The weaknesses of creative strategy have been exposed during the pandemic, argues Dentsu X’s Phillip Dyte; who should now be taking the strategic lead?

“If I hear 'the new normal' one more time I am going to scream”. 

So I posted, perhaps uncharitably, after reading one too many hot takes on COVID-19’s impact on marketing in general and strategy in particular. The consensus on these effects has been… dispiriting to witness, mostly because it feels like a lot of clever adland people studiously avoiding uncomfortable topics.

There’s one turn of phrase that I think has especially been used in this way. The pandemic, for the most part, has not ‘accelerated trends’ so much as it has exposed weakness. And boy, are ad agencies currently sitting on a whole lot of weakness.

The Future of Strategy 2020

This article is a response to 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

Look: ad agency strategists have classically been regarded as the ‘top’ strategists, the apex of the unwritten agency hierarchy. It’s a pretty sweet deal. Industry conversations on agencies’ strategic methods or output are overwhelmingly led by, and de facto about, their role, their opinions, and how they see the world. Panels and so on might have the occasional media or digital or specialist agency person, as a kindness, but ad strategists set the pace.

The problem is that this makes no sense.

The industry has grown and diversified massively, with classic ad agency work an ever-decreasing part of the relative whole. Important, of course – brief writing for example is a material skill – but there should be no automatic licence for their particular opinions or situations to be taken as the opinion or situation of the industry at large. The world is bigger now.

Yet the more things change, the more people insist that things must stay the same. Their brand of strategy is more important than ever, we are told. I saw, in fact, a recent opinion that said we should all just ‘recommit’ to creativity and problem-solving, as though business were ever simply a matter of how hard you try.

I don’t remember the texture of the conversation ever being quite so noisily assertive. The last few years has seen a distinct uptick in pointless contrarianism. This feels like denial. There is a desperate desire for things to be ‘simple’ – how often do you hear, “it’s very simple…”?

This is not the language of the confidently secure. This is playing around. This is bluster increasing as the gap between what ad agencies can do, and what clients require, increases. As NYU Stern School professor Scott Galloway mused in a recent webinar, “no self-respecting exec has listened to anything an ad agency has had to say for the best part of 15 years”. I think, deep down, people know this.

Yet the response has been one of superficial, ineffectual answers. Proprietary frameworks. Novelty titles. Special pleading. Secret sauce. Things that clearly don’t have a good response to the question, so try to reframe the question into something else. Perhaps agencies prize strategists who talk like this because they think that’s what strategy should sound like.

Well, clients are smarter than that. Clients are smarter than they have ever been. They increasingly come from skilled backgrounds. They see that creative, ad agency-style strategy has been deskilled – not true insight, but borrowed stats; not true qual, but basic desk research; not true understanding, but blank aphorism – even as the work becomes more skills-based. They see that it often doesn’t care to understand, for instance, the digital aspects so crucial to the modern bottom line. They see that it has become narrower, or at best stayed the same size, even as everything else explodes outward.

They are probably wondering what they are paying for.

The good news is that there is, of course, opportunity. All strategy will ever be is a process. All it really does is synthesise information. So you need a really good, skilled approach to the process, and you need access to lots of quality information. 

You know who has an abundance of hard skills and sits on lots of quality information? Media agencies. They will also, probably, charge the client less for it. Really, it should be easy for them to step in and take the throne – to put themselves into that ‘top’ strategy position.

But media is a functional and commercial place, and levels a rightfully judicious scepticism at things that don’t produce immediate obvious value. Clients also still want their ad agencies to be the principal source of strategy, too, because ad agencies are, you know, supposed to own the idea and all the elemental matter that flows from it.

The solution – ad agency breadth, style and originality with media agency skill, technique and zeal – sits all too obviously in the middle. It feels trite even to spell it out. The alternative is the continued erosion of value for the entire practice of strategy.

But, so far, nobody has managed to build it. Media agencies are quick with the axe, and tend to settle for ‘good enough’. Ad agencies find, to their surprise, that hiring comms planner types into impatient environments that mostly favour whoever is currently shouting the loudest doesn’t tend to pan out. 

So there’s an open question: who can get there first? 

Can media agencies learn to live with purists, creating space and opportunity for conceptual work that isn’t always designed for immediate brass-tacks buying? Or will ad agencies stop protesting change and invest in neglected skills and perspectives whilst retaining the connection to the written brief? Will clients trust either of these?

One thing does feel true: so long as the industry fails to provide clients with good strategy, fit for purpose in the world as it is now, that throne will stay empty.

And the thing about empty thrones is that, sooner or later, someone else will come to claim it.