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Michelin-Starred Strategy

If you’re sharpening your strategic smarts, here’s some food for thought


As Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, “True happiness comes from the joy of deeds well done, the zest of creating things new.”

So, like anyone who’s passionate about their profession, I spend my working life trying to master it and move it forward – and help those around me do the same.

My craft is strategic planning and, as well as practicing it day in, day out (and, occasionally, night in, night out), I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with and learned from many great strategists and enjoyed some top training, most notably in the IPA Excellence Diploma – AKA “The MBA of Brands.”

The longer you work inside an industry, however, the more you look outside of it for inspiration. And, being a keen cook, my heart, mind and stomach have recently been drawn to those masters of culinary creativity: Michelin-starred chefs. Thanks to them, I have this idea bubbling away that I’d like to share with you today. And it’s called “Michelin-starred strategy.”

Michelin-starred strategy is the pursuit of exceptional planning

It comes from a simple realisation that many of the ingredients that constitute world-class cooking are the same that make up world-class planning.

After all, the parallels between top flight agencies and high end kitchens are many and rich: from multi-skilled teams working in intense environments to deliver delight, to colourful creative geniuses, to the fierce but good natured rivalry inside our respective communities. And if you haven’t witnessed Rory Sutherland exploring our media environment through food then that’s something for you to chew on next.

The more I think about this crossover, the more I take from it. So, it’s going to be something I keep developing over time. But by way of an amuse-bouche, here are five ingredients that I believe are central to Michelin-starred strategy:

1. Consistent Surprise

“There is nothing really specific you have to accomplish in order to get more Michelin stars, except of course reach perfection, every day, every meal, every dish, every prep, rinse and repeat, every single day of your life.”

Julien Vaché, Huffington Post

Just as a Michelin star can only be achieved by delivering thrilling plates of food every single time - in a way that follows but enriches the style of a restaurant - achieving strategic excellence demands the injection of a consistent and compelling brand identity with constant freshness and surprise.

In this way, one of the campaigns I’m proudest of at Karmarama is our Live Smooth work for Cobra. Here, we addressed the business challenge of Cobra being seen as “just a curry beer” by elevating a rational product truth, that Cobra’s is less fizzy than other lagers, to an emotional level with the strategic idea of “an impossibly smooth beer for impossibly smooth living.”

With this consistent thought, we then set out on a continuous campaign of surprise and delight - from launching the Cobra Diversification Division on social media to blockbuster TV & Cinema featuring The Boss, who runs Cobra by day and BraCo by night, to the design and launch of the Smooth Pour glass, which creates a whirlpool effect as it fills, forming the perfect head and creating in bar theatre. The result: the fastest growing world beer in the top 5 and more Cobra sold outside Indian restaurants than in for the first time ever.

2. Beautiful Simplicity

“Simplicity doesn't mean boring or easy, it's the concept of respecting the ingredients and presenting them at their best. My dishes look simple, but there's a lot of work behind them."

Niko Romito, Reale Restaurant, three Michelin stars

The best thinking, like the best cooking, is highly skilled but deceptively simple. And for good reason. If it’s complicated, it’s not just probably wrong, it’s unlikely to inspire a team, or business, to follow it.

Within simplicity, however, great chefs and great planners also relish complexity. In much the same way as memorable meals mix contrasting and complimentary flavours and textures, striking strategies tend to be stuffed with rich tension. IKEA’s “wonderful everyday” being a lovely current example, which elegantly expresses its philosophy of astounding design at affordable prices.

The importance of good planners to be good storytellers is summed up for me by a conversation I had with an account handler some years ago:

“I love working with planners,” she told me. “Good planners can take a plate of spaghetti and turn it into a tube map."

"This one planner I work with, though," she continued, "he's not so good. He'll take your plate of spaghetti… and cover it in fucking bolognese."

3. Art X Science

“Cooking is an art... Science informs us and lets us cook while knowing what we are doing, but it is not a replacement for the skills of a chef... Each bit of scientific insight greatly increases the efficiency of the experiments, however. And when people understand the science, that actually gets the creative juices going and gives them more freedom.”

Nathan Myhrvold, author of Modernist Cuisine and former Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft

Like cooking, marketing is an art form that’s beginning to embrace science to move forward. And, as anyone who’s been lucky enough to get a table at The Fat Duck knows, if you can make like Heston and combine creative flair with scientific know-how then the results can be spectacular.

And therein lies the trick for me: not to think of art Vs science, but art X science. After all, at its highest level, science is a supremely creative pursuit. As Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Likewise, as an industry, we must hold our imagination highest, but embrace the opportunities for information to enrich and empower it. And if you’re interested in that you’ll enjoy the IPA Excellence Diploma paper I wrote, which you can also find in this rather fine book.

In the same way, if you want to be a Michelin-starred strategist, you can’t afford to define yourself as “intuitive” or “analytical.” You must be both - switching seamlessly between the two and multiplying them. Yours must be the spark that ignites the creatives and enthrals the client and the rigour that justifies, evaluates and guides the next step. It’s also your job to link the two, revealing creative opportunities through data - such as the opportunity we spotted at Karmarama to produce 100 different YouTube pre-rolls for each of 6 Music’s 100 Greatest Hits, targeting each band’s fans with a tailored ad. The result: the highest click through rate ever measured by the media agency at that time.

Innovations in cooking also provide glimpses of the future of marketing, as the potential of AI in creative fields is revealed not as Artificial but Augmented Intelligence. The case in point being Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: a revolutionary cookbook, resulting from a collaboration between IBM’s AI Engine, Watson, and the Institute for Culinary Education. Here, Watson analysed the chemical compounds behind flavour combinations and ICE used the unexpected connections to break fresh creative ground.

4. Professional piracy

“The life of the cook was a life of adventure, looting, pillaging and rock-and-rolling through life with a carefree disregard for all conventional morality. It looked pretty damn good to me on the other side of the line.”

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

I won’t lie to you. I got into advertising because it looked like fun. And I’ve stayed in it because it is. Perhaps not as fun as it’s rumoured to have been in the eighties, and - hey - I’ve got two kids now, but nonetheless it’s been a non-stop source of adventure.

And, whenever people ask me what I’m looking for in my career, that’s what I tell them: adventure. It’s the thing that’s taken me to different agencies, led me to start a social enterprise beer brand alongside my day job and given me the confidence to lead clients to bold courses of action. After all, there’s no growth without change and no change without risk - so it’s only by being informed, experienced and ambitious enough to set off on personal and professional adventures that brands, businesses and people can truly grow.

As such, I believe it’s a planner’s responsibility to identify the most daring destination possible, plot a safe course and inspire everyone to get moving. Along the journey, we must be doers as well as thinkers - capable of having ideas and making them happen.

No strategist is an island, however. Everything I’ve ever achieved has been thanks to the talents of the teams around me – be they agency-side, client-side or beer-side. As Atul Kochhar, head chef at Benares, one Michelin star, says: “Teams are everything at star level. Lose precious staff and it will tell.”

In this way, whilst every good planner has good ideas, the mark of a great planner is the ability to recognise and nurture great ideas in others. A few years ago, the Karmarama planning department was lucky enough to have a course in “Radical Planning” from Jon Leach, former head of strategy at HHCL. Jon was the planner behind the AA’s Forth Emergency Service – widely recognised as one of the greatest “planning ideas” ever. Yet he was humble enough to admit he’d put a different brief in, only to be blown away by a creative’s leftfield suggestion. As Jon told us, “Your job isn’t always to come up with the strategy. It’s to make sure there is a strategy.”

5. Leading service

“It’s really important that the service at the Clove Club is relaxed and informal, but… that staff are knowledgeable, that service is on point and everything is as good as it can be… We put pride into and take a lot of care for every single element of the guest experience… Good service is adaptive service, ensuring what’s right for each customer.”

Johnny Smith, The Clove Club, one Michelin star

Agencies, like restaurants, are service businesses – and the relationship they have with their customers underpins their success. A huge part of that is the quality of the food, but it’s the quality of the experience that really matters. How does it feel to walk through the doors and spend time with the people there? What will you remember, and talk about, after you’ve gone?

Likewise for planners: being right is important, but it isn’t everything. You need to be right in the right way. You must to win the emotional side of a pitch, as well as the rational one. Otherwise, no matter how much effort you put in, you may find that what you’ve prepared doesn’t go down as well as you’d hoped.

You see, Michelin-starred strategy isn’t just in the cooking, it’s in the serving. It’s about combining the competence and creativity of a chef, with a Maitre D’s ability to anticipate and understand what each individual customer wants and needs - and present it to them in style. Without necessarily being asked for it.

Achieving this takes time, effort and enthusiasm. You need to build relationships, get under the skin of a brand and business and develop a point of view strong enough that you can spot things from the outside they might not yet realise from within – so you can serve up something that surprises and delights, whilst providing nourishment and growth.

Of course, restaurants and agencies differ in that it’s not all one-way traffic. The best relationships are highly collaborative – and many of our best ideas are cooked up as client-agency teams, not served up on a plate. For agencies and restaurants alike, however, one golden rule still applies: if something’s not up to scratch, it should never leave the kitchen.

Summary: cooking with love provides food for the soul

“There is nothing more exhilarating and satisfying than seeing the magic happen, and then trying to make it even more magical the next day.”

Daniel Humm, Eleven Madison Park, three Michelin stars

And so we come to the end of this serving of Michelin-starred strategy. Along the way, I hope you’ve found as much inspiration as I have in the world of professional chefs – and agree that if we can combine Consistent Surprise, Beautiful Simplicity, Art X Science, Professional Piracy and Leading Service then we might just have a recipe for show-stopping strategy.

For the Michelin-starred strategist and the Michelin-starred chef, however, the quest for perfection never ends. As Yoshizazu Ono, chef at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the Three Michelin-starred sushi restaurant says: “Always look ahead and above yourself. Always try to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft.”

The last word, however, I will leave to his 90-year-old father and mentor, Jiro, for whom passion and mastery are inseparably intertwined. “Once you decide on your occupation... you have to fall in love with your work.”

Planning Director at Karmarama & Co. Founder of Two Fingers Brewing Co.

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