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Think like a CSO (with Stuart Bowden)

Stuart Bowden is the Global CSO at MEC and a man of vision; a vision shaped by an eclectic career across media and ad agencies, a period at BT and latterly very senior management jobs at MEC. Anyone showing up to Mintel on Thursday afternoon hoping for a cosy doze through some CSO trade secrets was in for a snaphot of Strategy Armageddon. The levels of change we are confronting in our industry are now so familiar it’s tempting to glance at them out of the corner of your eye whilst forging on as usual. Because that’s the easy way.

Confronting the age of the algorithm and the robot, the onward march of agency-guzzling accountancy firms, attention scarcity, the impact of ad blocking and the death of the strategist not 100% secure on the resource plan is painful. And we took that pain for 90 minutes, alleviated though it was by Stuart’s razor sharp wit and and some profoundly useful prescriptions for doing something about it.

After all that’s we need as strategists: A plan.

He started comfortingly enough on the subject of career development. You get your next good job by networking. You should always go and work with a great person; never be seduced by the cool brand; be focused on the work you do as that is your calling card, and make sure you are spending your time with your clients otherwise you are just an overhead. Boom.

There are changes in client companies, including troubles with over-complex agency rosters. There are CMOs who are no longer able to claim they represent the consumer at Board level unless they have the skills properly to understand and effect digital transformation, and this means that the strategist as trusted advisor to the client is in decline. And if you find yourself in a more invidious relationship with your clients, one way to claw back your status is to remember that for a lot of clients are buying a ‘lost version of themselves’ (lovely phrase, that) so it’s up to you as strategist to fuel yourself with passion and curiosity to give value to those clients.

So what of the march of tech and the accountancy firms? Stuart reminded us that as human beings we tend to overestimate the impact of change in the short term and underestimate it in the long term and interestingly enough, we can't see societal change in the same ways as we see technical change so we can see that none of us have the right to our jobs any more. Data driven strategy will end up replacing most of us and how we engage with it is up to us. And if you are not essential on a client or part of the future, you will be fired. He believes that the take over of Karmarama by Accenture has been a long time coming.

Consultants and ad agencies of all kinds will be disrupted by tech and the core question we have to ask ourselves is what is our relationship with data? We have to grasp the nettle and be prepared to keep moving to stay afloat.

And now onto the strategic problem about robots. The major issue we face as strategists is how to distribute the ‘stuff’ we create and and get people to engage with it. It’s easy for strategy to be like art that is never seen. Unless you engage with the whole consumer journey, end to end, you won’t have any impact on the success of your ideas and campaigns because it is all about how your stuff is going to be consumed.

Which brings us neatly to attention deficit. There is a scarcity of attention at an aggregate level and attention is everything. Ad recall is in long-term decline, advertising is less remembered. The days of being able to buy a fixed amount of attention are long gone and although some brands (John Lewis springs to mind) are doing brilliantly, the majority are getting relatively nowhere.

The role of advertising in the business model is of course changing fundamentally as well. Netflix and Amazon are finally nailing the subscription model with the Crown and the Grand Trek. Ad blocking can only increase, and in the US 80% of net new digital spend now goes through either Google or Facebook (and the rate of growth of Facebook is massive). Algorithmically derived platforms make customer contact that much harder and strategists need to understand exactly how these platforms work and how to help clients increase the value they get from them in a precise way.

So faced with all this data, what do we do with it? At MEC they are putting competing data sets into the customer journey and setting up their clients’ problems in a systematic and comprehensible way, much as BCG and Accenture do. And in a sense agency strategists and consultants are both practising a form of management consultancy.

And as strategists we need to face the fact that zero based budgeting is on the way and your TV ad strategy is going to be competing for investment against digital transformation projects.

And so as we contemplate this challenging and frightening future what is the prescription for the smart strategist? Stuart is convinced that it’s all about picking up the full armoury of business skills and being ambitious to do the top jobs running businesses. You need to be brave enough to be the boss.

And how can we help? Well, the APG is here to provide you with brilliant networking opportunities, to help open your ideas to the future and to train you in the skills you are going to need to survive. In 2017 we will be introducing a brand new strategy course for the C21st based on depth interviews with 30 of the top strategists of today. We’ve identified the skills you are going to need and we’re creating a world-class programme to teach them. 2017 is the year you can get on the front foot.

So massive thanks to Stuart for furnishing our nightmares as well as giving us a way through, and Christmas cheer to you all.

See you in January for a year of Transformational Thinking.

Sarah Newman

APG Director

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