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What Great Strategists do to Win | APG Worlds Collide 2012

The APG Worlds Collide event certainly lived up to its ‘mind altering’ claim. Four inspiring talks on strategy from four great minds from completely different career backgrounds left me with lots to think about and even more that I want to put into practice. Immediately. What I want to do is to put down some of my own observations and share a few points from each of the speakers.

What stood out for me was how each speaker had a distinct approach to strategy and getting things done, and while each of them each of them talked about winning in one way or another, each placed a different emphasis on how to win: Jeremy Gilley brought passion, Sir Mike Jackson analysis and the conviction that comes from it, David Droga ideas and creativity and Alastair Campbell political mastery. That’s not to say that Alastair Campbell doesn’t have ideas, or that Jeremy Gilley doesn’t use data analysis. It’s just that, to me anyway, each speaker had one defining characteristic that shaped their approach and success. As agency strategists we require a combination of passion, analysis, creativity and political acumen to get our jobs done. Some jobs, some clients, some agency relationships and dynamics demand different approaches and different emphasis on each of those aspects.

So while the audience voted on their favourite speaker, and Alastair Campbell won the vote – he’s a politician, I would be worried if he didn’t – I didn’t have a clear favourite. I came away wanting to be more afraid of losing, but to use that fear to be more passionate, more analytical, more creative and more politically savvy.

So what did the speakers tell us?

Jeremy Gilley

English actor, filmmaker and founder of the nonprofit organisation Peace One Day

Questioning whether he wanted to raise a child in a world filled with violence, Jeremy Gilley came up with an idea: A Global Day of Peace, to happen each year on September 21, starting in 2001. As a result of his tireless efforts, the UN unanimously passed a resolution in 2001 in support of a day of global ceasefire and non-violence; in 2007 the mujahideen in Afghanistan agreed to not fight on Peace Day, enabling 1.4million children to get vaccinated against polio; and in 2008 there was a 70% reduction in violence in Afghanistan.

So how did he turn his idea into reality?

  • Continuously asking himself: How do we win when we can’t afford to lose?

  • Using his camera constructively to film everything and build up an archive of material

  • Building a case: Explaining what he was talking about and figuring out why anyone would care

  • Listening to the people

  • Believing with unwavering passion and conviction that it had to work; believing that it was a good idea, that it saves lives, and remembering who it’s for

  • Battling cynicism

  • Identifying key partners (BA flies him around the world for free)

  • Uniting people on the ground so that governments have to take notice

As Rory Sutherland summarised, Peace One Day is an example of a great idea and endless enthusiasm for it. It’s also a lesson to us that a great idea alone is not enough. We need the tenacity to make others believe in it and battle cynicism towards it. We need to work around challenges and obstacles, not just throw our toys out the cot and throw our hands up in despair when others don’t buy into our ideas as quickly or as willingly as we want them to.


General Sir Mike Jackson

Former Head of the British Army

Sir Mike is a man who believes in analysis and operates with the conviction that comes from it. For him leadership is about ensuring that a group of people with a common purpose understand and are united in that common purpose. Seems obvious, but if you work in an agency you’ll understand how far off the mark we can sometimes be, both in understanding and uniting around our own agency’s and our clients’ purpose.

So when it comes to strategy, what do you need to be clear on?

  • What the problem is

  • What the course of action is

  • What you’re going to do if things go wrong

  • That failure isn’t an option

  • What people actually have to do

Leadership and strategy are inextricably linked. Strategy is about ends, ways and means. Ends are the purpose, means are what you have to get the job done. The way is all about the art of leadership. There may be more than one way or course of action, and this is where judgement comes in. Analysis will help in making a decision, and once a decision is taken any further discussion is a waste of time. But you need to communicate with the team who needs to implement the course of action. Each person needs to understand their part, because without that part it won’t work. Communication is about getting an idea out of one head and into many others. You need to communicate clearly, quickly and succinctly. So make a plan. Communicate it. And inspire your team members to achieve it. Then get the organisation right; establish clarity, boundaries and accountabilities – without them you will end up with gaps or overlaps.

The British Army’s motto is ‘Be the best’ and the only measurement objective is ‘Don’t come second’. It’s an easy enough ambition to put into words, but without a rigorous course of action, clear communication and strong leadership probably wouldn’t be anything more than an unrealised slogan.

Rory Sutherland mentioned the American Indians who, before a hunt, put a bison bone on a fire and waited for it to crack. The direction of the crack was the direction the hunters took. Studies showed that the crack did not point the hunters in the direction of animals, but the tribe was consistently one of the most successful at hunting because the crack kept all the hunters going in the same direction.


David Droga

Advertising Executive and the Founder and Chairman of Droga5

This talk, from advertising’s most decorated creative at the Cannes awards, included some thought provoking industry insights and observations as well as points on how the agency approaches work, along with some fantastic examples of ‘creativity with purpose’, including these ones for Bing and Jay-Z and Puma.

Things to remember, every day:

On advertising:

  • Advertising is at the intersection of every industry and issue, and our industry has an incredible amount to contribute. As an industry we don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we do.

  • Be more ambitious

On strategy:

  • Moving things forward is about collaboration

  • The strategy of creativity is creativity with purpose

  • Find the truth in a strategy that will get people to do something. Sometimes we have to find the motivation when people just don’t care.

  • Seek the truth in any strategy

  • Don’t think ‘what’s the message’ but ‘what’s the ask of people’

  • At times, don’t create, facilitate

  • Look for the right answer not the advertising answer

  • Be a best version of yourself not a poor imitation of the competition

  • Base the work in a human truth

  • Be true, take the varnish off, because nothing resonates like honesty

  • Keep things simple

  • Inspiration comes from the obvious and everyday

On the audience:

  • You need to earn their respect or attention, so what’s in it for them? Seek to deliver a combination of inspiration and what the consumer wants.

  • Understand who you’re talking to, understand the context, and don’t get caught up in the execution

  • Reward your audience

  • Think about whether you can influence the people who influence your target audience

To greater or lesser degrees, we know a lot of this already. It’s just good to have it reinforced by someone who’s achieved so much.


Alastair Campbell

Former Director of Communications and Strategy to Tony Blair

Alastair Campbell’s talk was about the politics of winning. He began with a story about Lance Armstrong who, when asked what he feared more, dying or being beaten, said ‘Losing and dying. It’s the same thing.’ Campbell agrees, and went on to say that once you’re afraid of losing, you need systems and organisation to support winning.

He then shared his own ‘rules of engagement’, summarised as a series of acronyms, which he has written on a postcard that he carries with him.

  • OST: Objectives, strategy and tactics. It’s not strategy if it’s not written down. The best strategy is a word, a sentence, a page, a book. Strategy is where you have the arguments.

  • TLTP: The best team leaders are the best team players. Everyone has to be on the bus. You have to know how to get on with people and get them on your team.

  • BB: Be bold. Having a World Peace Day is bold.

  • BA: Be authentic. Otherwise people will sense it and won’t believe you.

  • CC: Stay calm in a crisis. And always remember it’s going to end.

  • LBL: Listen but lead. Which is different to LAL, listen and lead.

  • GGOOB: Get good out of bad.

  • 3-1/1-18: In 1984 the ratio of good news to bad in the press was 3 to 1. By 2003 the ratio was one piece of good news for every 18 bad. So you need to set the agenda, not accept it.

  • HAP: Get your head above the parapet when the sh1t is flying. But make sure it’s the right head.

  • VTV: Visualise the victory. Keep the end in mind, and remember why you’re doing what you’re doing.

He ended by acknowledging that you can do all this and still lose, but at least you’ve got a better chance of winning, and left the audience with a quote by Vince Lombardy: I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.

So that’s a few summarised master classes in strategy. It’s reinforced some of the things I aspire to every day, and made me more determined to achieve them: More collaboration and team work; more time to better identify and articulate the problems, the objectives, the solution, and the tactics; more space to find the simplicity amidst the complexity; and a better understanding of what drives our audiences and will elicit a response. Onwards and upwards then.

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