Strategists have been pushed to the middle of the marketing equation, in touching distance of both high-level direction and on-the-ground execution, but in control of neither. Wieden +Kennedy’s Paula Bloodworth makes the case for the extremes. This essay appeared originally in WARC’s Future of Strategy 2018 report.

Planners are traditionally at their best when they’re upstream, when they’re helping clients deal with complexity and providing clarity.

But many planners are in denial. It feels like we spend a lot of time doing brand onions, benefit ladders, purpose – I’m not saying these things are bad, but they are overworked. We spend too much of our time crafting the third line of a benefit ladder, and it’s not really helping the work. We end up doing three-day workshops so everyone can decide some words on a page and they end up just being more documents and less creative. We need to be spending our time getting to work that moves people.

I guess the problem here is that the brand idea and the creative idea become the same thing. I remember my creative director saying to me "your strategy is showing". And you see it in the work: it’s so laboured and heavy. When everybody’s deciding what the strategy is and what the words are on the page, they end up being in the work.

That’s where I think execution is actually a wonderful thing. Because execution unleashes creativity. Execution is creativity, and we actually need to unshackle it from strategy somewhat.

So I think planning should be more executional. We should understand that intersection where creativity meets the consumer, we should learn everything about it. And with consumers moving and changing so quickly, we should be more executional in the way we plan and be nimble and flexible and adaptive.

The Nike ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’ campaign was a really long process – about a year. In the beginning we had a vision to get really local. Then about halfway through the process, the terrorist attacks happened in London. And a picture emerged of a man fleeing the scene with a beer in his hand. Everyone inside London said that’s what it means to be a Londoner: no matter what happens, they hold onto their beer.

And off the back of that, I wrote the line ‘nothing beats a Londoner,’ which wasn’t supposed to end up as the final line but it did. It just gave the creative more depth and a place to springboard from. It changed the energy of the work.

The other thing is that we can use the execution to inform business at the highest levels. Start-ups and tech firms are putting stuff out into the world, learning from it and failing from it. They’ve had many failures but they’ve learned from them. So planners can really own that execution and learn from it and provide value, then you can send it upstream and inform how the business can change. We shouldn’t shy away from it, I think we should get better at it.

So let’s embrace the execution because it’s really planning at its best. It’s constantly learning from how people experience and define brands in the real world, because that’s the shift: it’s more about consumer experience, it’s more about product development, it’s more about where we actually meet the consumer. We need to get better at that.

This isn’t an excuse for not getting upstream. That’s where brands need us more than ever before, providing some clarity and some long-term vision. And we can be there as the glue connecting all these consultants to get to the work that excites us.

So planners need to be as close as possible to the execution, adapting and learning. Or they need to be far far away from it.

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