The term ‘strategic’ is overused and often misused, says Tim Williams. Marketing professionals should think more carefully about using the word, as calling people ‘strategic’ can make everyone else with a non-strategy role feel unnecessarily undervalued.

Right alongside ‘full service’ and ‘integrated’, the term ‘strategic’ is one of the most misused (and overused) terms in the lexicon of agencies and brands alike. It’s an expression that has lost its meaning.

The word ‘strategy’ is actually a fairly recent addition to the business vocabulary. Until the 1950s, strategy was almost exclusively a military concept, used as far back as the Romans (who, of course, used the proper Latin term ‘stratagem’). Peter Drucker, a brilliant business mind who used the word sparingly, helped popularise the concept by referring to it as ‘strategic management’. In reality, there was a wholesale import of military terminology into the marketing sphere. We support strategies with ‘tactics’ and ‘target’ consumers with ‘campaigns’. In effect, marketing decided to borrow the language of war.

No doubt many of us confuse ‘tactics’ with ‘strategies’ – a common mistake even for seasoned professionals. But an even more pernicious habit is our tendency to use the word ‘strategic’ when what we really intend to connote is ‘smart’.

What do we really mean when uttering the following phrases? ‘Let’s assign this to Julie; she’s very strategic.’ Translation: Julie is bright. ‘Let’s think strategically about this problem.’ Translation: Let’s apply some critical thinking to this. ‘This campaign is creative, but it’s not very strategic.’ Translation: This work is unlikely to accomplish the client’s objectives. ‘Francisco is one of the most strategic people on the team.’ Translation: Francisco is our most knowledgeable colleague.

The other equally consequential result of the misuse of the word is that it unfairly and inaccurately divides the marketing world into two classes of people: those who are strategic and those who aren’t. Project managers aren’t expected to be strategic in the sense that they can develop a brilliant creative brief, but they are strategic in the way they plan and manage resources.

The word strategy is synonymous with approach, plan of action, roadmap, blueprint, or game plan. Many professionals, not just those with the title strategist, are capable of developing productive approaches to solving problems in their areas of responsibility. A good brand planner is capable of crafting an effective brand architecture, but a talented production manager is equally capable of building an efficient production architecture.

In a business context, strategic thinking involves the generation and application of unique insights and opportunities intended to create competitive advantage for a firm or organisation (so says Wikipedia). Seen this way, your organisation is likely filled with ‘strategic thinkers’ who don’t have anything close to a strategy title.

A strategist is also one who plans and directs. According to dictionary definitions, just being a co-ordinator qualifies one as a strategist, because this involves having the skills to effectively execute against a plan. We might even think of the very best strategists as orchestrators.

In one of the most memorable scenes from the recent movie Steve Jobs, Jobs and his friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak are engaged in a passionate discussion in an orchestra pit prior to Jobs going on stage for a new product introduction. Wandering amid the music stands, Woz is maddened by the fact that Jobs gets all the credit for Apple despite not even knowing how to put together a circuit board (which, of course, Woz does). “What exactly do you do?” Woz demands. Thinking for a moment, Jobs replies, “I play the orchestra.”

In this highly successful partnership, one could conclude that Jobs was the strategist. But not in the sense that Jobs was the smart one. Jobs possessed a different type of intelligence than Wozniak, but Woz was (and still is) brilliant in his area of expertise. Let’s not confuse the idea of being strategic with being brainy.

Marketing organisations are not comprised of ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers’. Everyone thinks and everyone does; we just think and do different things in different ways. If we mean to imply someone is bright, sharp, perceptive, well-informed, educated, or clever, let’s use that very language. To instead say they are strategic makes everyone else with a non-strategy role feel unnecessarily undervalued.

Words matter, and we marketing professionals should understand that most of all. We can better respect the talents of everyone on the teams we work with through more precise and careful use of the word strategic.