Iris Worldwide’s Ben Essen argues that the traditional one-size-fits-all conception of a strategist is giving way to something more nuanced and far more useful.

What is a strategist? Someone who determines how to solve a problem, in advance of actually solving it. The kinds of problems that businesses need to solve have never been more diverse, meaning the role of the strategist has never been more wide-ranging. It also means that the idea any one kind of strategist can ‘do it all’ has never seemed more absurd.

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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In truth, the strategic questions we are asked by clients fall under three key types, each of them requiring a distinct strategic typology. Given the need for both objectivity and specialism, these exist in opposition to each other and therefore no one individual can effectively deliver against all three areas at the same time. The three core questions are below and Iris have structured our global Strategy Unit around them.

  1. “What should I do?” questions require consultative strategy that helps a client objectively navigate any problem. For Iris, this group includes our integrated planners and business consultants, who are all experienced in taking broad overarching challenges and building a bias-free strategic plan of tasks and solutions against it.
  2. “How do I do it?” questions require deep expertise from specialist disciplines. For Iris, this group includes specialist strategists in data-driven, performance marketing, pricing and cultural assets, who might for example help the client make sense of their martech approach.
  3. “Where can it take me?” questions require a forward-thinking approach that deliberately ignores the short-term to focus on building sustained future success. For Iris, this includes our Future Strategists and Digital Transformation team, who might for example help a client develop propositions, business models and operational systems to support a net-zero transformation.

In most agency environments, strategy has of late been very focused on ‘what should I do?’ questions. Most modern planners have been trained that the core role of a strategist is that of sense-maker – the person who makes the complex simple and provide an overarching direction of travel. As strategists become more senior, career pathways have tended towards being a generalist. But in the modern marketing landscape, the role of specialist strategist who can make provide direction on how to do it is equally important, if not more so. Agencies without this kind of skillset in their strategy team will struggle to prove their value to clients – and as businesses rebuild post-Covid, investing in these kinds of talent will be key.

But while it’s important that strategists build up expertise within their specific ‘lane’, this isn’t to say they should be working in isolation. The ideal team on any piece of business will include strategists from across these three areas collaborating together without boundary. For Iris, lockdown conditions have accelerated the opportunity to do this efficiently. We have run over 40 ‘Covid Contingency Sprints’ with brands around the world. These are a fast-paced strategy sprints, featuring 4-7 strategists from across these different areas, working through a series of agile digital workshops with a parallel client group. For clients grappling with both the chaos and urgency of multiple global crises, this agile, collaborative approach seems to be the shape of things to come – and it solves many of the pain points clients have been dealing with in buying strategy.

Clients tired of ‘mediated’ contact with a strategist who is kept at arm’s length want to have close, direct relationships with strategic consultants who can act as a key partner for them. Clients tired of too many ‘baten passes’ between different specialisms want the answers to all the key questions they have to add up. And clients who have an excess of theory are calling for a much more action and output orientated to strategy. When executed effectively, the strategy sprint methodology solves all these three challenges in one.

In summary, there are three things that marketing agencies and consultancies need to do to prove the value of strategy:

  1. Be clear about strategy’s scope. What questions will it answer, and what value will it generate within the process? What is the role of a specialist strategist vs an integrated planner and the multiplier benefit of having them both on the business?
  2. Give clients more first-hand experience of the benefits of strategy – remove the mystique and barriers to access, and replace them with ‘on demand’ contact with the experts they value.
  3. Remove barriers and boundaries between different strategic practitioners and get them working together in an agile and connected way, because the innovation needed to excite progress will only come when they come together.