Marketing (Cards) Against Humanity: Strategy vs. Tactics & Wishful Thinking

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” — Mike Tyson

In a world of Lean, Agile, Real-time, Trump and Brexit — is strategy an out-dated overhead?

The use of the word “strategy” has seen an explosion since 1900, along with a skyrocketing number of strategy frameworks, however, searches for “Marketing Strategy” and “Business Strategy” have actually seen a decline over the past 12 years — accompanied by a March and November Saw-tooth pattern reflecting desperate searching during “annual corporate strategy time”.

Sources: Google ngram, Google Trends, BCG via HBR

It seems that the world, his dog and his dog’s management consultants have a strategy these days. Is there a supply & demand gap?

Is the trend that people actually want less “strategy”?

Planning for long-term growth can seem an unpredictable, time-consuming pressure when there are targets to meet this quarter, and someone on the board is asking “What’s our Pokemon Go strategy?”*

According to a CBI survey, 60% of companies say that they will be forced to make budget cuts going into 2017 but two thirds claim to have made no provision for them. In this context how do you plan for growth? Has Just In Time completed it’s journey from supply chain to CMO-suite with strategy just collateral damage on the way?

I’d argue that the problem is not strategy but the things being labelled as “strategy”.

We are drowning in platitudes and tactics masquerading as “strategies”. In particular Marketing, far from owning the customer, has become the owner of the “means not the ends” with Marketing Strategy becoming communications tactics which have in turn become confused with bolt-on digital tactics.

Inspired by the words of Ritson and Hegarty and various conversations with industry colleagues, I started gathering a list of the very real marketing challenges that brands and business face and some of the short-termist, tactical activities being proposed as solutions or “strategies”.

Eventually I chose to visualize this in the style of the infamous Cards Against Humanity game. The endeavor then took on a crowd-sourced life of its own and evolved into a real Marketing (Cards) Against Humanity game.

Marketing Cards Against Humanity

You can get the game here. Just in time for Xmas parties. It has a mix of the serious problems, the not so serious tactics, and the slightly rude things that make our industry so interesting.

Trigger warning: Cards contain lots of sarcasm.

And yet on a serious note our industry is filled with things like the “10 Principles of Customer Strategy” that recommend strategic approaches such as “Target customers with whom you have the right to win” or “Master the art of the possible”.

An old design school technique is to turn something upside down or reverse it to look at it in an unfamiliar but revealing way. Reversing these principles gives you “Target customers with whom you have no right to win” and “Master the art of the impossible”: a mix of the inane and the insane.

Differentiation may have taken a back seat to Distinctive in terms of modern brand building, but commonplace principles offer no point of strategic difference to a business and so following them as a “strategy” means you more than likely to have the same strategy as everyone else.

Tactics, playbooks and principles like this are not strategy. They are abstract goals and platitudes when, as Lawrence Freedman put it in Strategy: A History

“Strategy is revolution. Everything else is tactics”

Marketing (Cards) Against Humanity is a game. But the challenges that we face as marketers, agencies and society are serious. We need to get back to creating value rather than extracting it. We must build around the needs of people and not just Maximized Shareholder Value.

For this we need real strategy.

Strategy means choices.

Making choices means “discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of co-ordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors” (Richard Rumelt).

The context that brands and businesses find themselves in today demands the extraordinary, which means these will often be difficult choices. The increase in data available and the exponential change of technology and culture means these choices are more frequent.

This has never happened

With scarce attention and abundant connectivity, strategy becomes less about control and more about clear, reasoned, evidence-based choices to do fewer, bigger, better things for longer; less about controlling predictable events than understanding your modus operandi and decision principles when faced with multiple emergent versions of the future and ever faster OODA loops.

And yet, written in the cards is a story of Marketing becoming too synonymous with the P of Promotion. Marketing Strategy’s remit and output is broader, more far-reaching and more valuable in the other Ps of Product, Place and Price, as well as the big C of Culture — inside and outside the organization.

The answer is a return to the roots of Marketing Strategy as a discipline, and for agency strategists in particular to return to the thinking, techniques and real situational understanding practiced by the (Stephen) Kings of planning where the aim was for strategists to

“demonstrate that they have the breadth of vision and objectivity to do the job; apply ‘how marketing communications work’ thinking and R&D to a much wider area; probably bring in more outside talent, from marketing companies or other fields of communication; make more efforts to ‘go to the top’ in client contact (the one great advantage of the various specialists)”

This means not just changing the current nature of Marketing Strategy, helping it going back to the future if you will, but also changing the way the industry, its incumbents and disruptors, its people and practitioners, sell and deliver strategy.

What other “outside talent” can agency strategists learn from?

If we do not change, Stephen King’s fear about “the best strategic planners leaving for the other sorts of company or of agency planners shifting wholly to advert-tweaking” will continue to come true.

And now, more than ever, we have the impetus, examples and the opportunity.

The oft-cited “Unicorns” have shown the value of having digital thinking and modern behaviors at the very heart of their companies, not as comms, an addition or temporary “transformation” initiative. This is Marketing Strategy once more as a revolution, not tactics masquerading as a digital strategy.

Aiming for Marketing Strategy as a revolutionary agent creates challenges to traditional agencies, digital groups or the latest breakaway hotshot. It needs to be able to draw on large datasets, robust tools and deep rigor as well as more creative thinking.

Modern Marketing Strategy needs to partner to cut across the layers and silos of a business

Great strategic and creative ideas have implications, echoes that reverberate around client organizations and cause change. They can mean the difficult experience of taking a new product to market or having to deal with the culture, process, supply chain and other implications of creating a new source of growth.

(Almost) anyone can draw perfect customer experience maps driven by great concepts. Not everyone can put them into practice. (Almost) anyone can develop yet another K-means audience segmentation or category map based on survey data or “subjective inputs”. Not everyone can reveal the real structure of consumer thinking from multiple behavioral data signals on an ongoing basis.

The future agency Strategy function should reflect Bill Bernbach’s creative team model — a partnership of Creative and Business Strategists — rather than the lone strategist, consultant or “free” strategy bundled up front model. This way it can have the right impact and cut through the layers of brand and business challenges and silos that “sheer” client firms apart.

This might sound like Strategy as practiced by management consultancies.

In some ways it is.

But it is also different.

It requires and recognizes creativity and real customer empathy and insight as a force multiplier, not just process, technology and scale.

It is the combination of these forces that will enable Strategists to help clients meet the unmet needs and the possibilities that technology offers to deliver convenience, meaningful experience and value growth. It means combining deep specialism with breadth and scale.

If we apply Charles Leadbetter’s famous System/Empathy model to the Strategy marketplace where Empathy = Creative & Insight and System = Technical delivery at scale, we can already see this combination of forces driving change. The big consultancies are buying Design and Creative agencies to increase their Empathy while agencies and advertising holding companies partner and acquire-hire the digital transformation and production skills to give them System credibility. Both are trying to triangulate on the (over) promised land of “intimacy at scale” where they can help clients design innovative, empathic customer experiences, build them, run them, and lead on creative brand ideas. It is a higher order offering not yet prone to the disruption seen by the social, content and activation work that agencies provided for clients moving in-house.

A System/Empathy Map of the the Strategy Marketplace — inspired by Charles Leadbeater

But is “one giant consultancy/holding group/network to rule them all” the only way to achieve the “Intimacy at scale” that modern brands and businesses need in a connected-by-default world?

Maybe not. Maybe there’s a platform model?

Lean strategy and creative-led collective teams (operating with a low overhead) in owned or affliated units built on top of a holding group or big consultancy stack. Collectives that can have their own clients and plug into the necessary skills and functions just as simply as an API call, with back office and admin provided by software tools and payment modelled on outcomes; collectives that also be called upon to provide the strategic and creative end-to-end Customer Experience innovation for their affliated stack. This way clients do not have to worry about all the extra overhead or competing agencies “integrating” but also don’t have to worry that they are left with a “jack of all trades” single provider. Indeed if you draw a Wardley map of the strategy & agency world these forces are already at play.

Eat your own dogfood” as they say in the software world.

Strategy not as transformation but revolution.

Real strategy.

Real choices.

Not a hand of Marketing (Cards) Against Humanity.

*Answer: You haven’t got one and that’s fine.

Credits for Marketing (Cards) Against Humanity: Jon, Toby, Kelly, Stephen, and quite a few who are happy to remain nameless and some whose names were lost from the Google Sheet!)

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