Strategy is about making choices, and the future of strategy will be about choosing what and where a business can make an impact, says Leah Cioccio, Strategy Director at Equality Media + Marketing.
When I completed the WARC survey I shared my thoughts on what I believed the future of strategy to be – or where the need might take it. As I passionately typed out my response, I believed that I’d really grasped what that future will look like and the Ted Lasso fan in me was thinking #strategyislife.
With full commitment to my vision, I suggested that the future strategist will require a combination of being able to understand and interpret the economics of a market, care about the accountability of media, analyze the power of a brand, and identify the heartbeat of culture.
Upon reflection, I don’t think this is wrong, but where does this all-knowing, unicorn of a strategist exist? Perhaps on a long wait list for counselling because their mental load is simply too much for one human to manage.
So, as I give this notion a second thought with a little more clarity, I realised that I had just gathered what I know about the present (which can be too much at times!). Using what we know isn’t a bad place to start with anticipating the future – in fact I think it’s probably better than getting caught up in trends that often just distract us. But we need to go a little further back than the present moment.
By going further ‘back’, it’s possible to see what has remained constant from a behaviour and output perspective, that has kept the discipline of strategy afloat, and that constant I believe, is the key to the future. Honestly, it’s all we have to rely upon.
For me there are two key stand outs to share before getting my crystal ball out and suggesting how the behaviour and output of a strategist can be applied in the future.
The practice of reflection is one of the key components and constants of strategy
Being able to step back and control the natural human instinct of leaping to an answer or action, and instead take in your surroundings and stimuli to consider where the path to pursue exists, is a behaviour has been required by strategists since literally the dawn of time.
Almost 20 years ago, I was tightly holding onto university life for as long as I could, and instead of entering the workforce I decided to enjoy another year on campus and take on the challenge to produce a thesis. I had the lifestyle I wanted, but was naive to what I was taking on.
In the midst of my research, my supervisor handed me a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and insisted that it would help me out of the rut that I was in with writing my thesis. I was interested in tourism marketing, but my thesis was deep down a rabbit hole of scenario planning and risk management, and I wasn’t connecting the dots very well. I later learned that the two (scenario planning and marketing) are very closely related but I had to get though some heavy reading and researching first.
My supervisor helped me to re-orient myself and my research, and importantly led me to understand that strategy is about making choices – in The Art of War it was about how you will behave, what you will protect, and how well you can understand what you are up against. While the business world and the battlefield of centuries ago are different places, the premise of taking in your surroundings and making careful choices remains relevant.
Over the better part of two decades, I’ve been able to work with brands of all sizes and have earned the permission to contribute to the choices that sustain them. That contribution has come with a lot of rolling-up-of-my-sleeves and researching their business, their industry, and their current and potential customer base. Sounds a bit like taking in their surroundings, right?!
With the bigger picture in view, I have been able to make recommendations around the role that advertising can play in delivering growth and having worked with several brands in the same category, I can attest to the fact that no two recommendations are the same, because no two businesses are the same.
What is the same, is the need to make choices based on where opportunity exists, and that is something that will continue to underscore the future of strategy. Years ago, I was sitting in a client meeting where they were sharing their focus for the year ahead – the theme was fewer, bigger, better. That theme transcended product innovation, sales support, distribution focus and marketing effort – and it described where and how that business will make an impact in the future.
That premise has stuck with me, to the extent that I believe that choosing what and where a business can make an impact, is the essence of strategy in the future. The choices that sat within ‘fewer, bigger, better’, drove that business to hone its focus and win a smaller part of the category it operated in, for other businesses however, it might be the reverse – it could be that to safeguard the legacy of a business it needs to expand into a new category or vertical or customer segment. The point is, that this choice and therefore opportunity, doesn’t come without doing the work, knowing the market, knowing your competitive strengths, and then making a decision to advance.
The other constant in strategy is being able to organise information so that it can inform action
This sounds boring but it’s a learned superpower. For all the brain-straining inputs (taking in your surroundings) of strategy to be meaningful, the output needs to be practical – and that’s very rarely a 20,000-word thesis.
When I finally entered the workforce and landed in tourism marketing, I quickly learned that I would need to organise information in a much tighter construct if I were to thrive in business. From my first ministerial briefing to the PowerPoint presentations that I pitch today, I know that finding the facts that can lead to true insight matter and being able to argue a position, like a lawyer would their closing argument, is key to success.
My learning curve accelerated when I realised that strategy needs to be fit for purpose. Taking the fundamentals of planning and adapting them into a format that works for the people who are resourced and responsible to action them is critical.
In my journey, I’ve moved from word-heavy documents to image rich presentations, to number-based narratives. Importantly, I’ve learned that there is a place for all, so long as you understand your audience.
What does staying constant for tomorrow look like?
In a formula, it might look like this: Behaviour + Output x Speed.
Anybody working to deadlines knows that they are only getting tighter. Timeframes are condensing and I think strategists have been a little slow to adjust their approach and output. The planning horizon does not need to be long to be impactful.
By reflecting on your surroundings and orientating yourself toward the needs of your audience, the function and shape of strategy will be sharper and I bet, shorter.