WARC’s Future of Strategy survey found that working on upstream business problems is the biggest opportunity for strategists, and delivering upstream strategy is seen as the second most important skill, after understanding people. Oliver Feldwick, Head of Innovation at The&Partnership looks at the pros and cons of going upstream, and asks what’s wrong with enjoying the downstream?

Ever since I started working in strategy there’s been a needy desire to ‘go upstream’. Perhaps, in the past, account planners had the ear of the CEO, and with a whip of a pencil and a smart glance at some numbers come up with a business transforming insight that the straightlaced suits failed to notice.

And, being downstream, means being at the mercy of what happens ‘upstream’, leading to an inevitable sense of missing out or not being in control of our destiny.

However, as with all things, the grass isn’t necessarily greener further upstream. Upstream work requires new skillsets, brings new challenges, and yes, offers new opportunities. But to get there requires some strong paddling against the current.

What’s wrong with enjoying the downstream?

Before setting off on this arduous trip upstream, it’s worth asking, what are you not getting from ‘downstream’ activity?

The naming of ‘downstream’ and language around ‘executional’ or ‘tactical’ activity, makes us think less of it.

But in reality, downstream is where the rubber meets the road, it’s where a lot of the magic happens. If you reframe it that upstream decisions are simply laying the groundwork for the real work to happen, you may find yourself happier with life downstream.

Downstream has the most opportunity to blend consumer insight, creativity and business problems. This heady mix of streams coming together is often what makes comms and advertising so rewarding to work in. Done well, it’s fun and it works.

Applied strategy, downstream, is a complicated and critical skillset that comms agencies are often uniquely positioned to do. Upstream is crowded with many others – internal departments and consultancies working on multiple workstreams.

What is the appeal of going upstream?

Business decisions and processes tend to have a linear flow – decisions made at a board level are then ‘flowed through’ the organisation. By the time you get briefed on a brand or comms brief, it’s been through many decisions and nudges.

Upstream decisions can make a bigger impact. If you want to fundamentally change the flow or direction of thinking, by the time we get briefed at a comms level it can feel like it’s too late. Bigger, fundamental decisions upstream will often have bigger impact.

Upstream thinking can be also broader than advertising, comms or even marketing. Perhaps a business problem would be better solved with a new distribution strategy, or some product or service innovation, or that delivering on an ambition strategy requires some more fundamental organisational design decisions.

There is also a psychological appeal to moving upstream – it implies more important, more senior. Sometimes the desire to go upstream is born out of a sense of ego.

Any of these could be motivations for wanting to go upstream, but knowing what you want to achieve by going upstream and what makes you want to do it, can help you assess how to get there (and if you want to get there at all).

Getting ready for an expedition upstream

There are many organisational rapids and the nature of waterfall decisions means that if you want to travel upstream, starting downstream isn’t necessarily the best place to start.

Answering a downstream brief with an upstream answer often isn’t helpful. Usually this is happening out of sequence. You may find that getting out of the proverbial river and getting back in at a different spot works better.

Instead, if you want to go upstream, you’re going to need the right skillsets and engagement to paddle with.

  • Mixing the streams: Learn the other streams that converge upstream – logistics, supply chain, finance, product development – being naive to the realities of how a business operates can quickly relegate you back downstream
  • Learning to paddle differently: Develop new strategic disciplines and skillsets – organisational strategy, business strategy – while a lot of strategic skills are transferrable, and bringing a ‘downsteam’ mindset upstream can be useful, you can’t treat every problem with the same tools
  • Reading the rapids: Understand the dynamics of organisations and board level thinking – working into a marketing department is quite different than operating at the board level. You need to understand how decisions are made, budgets allocated and put a lot of work into getting alignment and agreement
  • Building a bigger boat: Evolving your business model and capabilities – as you move upstream, you might need to shift how your business makes money, perhaps needing different (or less) creative and design talent. Or if you want to go upstream while remaining downstream, you’re going to need a bigger team which will need hiring and developing

Often the motivation around ‘going upstream’ is to get more influence as a strategist. But there are other ways to achieve this. To torture the metaphor even further:

  • Go deeper: rather than going further up into general upstream strategy, becoming a deep specialist downstream can allow you to increase your impact and influence.
  • Make a splash: additionally, being prolific, noisy and visible with what you achieve can help raise awareness of downstream strategy.
  • Swim against the tide: being distinctive and contrarian can also help you stand out, whichever part of the strategic stream you’re operating in. Not for the sake of being difficult, but to raise awareness of things that are often taken for granted or overlooked
  • Tread water with style: sometimes we get lost in the struggle for more influence and recognition. But enjoying a discipline and doing it well is valuable and sustainable. Enjoying and making the most of the remit in front of you, rather than endlessly searching for elusive grounds

This is water

None of this is to put you off going upstream. But rather to look at the whole river, and properly understand what part of it you want to splash around in and what you want to get out of it. With the right mindset and skillset, the water’s lovely, wherever you go.