WPP’s Katie Rigg-Smith tells WARC Asia Editor Rica Facundo about how strategists can break away from stagnant strategy to unlock ideas that moves the work forward.

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

WARC: How would you define “stagnant strategy”? Why do you think this has been exacerbated in recent years? 

Katie Rigg-Smith: Strategy becomes stagnant when we stop looking at the challenge and the audience with fresh perspectives and we believe that we know everything about the client or category. 

There could be a correlation between stagnant strategy and the need to stay safe, which could be the reason why it has been exacerbated in recent years. Has the world and have clients become a little bit more risk averse? There could be an overall feeling of stagnation because there’s not as much growth in general. We’re dealing with clients who know that growth will come next but right now, they would like to just hold the court. 

You mentioned external factors that could cause stagnant strategy. Any internal factors that might have contributed to this problem? 

The shift towards remote working has most likely influenced this. During the pandemic, Australians weren’t allowed to leave the house, so there were strategists growing up in a time where they didn’t have that diversity of people around them to chat with. This is definitely an output of the times. Now that we’re getting back together, it’s becoming easier to be inspired by those around you and to be trained by classically trained strategists. 

What is the opposite of stagnant strategy or what should we be striving towards instead? 

I don’t think this is the opposite of stagnant strategy but another way of looking at the solution is about building momentum. It’s not necessarily about being brave and bold but about how to take the brand or business forward and create momentum. 

This type of strategy is about unlocking different types of thinking, opportunities for growth and different business revenue.

Strategists love a framework but in what ways do you think strategists have used this as a crutch? When should we follow the framework versus break away from it?

We have to keep in mind that strategists have to grapple with an overwhelming amount of information at their fingertips. Frameworks can really help synthesise and organise the information in a way that will help build an argument or find the solution. It can also help everyone else around the business understand how the strategy needs to be applied. The framework is also there to help you find holes. For example, I have all this information but I haven’t figured out how it fits into the proposition and how that speaks to the target audience. 

But frameworks are only as good as the thinking populating it. Brilliant strategists will use frameworks to a point that it serves them. And when it doesn’t serve them, then they throw caution to the wind and colour outside the lines. There is a lot more beauty in the mess and tensions, and when we’re not perfectly formulaic. We need to remind ourselves as strategists that the job is also about trusting our intuition and gut.

What do you think strategists should spend less or more time doing? 

Strategists need to spend more time observing and taking part in the world around us. For example, if you have a supermarket brief from an FMCG client, don’t just sit at your desk. Go to a supermarket and observe people’s behaviours. 

We need to do less sitting in front of a computer and expecting it to be inspiring us with an answer. Finding breakthrough solutions requires you to fill your brain with unexpected things that are not necessarily obvious. 

If we get a brief, the usual process is that we learn everything we can about that category or particular brand and then we hone in on it. But actually, it’s the things that have nothing to do with the category that will unlock breakthrough work. It’s what is happening along the fringes. 

Strategists need to have a really broad diet of content. The brain works in an amazing way that it will connect things that you don’t even realise it’s connecting. But strategists need to fill their brain with various content in order for that to happen. 

Aside from frameworks, is there any other tool or way of working that strategists need to lean into more? 

Information and behavioural data can help a strategist form an insight that can then be put into a framework. Every agency will also have their different models and frameworks. But I do believe that the key skill is about cultivating a deeper understanding of people and not just about data analysis.

Strategists definitely need the quantifiable data. You can’t recommend something to a client if you haven’t done the rigour around the numbers. But how do the numbers tell the story? How do you unpack a story about why the distribution is dropping by X amount? Or what's the opportunity for growth? Strategists need to be able to tell stories from the data that will help lead to a solution for the client.

My old strategy director used to say “it's more important to be interesting than right”. Do you agree and if so, why do you think this way of behaving matters? 

I agree that strategists should be both interested and interesting. 

However, I prefer to think of it less about being right or wrong and more about having a point of view. In strategy, there’s actually no hard and fast right way because there are different ways into a solution. As a strategist, you need to be able to see all different types of ways in, firm up those points of view and debate them with the client. It’s about how to unlock a really interesting discussion that becomes a springboard to lots of different perspectives and ways into the problem. 

This approach then takes the pressure off being right. It empowers strategists to go against the tide, be more provocative and have more fun without worrying about the right answer. This is what will help give strategists the fresh perspectives. 

Our survey found that strategists feel that while their clients are not encouraging brave work, their organisations are enabling them to. Any advice on how to navigate this process? 

Pitching braver work to clients mostly comes down to timing. It’s the ability to prime a client and pick the right moment to bring them the idea. Many of our clients do want to be innovative. But most briefs might be under really tight constraints. So bringing them a brave idea at that point in time might not be the right time. Or else the typical response goes something like: How am I going to get that in the market? How am I going to engage my stakeholders to get that across the line? 

We can mention that we want to do it in-brief but if we observe that the client is too risk averse and we don't have time to prime them and their stakeholders, then the job to be done is to bring it proactively to them outside of the brief when there’s no pressure on them to sign it off tomorrow. 

Any cultural barriers to note while navigating this process?  

In Australia, it's almost expected for agencies to push hard on their idea and have a discussion on the table about why it’s right or wrong or else they won’t buy into it themselves. 

But Australia has also become a very multicultural society. So you can't assume that everyone's going to have the same references or receive the ideas in the same way. You also have to remember that your main client is not the only stakeholder. They may have to sell the idea to someone headquartered in a different country. They would take the information differently. So how can you present the idea in a way that’s also culturally relevant to the stakeholder?