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As everything evolves, Strategists must save the world – by not changing

How the world changed in ten years

I came to London from India in the summer of 2006. I remember being in large ‘integrated’ campaign meetings – rooms full of people from across multiple agencies. There were only two Planners in the room: me, and the media planner.

Fast forward to 2017. Marketing communications has changed beyond recognition. There has never been greater fragmentation. There has never been greater confusion. Advertising has never been liked less. It feels like a virtual Armageddon, with the value and relevance of agencies in landslide. Where has that left Planners? In a recent multi-agency meeting I counted half a dozen Planners in the room - each one a specialist in his/ her ‘prefix’- ‘Social’, ‘Digital’, ‘Content’, ‘Data’, and ‘CRM’.

It got me wondering if Planners are just becoming salespeople for the specific product their agency sells, rather than architects who solve business and brand problems. What are we doing, as an industry, to make sure that even as our world continues to experience fragmentation, strategists can think and execute strategically? Isn’t this more important now than ever before?

Hate something, change something?

With the APG, I talked to 25 of the leading CSOs of London, across agency types, to find out which skills they thought strategists were going to need to survive the next 10 years. The APG also conducted a skills survey amongst the strategy community and got over 300 responses. (We reckon this is the first such research and survey of its kind, probably anywhere in the world.)

We heard, across the board, that there is frustration – whether we talk to the diehard ‘traditional’ agency leaders or the latest and the best ‘digital’ ones. There is an increasing perception of a stark polarity between two different views on how communications should work. Each party accuses the other of being obsessed with their side of the argument, at the expense of the other. The Byron Sharp camp decries short-termism. The Data/ Technology corner pooh-poohs theories that are essentially about making films. Culture versus Collateral. ‘Creativity’ is going to have to fight it out against ‘data & tech’, and so on.

But we also carefully calibrated the skills that all levels and types of planners value, and found some incredible consistency.

The top rated skills required for Planning are universal

1. Understanding people (at 9.5, this was the top-rated skill.)

Even the die-hard tech and data experts said, overwhelmingly, that it was crucial to understand people holistically and be the experts at what motivates them– and not just how they behave online.

2. Understanding effectiveness (9.4)

How is the idea supposed to work, and how is it supposed to get the client their predetermined return? The business end of things was felt to be critical.

3. The ability to define a problem (9.3)

Ah the grey cells – between the two ends – people at one end, and business at the other. The ability to define what that problem was (and therefore define the solution is critical.

(And the least rated skill was ‘coding’. For what it’s worth).

So what does this mean for the APG and for strategists as a community?

We are failing to understand people at a time when we need to know them better than ever

‘Understanding people’ is our gold bullion, and it’s what prevents business consultants from taking over, en masse. It’s the soft, touchy-feely, incredibly important thing that makes marketing different. Our ability to link this understanding to commercial return is our specialty. Planners are probably rating this skills higher than any other – not just because we’re good at it, but also because we’ve stopped being good at it. Brands are failing to understand people, at a time when understanding them was more important than ever. We all need to come together to the rescue.

Giving specialist titles to Planners could be just a way of justifying their existence

They might not be uber cool but the core strategic skills are universal: People. Effectiveness. Defining problems. So what’s with the specialist titles? Clients need planners for a digital world, rather than digital planners. So no matter what their title or specialty, Strategists need to hold a firm grip on the fundamentals.

Some parts of Strategy can’t really be taught – but we mustn’t lose the skill set

You can teach Effectiveness – and you could train someone into developing an acute understanding of business and how communications works. But how do you teach someone how to truly understand people? How do you teach someone to ‘define a problem’ – which is to identify that crucial thing in the middle that will create or change a relationship between brands and people, in a profitable way? The core skills seem to be cerebral rather than technical – and while this is reassuring, this is also scary. If one generation skips learning and applying these skills, they may be gone.

The old with the new, not versus the new.

Strategists need to stop living in an ‘either/or’ culture – they need to imbibe what is timeless, BUT also embrace new ways of applying those principles. Arguing that the fundamentals are changing is immature, but not being excited about new ways to build and grow brands is regressive.

The Grand Strategist, not just the ad tweaker

Increasingly, a planner’s/ strategist’s ability to talk about upstream strategy and business problems with clients is under threat. As specialisms grow, planners are being pushed further downstream and becoming more specialised. This, however, comes at a cost. Clients are picking up the phone less and less to chat with the senior Planner. If that bastion falls, someone else will take that place.

Orchestrating, rather than playing solo

A good strategist needs to acquire skills that orchestrating a team of thinkers with varied skills to get to the right answers. Be prepared to work with a data planner who thinks ‘brand’ is a dirty word! (and vice versa…)

So go on dear Strategist, be brilliant at the deeply essential

Strategy is the imaginative understanding of cause and effect. We have learned that strategists must have a deep understanding of people, be able to identify the root cause of a problem, and create a strategy that has a predetermined commercial effect.

That is how we will be able to bridge the divide, stop fighting amongst ourselves, and help clients feel confident and reassured rather than confused and bewildered. No matter how advanced the world of marketing gets with technology, our calling, more than ever, is to be brilliant at the strategic fundamentals, and apply them to the new and shiny, rather than get distracted by it

We could, of course, be totally wrong.

Shekhar Deshpande

Global Planning Director, J Walter Thompson

(The full list of interviewees and skills is available here)

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