According to ideas company WE ARE PI’s Mark Lester, the time has come for strategists to either go upstream and think bigger, or head downstream and execute.

After years of being marginalised, diluted and defunded, strategy has come back with a bang. The world is now full of big, head-scratching problems and mind-boggling new opportunities, so clients are once again desperate for great strategic thinking.

But this new world of strategy isn't actually one world, it’s two. And these two worlds aren’t necessarily connected, in fact they are being deliberately pried apart by clients. The modern strategist won’t be able to straddle them both, but is going to have to pick a side.

One of these worlds of strategy lives firmly upstream. It has distanced itself from the declining world of advertising and better integrated itself with the commercial world of consulting. It’s taking off like never before and is increasingly proving its value.

The other world of strategy is downstream. It’s linked to specific forms of execution like comms, design or experiences and is specialist in nature. In some instances it's well funded, but in many it’s fighting to prove its worth.

These two worlds have always existed, but the line has never been more firmly drawn between them. The traditional agency brand planner used to operate in both. They were clients’ most trusted strategic advisors, helping them think through the commercial big picture. They were also close partners to creative teams, involved deep in the craft of advertising.

But those days are now past. That’s because clients want truly big, bold strategic thinking and they want it to be divorced from execution. For a long time ad agency strategy teams preached that they could practise ‘agnostic’ brand thinking, but too many were really just glorified sales people for advertising creative departments.

In reality, brand planning had moved very far downstream and had become too buried in different, technical executional specialisms. While these tasks are important, they do not ultimately help clients solve their biggest strategic problems.

Accenture, and the other major consulting firms, recognized this years ago. They’re partnering with the ad agencies they acquired and helping them operate more like confident, independent brand consultants. Together they can offer commercial smarts with a dose of strategic imagination and storytelling.

The data in this report evidences this divide clearly, showing a growth in both upstream and downstream strategic demand. It also shows that upstream strategic thinking is where the greater value lies right now. It’s why 59% of strategists are now describing themselves as generalists, and why brand consultancies and in-house client strategy are increasingly on people’s career radar.

Downstream strategy is of course still of enormous importance. It is essential to have great strategists thinking through the detail and craft of user experiences, brand design and communications. But these forms of strategy will have to fight for their value and operate within the confines of a bigger brand strategy. For some in the advertising space particularly, this will feel like a fall from grace.

There’s a reason this is all happening now. The world is changing dramatically, and clients are having to react. They are facing the biggest cultural generation gap in a hundred years; they’re being forced into rethinking their marketing models and even the most basic mechanics of how they sell.

The strategic thinkers that can help them need to be able to answer bigger questions than just ‘is this tagline memorable?’.

Here are a few of the things we’ve been asked by clients in the past year alone:

  • “What’s the future of manhood?”
  • “What does ownership mean today?”
  • “How do you market a metaverse?”
  • “How has the internet changed childhood?”

These are big questions that deserve bold answers, answers that shouldn’t be limited by executional bias. We are all going to have to pick a side, either go upstream and think bigger, or head downstream and execute.

I know which side I’m picking.

Future of Strategy 2021

Mark Lester's piece appeared originally in WARC's Future of Strategy 2021 report, which you can read here.