Strategy is a lot bigger than advertising, or even communications, argues Zeus Jones’ Adrian Ho. Strategic skills are fundamental to almost every aspect of business and should be allowed to stand on their own. This essay originally appeared in WARC’s Future of Strategy 2018 report.

The declining importance of advertising within the entire marketing mix is the major reason that agency margins are compressed. So no wonder we keep rehashing the debate over whether strategy is valuable – there’s a lot of pressure to cut something, somewhere.

But the good news is that strategic skills are essential to finding the answers to the all the newest, biggest problems facing the industry. And when you do it right, clients don’t just see the value of strategy; they realize that their whole business depends on it.

For example, let’s look at product or service development. The identification of new market opportunities often begins with segmentation and engagement or connection strategy. In other words, it’s a classic application of strategy – examining audiences – it’s just that we’re examining them to understand product and service consumption rather than media and content consumption.

Strategy tackles unmet needs

Cultural strategy also opens up a broad array of opportunities. Emerging unmet needs often first arise within fringe cultures, and strategy is the only way to discover those needs and understand which ones have broader audience potential and which will remain confined to the fringe.

Moving on to the development of product and service strategy, it’s clear that business strategy can inform a successful plan. A significant portion of product development now happens as a process of co-creation with consumers and influences, and, as such, is more informed by audience, consumer and cultural strategy than ever before.

And when these new products or services actually come to life, they require new internal operations, processes and teams to support them. It takes brand strategy, creative strategy and a deep understanding of behavior to align and inspire internal teams around a new purpose in order to unlock higher performance and productivity.

Skills are incresingly diverse

These aren’t isolated patterns; they play a role in almost every aspect of business. An increasingly diverse set of strategic skills, divorced from the output of advertising, is a clear need that’s currently unmet by existing stakeholders.

But the future of strategy – strategy done right – does exist today. Planners everywhere have gone 'upstream' into fundamental business and marketing problems. As they’ve dispersed, their skills have become more sophisticated and more tailored to these roles. Like every other discipline on the planet, strategy is progressing rapidly. It’s evolving and being shaped by new technology and new culture – changing every moment.

But there’s a growing gulf between strategy that happens inside and outside of agencies. While strategists outside of agencies continue to push the discipline forward, strategists inside of agencies continue to expend too much of their energy simply to justify their roles.

So the bottom line is this: if agencies want to resist the pressure to eliminate strategy as a separate offering, they have to think differently. They have to see the role of strategy as it really is – higher up, further in, and vital to solving the industry’s biggest challenges.

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