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Think like a CSO (with Matt Willifer)

Matt’s career combines classic brand planning with cutting edge digital expertise. Matt joined BMP DBB from Oxford University in 1995 on their graduate scheme. He has been the Head of Strategy and part of the management team at M&C Saatchi, where he won the inaugural APG Global Strategy Agency Of The Year Award. Following that he spent a two-year stint as CEO of a games developer, helping brands better exploit gaming and virtual worlds. For the last four years he has been at WCRS as part of the management team, and oversees the agency’s strategic output across brand, advertising, digital, social, and everything in-between.


Matt Willifer

Chief Strategy Officer at WCRS, and Partner at Engine

So this is the third blog, following hot(ish) on the heels of the third talk, around how to think like a CSO. In the talk I spoke through three deliberately different pieces of strategic thinking, and then tried to figure out what the hell they had in common. This is what I concluded:

Root your thinking in business strategy & behaviour change

Too often strategists can dive straight in at the touchy feely end. If your first chart is of the if-your-brand-were-a-dog-what-kind-of-dog-would-it-be kind of thing, you might make your client think you don’t understand much about business in general (and their business in particular). Root everything in the business objective and business strategy, and look to translate this into what this looks like in terms of human behaviour. Also (although not always relevant) consider the various behavioural change theories to see whether there is a clue as to how to prompt this behaviour.

Be confident. Strategy Matters More Than Ever

I spoke to a senior pitch consultant a while back, who said that the two most crucial pitch-winning elements were (a) chemistry and (b) strategic thinking. More than ever clients need a clear, empathetic, imaginative, simple, surprising, dramatic, clever bit of strategic thinking thought that can tie everything together; and they need help applying this through their marketing plan. Of course, lest we get complacent, clients might look to get this strategic thinking elsewhere – but, done well, there is something very compelling about the kind of strategic thinking that creative agencies provide. So stand tall. Or sit up straight if that’s what you prefer.

Powerful, Simple Logic

I did philosophy, politics and economics at university – a perfect training, one would have thought, for structuring a simple, clear-headed and compelling argument. However, in truth, it has taken me many years in advertising to be able to do so. Reducing, reframing and discarding, until the complex is wonderfully simple, is extraordinarily compelling. So, write less: there’s less temptation to stray. You don’t need to find a home for every brilliant fact you have; remember the elevator sell, the one minute version, and only write stuff that supports it.

Define The Idea

When I see an advert I know nothing about, it’s normally very hard to disentangle the strategic idea from the creative idea. Normally you just get the idea. A strategic idea is a stepping-stone to the idea. Once you have the latter, the former is a historical curiosity. In a pitch, for example, there is no need to present the strategic idea and then the creative idea. Just present the idea. Stand back, and think what the simplest way is to sell it. This is the most crucial part of your pitch.

Know your clients

Know the category. Know the brand. Know the consumers. But also know your client. By this I don’t just mean their brand, but them as people. Different people respond to different things – or even to the same thing, but presented and justified in a different way: for example, some clients will respond to a case built carefully from the bottom up; other will respond to the grand, assumptive sweep of a big idea. And know what is on their minds; help them with their priorities, with whatever keeps them awake at night. Because everyone likes to sleep, and it will make they very grateful (and less grouchy).

Be Proactive

Think outside the client brief; understand the other things the client needs, and think of what you could do to help. Think of new fresh things to do that are not on the media plan. Even come up with ideas for brands or charities or agency initiatives that are nothing to with your existing clients. One of WCRS’ most awarded pieces of work, for Women’s Aid, was conceived prior to Women’s Aid being a client, and pitched speculatively.

You can all think like a CSO

Finally, you can all think like a CSO, and you probably already are. One of my jobs is to help identify and promote the brilliant thinking of others. At WCRS we are lucky to have a bunch of incredibly talented strategists at all levels of seniority. With any luck I soon won’t have to do any thinking at all.


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