of business, the strategist’s job is to dig under the buzzwords, rhetoric, and doublespeak to find what the business is really trying to achieve and to craft an approach to solving for the objective.


Since strategy sits firmly between the account or project management side of the business and the creatives, the strategist’s search for clarity creates two things based out of the double life we lead in the agency. It first creates a nugget of truth that can be explored by the creative team. A nugget that will solve a business problem if wrangled properly, and every creative is risen to life by the opportunity to solve a problem through copy or design. It also creates structure. A creative idea can always be put back against the brief of a good strategist and given a clear pass/fail test as to whether it solves the need. This creates a strange dynamic of order within chaos that agencies thrive on and clients win with.


When a good strategy team gets a hold of either a client or an agency’s set of operating rules, you can bet the person in charge will get more than a few frustrated “Whys?” out of them. Strategists also seem to have a bias towards simplicity and in old stalwarts of industry, advertising and business alike, plenty of portions of the processes are decidedly un-simple. Strategists use the merging of analytical and creative in their everyday work and these two next to each other are dangerous for the old “we’ve always done it this way.”


So often we end up doing prescriptive work. We give it to ourselves, we get it from clients or bosses, but we never stop to ask and answer why we are doing something in this way. The other day, I questioned a process deeply, probing for meaning underneath prescriptiveness, and someone asked me why it was so important I understood it, rather than just doing it. I answered, lightheartedly, the way I have answered this question hundreds of times, “I don’t like to not know things.”

There is however, something deeper, that speaks to the very heart of strategy and why we should all adopt a “Why of the What” philosophy. There is no “what” without a “why.” For every “Why?” there is a very real answer. It may be boring, it may be short-sighted, it may be smart, it may be insightful, or it may be something else entirely, but it is there. And I honestly and fully believe that if you don’t understand why you are doing something, then whatever you are doing doesn’t matter until you do.

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