COVID-19 has had a significant impact on headcounts in strategy teams, with nearly a quarter of WARC respondents reporting their strategy teams have decreased in size as a result of the virus. Unfortunately, the most significantly impacted are junior strategists (41%). This means there will be fewer opportunities, less training, and less cognitive diversity, making our industry even less of an option for new perspectives – especially those from non-white backgrounds who already experience a high barrier to entry.

The Future of Strategy 2020

This article is part of WARC's The Future of Strategy report, which is based on a global survey of senior strategists and in 2020 focuses on the impact of COVID-19 on strategy.

Read the full report

Introduction: Culture and community

The playing field is about to get a lot more crowded and in order to compete, strategists will need to not only show their past successes, but also show how they contribute to a company's bottom-line. As agencies scramble to reimagine themselves in this ever-changing environment, the ones that will be the most successful will not simply respond to changing consumers trends, instead they will focus on building their cultural credibility. As a result, strategists will need to create a new playbook for brand building with community at the heart.   

Understand consumer behaviour: A new skillset

Today, a brand’s community-driven attributes and its perceived authenticity are a key point of desirability in driving consumer choice. Strategists are on the frontline of deciphering these codes of behaviour. Understanding a brand's role in the context of COVID, #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #WhiteFragility and #ClimateChange, along with the changing landscape of distribution channels, 5G connectivity, the rise of paid communities and the growing influence of influencers with the power to shape narratives and cancel empires is essential to building cultural credibility that will drive sales. Navigating this context will be an even more important skill for future strategists.

Beyond advertising: Scale vs. Traction

While agencies are great at servicing enterprise organisations measured by reach and scale, growth in modern brands are measured by traction and contribution to communities. In order to service these communities brands will need to experiment with intention in order to understand which products and services to build. An experimental mindset will be important for strategists as they will need to learn to collaborate with more than just creative directors. They will need to align with product specialists to define growth targets, designers need to implement community feedback, editors need to craft thought pieces and analysts to optimise feedback. Companies like Bumble, Whereby, and Monzo are good examples of this. A combination of precision marketing and brand building elevates the role of a strategist beyond storytelling to one of growth giving them a bigger voice at the management table.

Conclusion: Strategists solve problems

A good strategist solves problems regardless of their specialism. As an industry we need to up-skill ourselves to stay relevant and mentor and support junior strategists who wish to remain in the industry. For current strategists looking to supplement traditional learning, forming collectives of diverse perspectives leads to more impactful work. Strategists are already forming collectives online: Sweathead, 4A's Strat Fest, and the Account Planning Facebook group have become important spheres of learning best practices, recruitment and building solidarity.

Future strategists, will need to understand the dynamics of community building, precision and perception marketing and collaborative partnerships.  While this may sound like a lot, there are more resources and programs than ever before to help develop these skills: Group Think Fest 2020, Julian Cole's Planning Dirty, Brixton Finishing School, and D&AD Shift amongst others.

If we can't up-skill and/or retain brilliant minds we risk losing them to other industries like tech companies, consultancies and media entities. If the future of planning is about cultural credibility and community building, there is no industry not touched by this in today's context. Many industries need strategists, they just don’t call it that. Entertainment companies need help deciding how to launch, which brands to feature in their films, and which types of shows will appeal to their audiences. They need a strategist. Non-Profits want to make their issues heard but don’t know how to connect with consumers.  They need a strategist. Scale-ups and start-ups are great at building products but are not adept at finding audiences to distribute their ideas. They all need strategists. So, while the opportunities in advertising may be limited in the short-term, don’t fear. There is a whole world of problems out there that need solving.