Strategists must not let a crisis knock their confidence in the discipline, says Tom Roach.

COVID is taking a huge toll on our industry. What’s happening right now is hurting us badly. At its worst it can feel like we’re witnessing a fatal acceleration in advertising’s previously slow decline.

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.

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But this storm will pass. Our industry will spring back to life, re-shape and re-invent itself, and continue to play its hugely valuable and unique role in our clients’ businesses: using imagination and creativity to solve commercial problems and drive growth.

And strategy must place itself at the heart of that re-emergence. We mustn’t let what’s happening out there knock our confidence as a discipline or as individuals. Never before in strategy’s 55 year history have we been so involved in helping our clients make such critical commercial decisions as we are right now. And perhaps never again will we have such an opportunity to evolve what great strategy can truly be and unleash its full power. And if we do that, strategy will be in even better shape to help the whole industry emerge faster, stronger, better.

Throughout lockdown, strategists everywhere played such an important role for so many brands. Our clients rightly turned to us as their natural partners in helping them respond to the deep and pressing issues they were facing. We’ve never had more immediate access to our clients and the most critical issues their businesses have ever faced. We’ve been in the trenches helping find creative solutions to those problems and have been getting down to doing what we do best – asking questions, re-framing problems, figuring out how creativity can solve them, and working closely with creative people to come up with solutions.

And the ways we’ve been working – faster, more flexible, more instinctive, more democratic, less formal, less process-oriented – should point the way to how things should work when we’re finally out of this.

Don’t get me wrong – advertising hasn’t totally covered itself in glory during all this. We haven’t seen the incredible outpouring of breakthrough creativity in response to this crisis that we might have hoped for. Strategy as a discipline should have proved more capable of holding back the sea of sameness and standing up more resolutely for the need for difference. But the resulting sameness has been so plain to see, that post-crisis I’m optimistic it will give us all a renewed sense of the importance of fighting for creative solutions that are truly different from what other brands are doing under whatever circumstances.

Coming out of this, many of us will by necessity have to embrace far more flexible ways of working, including new types of agency models and collectives. This should be ok for many of us – strategists have always tended to be a little less motivated by navigating traditional agency hierarchies and organisational structures, and a little more open to looser ways of collaborating with like-minded souls. This period will certainly accelerate the treatment of people by the networks as armies of people to be mobilised and demobilised in rapid response to changing client needs. Whilst this may be good for business, it won’t necessarily be good for people. But this is also a world where the toughest problems will travel anywhere in the world to be solved by the best minds, wherever they are. That’s quite an exciting opportunity for both strategists and clients to take advantage of.

This crisis is also forcing many of us to relearn what our industry has had to keep relearning for over a hundred years now – that we need to run at the future and adopt with intelligence and curiosity new kinds of solutions to new kinds of problems. Strategists need to cast off rigid notions of what is or isn’t ‘strategy’, of who is or isn’t a ‘planner’ – which can make us close-minded to new disciplines and opportunities.

Once the dust has settled, many more creative agencies will start offering Customer Experience as a service, for example. Rather than being an alternative to strategy, we need to see this is a huge opportunity for us – our central role at the heart of all kinds of brand, marketing and communications challenges means we’re well placed to help our clients figure out how CX can best fit into the marketer’s ever-expanding toolkit, how brand and CX can best work together, what great creativity looks like here, and what commercial value this newish discipline brings.

And from now on marketing budgets are going to be under immense scrutiny. So strategists will be even more valuable – we’re uniquely able to help our clients make the commercial case for creativity, help shape more effective creative solutions where every $ works as hard as it possibly can, and help prove the value they’ve delivered. That’s a hugely valuable and attractive combination of skills.

Fundamentally there can be no greater business problem than ‘how will this business survive and thrive?’. And for many marketers, calling on strategy to help answer it became their best first move in the crisis.

In our clients’ existential crises lies strategy’s existential opportunity. So let’s recommit to what strategy is and should be. Let’s recommit to using our imaginations, our creative problem-solving skills and our commercial acumen, like never before.

So that strategy can not only emerge stronger and fitter for purpose than ever, but can also play a powerful role in leading this industry into the future.