As the WARC Awards for Asian Strategy enter a second decade, Gabey Goh, WARC’s Asia Editor, looks ahead and wonders how the strategic discipline will be shaped by new thinking and talent.
Jeroen De Flander, the author and expert on strategy execution, once said, “You cannot be everything to everyone. If you decide to go north, you cannot go south at the same time.”
But if you were to poll the strategist community, I’m willing to bet that it currently feels like the discipline has become everything to everyone, and is trying to move in four directions at once.
On the plus side, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many agency strategists now have a closer relationship with their clients, as the rapid development of the public health crisis underscored the need to solve significant new challenges. For some, this has resulted in a feeling of greater understanding and respect for the discipline and what it can offer.
But while strategy continues to grow in importance to marketing, the fact remains that agency strategists are being asked to do more with less, and with have room to breathe (and, indeed, think).
Agencies are not capturing the value of strategy
A consistent theme of WARC’s Future of Strategy research over recent years has been a sense that agency structures do not properly capture the value of strategy – too often, it is effectively thrown in for free.
This is arguably the strategic discipline’s greatest, and longest-running, obstacle: It's hard to advocate for more resources when it's difficult to directly attribute your contribution to outcomes in the way a tactical, performance-driven campaign does.
And because of this ambiguity, it’s probably no surprise that many practitioners do not see themselves remaining at traditional shops for the long term. Indeed, only a third of APAC strategists expect their next role to be at an agency, whereas many are seeing brighter paths working for brands and consultancies.
What is strategy … really?
Part of the difficulty in accurately capturing strategy’s value lies in there not being a widely accepted classification of what “strategy” means within the context of the marketing function and the services provided by agencies. Equally, I’m convinced that if you were to ask five agency strategists, “What is strategy?”, you’d walk away with five wildly different answers.
This isn’t a profession where you attend a university for four years and emerge with a bachelor’s degree in marketing strategy, credentialled up and ready to go. This is a discipline that finds its practitioners from all walks of life, and from all corners of the agency structure.
Some strategists appear born for the role; others were previously suits who liked insights and research work; others were analysts, academics or researchers that wanted to be closer to the action; and a few probably transferred in, discovered they liked the work, and simply never left.
Despite evidence that clients need strategic help more than ever, though, many strategy departments in agencies across the globe have seen cuts in budgets and headcounts, while freelancers have lost clients. With cutbacks threatening younger talent and the push for greater diversity, this is a hard pill for strategists in Asia to swallow, given how far the region has come.
WARC has been tracking this progression via our annual WARC Awards for Asian Strategy, first launched in 2011 (and, until this year, known as the WARC Prize for Asian Strategy) to showcase Asia’s smartest strategic thinking. To date, it remains the only awards scheme in the region dedicated to celebrating the crucial role that agency strategists play in moving the marketing needle.
Former jury member Frank Reitgassl, currently group head of brand strategy and development at Zurich Insurance, recalled strategy still being in its infancy when he first moved to Asia more than a decade ago:
The role of planning was often reduced to research and the ‘unearthing’ of consumer insights as inspiration for eccentric ECDs and their hard-working bees. Strategy award papers were often flimsy, post-rationalised stories about small campaigns (e.g. numerous launches of new limited-edition burgers by fast-food chains, etc.) that often didn’t stand the test on the global stage. And Asian offices of international agencies were looked at as offices that ‘just don’t do the same quality of work as their US or European equivalents.’
But much has changed since then: Today, the pool of talent from Asia runs much deeper, is more diverse and, more often than before, you’ll see Asia-based offices driving global strategy.
Last year’s WARC Awards for Asian Strategy served as a celebration of this hard-fought journey. And, this year, in tandem with its new name, it seemed fitting that the focus turns toward what’s next.
As such, this year’s Awards aim to celebrate strategy as a marketing discipline and career, looking ahead to how the next ten years will be shaped by new thinking and talent.
Where does the future of strategy lie?
While we wait to see what this year’s slate of entries will bring, we’ll also be asking young agency strategists across Asia to share their take on what they see as strategy’s future. This next generation of enquiring minds, after all, will soon bear the mantle of articulating not what strategy is, but rather, what it can – and should – be.
Covering 15 markets, this weekly content programme will showcase the breadth of talent the region has to offer. And the WARC Awards for Asian Strategy will, as always, shine the spotlight on the brilliant work that emerged during the past year.
We humbly invite you to join us for the ride.
How to enter the WARC Awards for Asian Strategy
The WARC Awards for Asian Strategy are now open for entries. The deadline for submission is 14th July, 2021.
Now in their 11th year, the Awards aim to showcase the region’s best strategic thinking with a view to inspire the next generation of strategists.
Entry is free. For more info on how to submit your work, visit the Awards website.