What are the skillsets needed for 21st century strategy? The future belongs to those with ‘strategic independence’, says Amelia Torode.

To be abe to sit and ponder, to focus and compose words and thoughts on “the future of strategy” feels, at this time, oddly almost decadent. I look around and see brands and businesses failing. The hyper-connected world that we have lived in, and taken for granted, is changing, and our societal norms and cultural conventions are fast eroding. I think about the future of strategy. And if I am honest, I am not really certain about the future of anything much at the moment.

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.

Read the full report

I co-founded and run an independent strategy and innovation consultancy, The Fawnbrake Collective, that has no staff (we only use expert freelancers), no HQ (we work remotely or embedded into client organisations) and no email (the community lives on Slack). Since our launch in 2017, The Fawnbrake Collective has worked with companies around the world including Google, Carlsberg and Somerset House. You would have thought that we were ideally positioned for the new pandemic reality. But we have been hit horribly by the business impact of COVID, with projects being “paused” as brands seemingly throw long term strategic planning out in favour of short term tactics. This is happening because people are panicking and, as I comment earlier, anything that feels long term feels oddly decadent. The impact that this panic is having on strategists is profound, deeply short sighted and is being felt acutely by freelance strategists. But this will change. Great strategists (who incidentally do not always have the word “planner” or “strategist” in their title) are sense-makers and meaning-makers and in this confused and confusing new reality, the two things that businesses are most in need of are good sense and meaning. In short, they need more people in the mould of Stephen King’s “grand strategists” rather less of the traditional “ad tweakers.”

Divorcing high level “grand strategy” from advertising execution is going to be critical moving forward. The WARC study show shows that clients are seeking strategic expertise outside of the agency environment. It also shows that 48% of agencies say that COVID has reduced the need for freelancers. I understand that. The traditional agency system was broken before COVID and now agencies are desperately gulping for oxygen but the strategic client needs have changed and the agency structures have failed to keep pace.

I want to think about the skillsets of 21st century strategy as opposed to the 20th century structures. The future belongs to those with strategic independence. I dislike the word “freelancer.” In fact I try not to use it, as it does not capture what is so extraordinary powerful about being an independent strategist. Our business is made up of smart independent thinkers who work flexibly and that is something that is only going to increase in importance. The strongest strategy is collective, and I believe that once we are through the next tough few months, clients will return to strategy but not in the form that perhaps they accessed it in the past.

There are critical business and marketing decisions to be made and new cultural paths for brands to develop and that calls for strategy. Increasingly the smartest strategic talent does not sit inside agency confines. Clients and agencies will start to look at an “access not ownership” model for strategy – not owning strategic talent but instead accessing advice, allowing strategists the space and freedom to work outside of large corporate structures and thereby give honest and independent guidance.

We are about to witness a massive realignment of strategic brand and marketing talent. This offers immense new opportunities for individuals wishing to work in a more flexible and independent way and also offers clients new opportunities for strategic partners. The challenges for strategists who wish to work in a freelance capacity, is how to find a community that allows them the ability to extend and expand their own strategic expertise as well as a community that they enjoy being a part of, at the same time as finding new business. And that is not always easy to do. The strategic landscape is shifting, and will change more. The offer of the providing the “strategic heads without the agency overheads” is something that clients will become increasingly attracted by as budgets are tightened and scrutinised like never before. We are due to have a painful culmination of 2020, but I am confident that independent strategy will emerge as a leader that will help reimagine the future for brands and business in Britain and beyond.