Tahaab Rais, Regional Head – Strategy, Effectiveness & Intelligence @FP7/McCann Worldgroup MENA shares insights on the role of strategy for strategy in the advertising & marketing world.
As the strategy guy, I was asked to give my two cents on strategy’s role, its challenges and the strategy for strategy, in the recent B&W Report for MENA. And I actually enjoyed raising a few important points that are very relevant to every agency that works with strategists, particularly in this region and possibly, internationally too.
B&W Report – Q1 – The role of planners is frequently misunderstood. What do you actually do?
“Strategy” is the best job in the field of creativity. And I’m allowed to be a bit biased, right? ;) Unfortunately, the role of strategists is frequently misunderstood. We are not brief-writers nor do we only package presentations. And not enough from our kin are actively contributing to the actual creative product produced nor elevating the value of strategy to clients and agency folks alike.
The way I enjoy working, and it’s a culture we’ve built together at FP7/McCann across MENA, is quitting being theoretical and philosophical strategists and instead, being obsessively involved throughout the process: Identifying the real problem – interrogating the obvious problem to find the problem beneath the problem. Looking at all the research and data available. And then, putting that aside, getting off our desks and talking to real people, and uncovering untapped and untold truths that just feel right. Building and defining a distinctive meaningful role for brands. Giving all the teams a strategic platform that will move people. Making sure, by working conceptually with the teams, that the idea comes to life across a data-driven journey and connections plan. And being involved in measuring it, to ensure it’s effective.
B&W Report – Q2 – The media landscape is evolving at breakneck speed. How do you keep on top of things and separate the wheat from the chaff?
Re-learning and re-educating one’s self is crucial. This entails an investment (both monetary and time) in keeping up with the constantly evolving consumers – by constantly absorbing knowledge and data through varied information resources, studying social listening tools, reading researches, and most excitingly, activating trendspotting and social-psychology experiments.
B&W Report – Q3 – Strategy often plays second fiddle to the creative idea. Why? And should this thinking be overturned?
Correction. Poor strategy and lack of rigour leads to strategists playing second fiddle to the creative idea. Strategists should not be plumbers who retrofit strategic ideas and make presentations to pre-sell the creative work.
How should this be overturned? Simply by coming out of our closet and doing what strategists should be doing. Identifying a big problem that excites. Uncovering a truth and a strategic approach that makes people go ‘Aha, that’s interesting!’. And being involved throughout the creative process – with creative and partner agencies – making sure the product is well-connected, relevant to people and importantly, effective.
An agency’s strategic methodology should become its operating process. It’s not enough having a beautifully-crafted agency purpose for media articles or seminar talks. It’s about converting that purpose into an operating system where everyone works with it and contributes to it.
In such an environment, strategists must assume the role akin to the master conductor in an orchestra. On brands, strategists must aim to sync the people, the client and the agency’s own teams. For the agency, strategists must sync her or his own department, the different disciplines and partner agencies. The first leadership goal is for strategists to make sure everyone is in tune. The second leadership goal is to make sure everyone (agency and clients) are trained on it and embrace it.
B&W Report – Q5 – What are the secrets of a great planner?
Is someone who cares about her or his family and relationships and this empathy helps. Has the humility to acknowledge the truth that she or he is nothing without others.
Is an inventor and creates new ways of working, experiments and has fun playing with ideas. Is THE master conductor and enjoys being it. Thinks big and makes others see the ‘bigness’ too. Is generous with praise, with positive criticism, with attention and with knowledge. Doesn’t play politics and doesn’t have the time for it; instead spends that time on inventing.
Loves being an outlaw – a rebel with a cause – respecting the status quo but not minding working tangentially to it. Is very impatient and works speedily, making things happen, faster than others.
And finally, wants to change the world and believes that she or he can do it through ideas that matter and make a difference.
B&W Report – Q6 – Do agencies have a planning problem?
Yes. While we do have some really smart strategists across agencies in MENA (and I know as well as respect many of them), we need many more of them!
The trouble is that because there’s not enough understanding of what strategy entails, there’s not enough time scoped for strategists and hence, there aren’t enough quality strategists. Most clients I’ve met across MENA value strategy; they enjoy conversations with strategists and respect the role of strategy. But because most agencies don’t charge enough for strategy, strategy often becomes a cost centre vs. a profit centre that it should be, given the value of strategists.
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B&W Report – Q7 – What you like to see change within the agency structure?
Related to the earlier question, the most important thing to change is the financial structure in most agencies. There’s a critical need for Strategy leaders to sit the business and the finance team down and take them through the strategic process – right from the get-go all the way to the execution and the evaluation – and help them understand the time that is needed and the value brought in. This will help ensure time is scoped accurately and comprehensively enough and clients pay for the time they want and demand from strategy.
In terms of the organizational structure across agencies, strategists should be sitting at the centre of it all, as the master-conductors.
B&W Report – Q8 – What is the future of strategy?
The future of strategy, in my honest opinion, is the future of agencies.
Strategy’s role (and by default the agency’s role) should be focused on improving a client’s own capability.
The IPA, in its “Future of Agencies” report, alludes to this too. As businesses get more sophisticated in how they deal with multiple agencies and multiple partners, client engagement models need to evolve – to not just solve a client’s problem but to show the client how to do it themselves. This knowledge and skills transfer, fundamental capability development, bringing in and embedding new approaches, and new ways of thinking and working will be the invaluable role that I believe strategists should and will play.