Work that is just ‘good enough’ has come to dominate marketing, which is why strategic bravery is needed more than ever, say Tomas Gonsorcik, Chief Strategy Officer, DDB North America and Elizabeth Paul, Chief Strategy Officer, The Martin Agency.

This opinion piece is part of WARC’s Future of Strategy 2023 report.

For the 2023 Future of Strategy report, the 4A’s included a question on strategic bravery to explore the gap between the brave intentions of the industry to be bold, creative and imaginative, and the constipated strategic actions that brands and agencies end up taking. 

We’ve seen the craterous decline in advertising effectiveness over the past decade. In an era where marketing is theoretically more accountable than ever before, it is simultaneously less creative and less impactful. And while a surfeit of research has laid a perfectly clear path – showing us how brands grow, why people buy and the value of creativity – very little of that validated truth makes its way from ‘principle’ (in decks) to ‘practice’ (in the marketplace) for the majority of brands. If we know that indistinct advertising doesn’t work, why is so much of it still being made?

Seeing brilliant work in the world makes us all love our industry, but as this year’s survey results show, getting to brilliant work is far from straightforward: globally, 70% of strategists say their companies encourage them to make brave strategic choices. In contrast, just 34% agree that clients encourage strategic bravery. Of that, only 8% of clients strongly encourage strategists to be brave.

Is the disconnect a difference of belief between marketers and their agency partners? An incongruency of pressures and competing priorities? Or something deeper? 

Essayist William Deresiewicz, when speaking on the leadership crisis in modern institutions, writes, “…for too long we have been training leaders who know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who thinks about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place.”

A possible interpretation of the dissonance so many in this industry experience between our credos and our campaigns is the difference between playing not to lose and pursuing the win. Are strategists just keeping the routine going vs reaching for the better outcome?

Perhaps we don’t lack knowledge on how to craft strategies and campaigns that succeed. Perhaps we need the courage of our convictions to see them to fruition – and the persuasive ability to lead our partners towards the singularity required to win. Perhaps it is time to reclaim strategic bravery for brands and those who build them.

So how might we, as strategists, resolve this lingering dissonance? 

  • Ask yourself – What do I believe about how brands grow? What research has most convinced you of how the brands you steward can win in the marketplace? In this low growth environment of economic uncertainty, do we need to imagine a better brand growth model?
  • Align with partners who share those beliefs – New business pitches should be a process of discovering ideologically aligned partners. Share your philosophy and ask prospective collaborators if they agree or are open to building a new perspective together. If it’s not a good fit, walk away.
  • Don’t lose sight of science – Protect what we know about how marketing works to set everyone up for a brave creative leap. Some of the best minds in business have spent decades studying what makes for effective work. That research is statistically significant and peer reviewed. Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his research on how humans make decisions. Yet there is a tendency to overrule and ignore that research in favor of what 16 people in a focus group or a few hundred people in a panel say instead. As an industry we’re trading deep wisdom for paper shields – and it shows.
  • Hold on to true north – The development of creative campaigns is a long process – and it’s easy to become disoriented in the middle. Shifting priorities, a desire for agility and responsiveness in the spirit of partnership and inevitable hurdles means too many teams reach the end of the process struggling to remember what they set out to accomplish. Strategy can set (and keep!) the team on course.
  • Define the win – If strategy is ‘an informed opinion on how to win,’ you have to define what winning looks like. A shocking number of briefs lack that basic clarity today. Are we stealing share? If so, from whom? What would it take to get to number 1 position in the category? Keeping the end in mind will help you navigate teams through the murky middle. Without an end in mind there can be no true strategy.

It is said that people do not change until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing. Perhaps we have finally arrived at that place. 2024 could be the time when we reclaim and stand firm on the science behind creativity. With this backbone, being brave means respecting marketing science, being imaginative means understanding the proven rules of growth and validating new ones, and being strategic means doing everything you possibly can to be distinct from the invisible middle. We know what it takes to win. What happens next is up to us.