21st Century Strategy, or the Art of Travelling without a Map

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A couple of weeks back, I was invited to speak at the APG’s first Noisy Thinking event of 2015, inaugurating a series of talks on the subject of 21st Century Strategy. I was speaking alongside Neil Perkin of Only Dead Fish, Google Firestarters and soon Fraggl Fame, and Giles Rhys Jones from the start up revolutionising the world of location, What 3 Words.

Here’s a 2 minute summary of what I talked about. Or if you’ve got the luxury of a full 20 minutes, you can watch a video of the talk here and access other talks in the series, too!

1. In the 20th century, creative strategy was akin to (and often called) ‘planning’. It was about long-term, carefully thought-out and crafted, brand centric narratives. It left little room for experimentation, and failure wasn’t an option. In the world of military strategy, it was Napoleonian. Strategy was about establishing detailed battle plans – ahead of the battle. And in the world of navigation, it meant crafting itineraries ahead of every journey, detailing every twist and turn on the basis of a good map. It was often robust and visionary, but often also slow and heavy.

2. Then the digital revolution happened. Which meant two things. Firstly, the digitisation of every day life and purchase habits gives us an abundance of real-time data on what people actually do and what choices they make, and how initiatives are performing. Secondly, well, it’s a revolution – an on-going transformation of the consumer culture, economy, and media, which renders most previous knowledge of the terrain obsolete. We move from Napoleon battle plans to drone combat strategy – precise, short-term, reactive, ‘customer-centric’. The trusted A to Z becomes less relevant – as the geography is constantly changing, and we have new tools that enable us to orientate ourselves in the field.

3. But at which point does 21st Century Strategy become so tactical that it’s not even strategy any more? Some argue Big Data leads to total Un-Planning. If we know exactly what users do and want, and we have the ability to respond and optimise activity immediately and in market, what is the need for intermediaries? Well, maybe I’m just trying to justify my job title here – but that need is a need for purpose – vision, foresight, ambition. I agree with Alistair Croll’s diagnosis: an optimised life can just mean an average life. Ultimately, ‘relevant’ cannot trump ‘interesting’.  And so there is still a role for 21st Century Strategy to fill in the gap between planning and tactics.

4. Technology and data have changed the way in which we do strategy, just like Citymapper changes the way people navigate cities. But as Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat would say (I think), ‘if you don’t know where you want to do, Google Maps will be of no use to you’. And arguably, a fast-changing, responsive working culture makes the need for purpose and direction even more poignant. When decisions are taken quickly, it’s crucial that everyone is very clear on what motivates them. In Basset and Partners’ documentary Briefly, released last year, Frank Gehry talks about the importance of the brief as ‘clarity of purpose’. You could substitute ‘brief’ for ‘strategy’ throughout the entire video, and it works.

5. An over-reliance on data is dangerous. If you never look up from your phone or develop a sense of direction, you will definitely end up lost at some point, and you will probably have missed out on a lot of interesting sights along the way. Without context, a data point is just a data point – and you don’t know where you are.  More than ever, we need to be able to orientate ourselves in the wild. To maintain focus in times of changes. The more short term, fast paced and messy our environment becomes, the more we will need a framework to tell us where we are and where we are going.

6. So maybe 21st Century Strategy is the art of travelling without a map. It’s technical – using complex navigation instruments and diverse sets of information – AND instinctive at the same time. Strategists don’t like the word ‘AND’ – we like to sacrifice and focus. But in this instance, I don’t think we can chose any more. Nick Kendall recently argued  for the importance of bigger, not smaller ideas in a world that would have us believe that brands have run out of juice. Similarly, I believe that the real strategic challenge today, is to hold the holistic view of the brand, the one that reconciles a granular, data-led, tactical view, with the visionary, brand-led, transformative one.

7. Travelling without a map requires you to maintain a sense of direction above and beyond individual changes and movements. It is the ability to piece together a multitude of isolated, sometimes ambiguous or contradictory tacks into one purposeful journey. Finally – and this is very important, if you ever find yourself in the actual wild without a map – 21st Century Strategy is the calm in the storm. Everyone’s initial reflex, at being somewhere new and confusing, or maybe in a place that resists mapping, will be to panic. Business people don’t naturally like risk, uncertainty or ambiguity, which is surprising because real people are full of it. So ultimately, the role of the strategist is to provide a sense of confidence and steadiness. Because 21st century strategy may not always know how it’s going to get there, but it knows exactly where it’s trying to go.

 

BBH will be represented again at the next event in April, dedicated to young creative people and what excites them about our industry, so expect to read more from BBH youths on the subject of 21st Century Strategy here.

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