RICHARD MADDEN, GROUP STRATEGY DIRECTOR AT BBH LONDON, PRESENTS THE ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE TO ADVERTISING PLANNERS.
Long experience has taught me that you will find only four kinds of strategists in agencies. Of course, that’s a gross over-simplification, but falsely binary taxonomies are the strategist’s stock-in-trade. If this were a proper data-driven segmentation, there would of course be no fewer than seven distinct typologies. It’s an iron law.
The first variety of strategist you’ll come across is the Client’s Strategist (Reddi byendofplayum). These are respected by everyone on the client and agency side apart from fellow strategists and creatives. The Client’s Strategist is especially admired and valued by agency senior management. For a while, at least.
The reason for this admiration is simple. The Client’s Strategist does the CMO’s bidding, to everyone’s short-term advantage. They intuit the CMO’s personal strategic agenda and provide the necessary factual ammunition to support it.
They see themselves as the client’s consigliere, but they are, in fact, merely his or her amanuensis. They do not refract and refine the client’s strategic vision. They merely reflect it.
The CMO loves them because they relieve him or her of the burden of preparing PowerPoint slides for executive board meetings. At a deeper level, they provide the comfort and reassurance that at least one other person shares their vision. Because being a CMO is a lonely as well as a difficult job.
It is also a precarious one. This is where the Client Strategist’s vulnerability lies. The minute an incumbent CMO meets their Ides of March, the Client’s Strategist’s game is up. Having established a reputation for marching in lock-step with the former CMO’s thinking, they will be indelibly tarnished in the eyes of the new regime.
Their utility to the agency will suddenly become highly limited. They will rapidly need to find a new account, or a new job. Fortunately, many will find lucrative work as consultant to the departing CMO in their next position.
The next species of strategist you will encounter is the Suit’s Strategist (Agencia inflatio). They are harder to spot as they are experts at camouflage, hiding their allegiance to the account team’s commercial agenda behind an elaborately constructed illusion of strategic impartiality.
As agency margins and headcounts decrease, Suit’s Strategists have flourished. This is because they effectively do two people’s jobs at once. They sell the agency’s product like an account person while also doing yeoman service generating the pallet-loads of PowerPoint that justify the agency’s strategy fee. They can even traffic artwork and order in the pizza when the account teams’ backs really are up against the wall.
Suit’s Strategists are not an actively malign influence on a client’s business. They are not there to rock the boat. The only danger for the client is that they may be slipping subliminal promotional messages for the agency into every fifth chart of each deck they present.
Perhaps they are justifying what is a profitable status quo for the agency. Or subtly suggesting a need for other agency services. Fortunately, good clients will spot this and call them on it, or more entertainingly, go along with it until such time as the strategist’s covert agenda becomes embarrassingly overt.
Perhaps the easiest kind of strategist to spot is the Creative’s Strategist (Artum chartum). Their plumage, purchased at no little expense in the vintage stores of Shoreditch or Margate, is the brightest and most distinctive of all avian strategic fauna. In the mating season, it may be enhanced with body piercings, both visible and discreet.
Creative’s Strategists see themselves as an adjunct to the creative department and the Creative Director’s best mate. In reality, the Creative Director hates them and the junior writers and art directors mercilessly satirise them down the pub. They are the embarrassing dad at the creative disco.
Their one mission in life is to defend the campaign that they have convinced themselves they wrote, art directed and produced single-handedly. Hell, they probably even think they composed and performed the soundtrack. It’s their baby, and woe betide any client, research agency or focus group respondent who dares to point out any flaw in it.
Creative’s Strategists stand out so easily it is a miracle that they haven’t yet succumbed to predation. Perhaps one day they will, though there is little sign of it so far.
By far the rarest breed of strategist is the Strategist’s Strategist (Verum periculo). It is believed there are only a handful of mating pairs left in the wild, and attempts to breed them in captivity have been largely unsuccessful to date.
The life’s mission of the Strategist’s Strategist is to seek out often inconvenient truths and communicate them unflinchingly to power. Perhaps the client’s target audience definition isn’t as clear-cut as everyone seems to think it is. Maybe the reason why the tracking has dipped isn’t really sampling error, but a misjudgement of creative strategy. You can count on the Strategist’s Strategist to tell it like it is.
Strategist’s Strategists are rare birds because everyone likes to take a pot shot at them. Suits find them unnerving because they have a propensity to go rogue mid-meeting. Creatives can find their feedback annoyingly insightful. And junior clients often find them troublesome as their observations can result in more work and internal friction than seems absolutely necessary.
However, good marketers find Strategist’s Strategists invaluable. Just as every wise emperor employed a slave to whisper ‘Remember you are mortal’ in their ear during triumphal processions, so clever CMOs seek the counsel of a Strategist’s Strategist because it keeps them honest.
As the name suggests, Strategist’s Strategists are highly revered in the strategic community itself. They are the platonic ideal of the craft, the true inheritors of the mantle of Stanley Pollitt and Stephen King. Many are what the Japanese would call Living National Treasures, elders who have matured to the point where they have nothing left to lose in telling the truth.
With age comes guile, and this is one of the things that keeps Strategist’s Strategists clinging on in a rapidly changing and not exactly benign ecosystem. The other is a degree of practised charm. After all, uncomfortable truths told with a twinkle in the eye are often more palatable than truths told at the point of an intellectual bayonet.
It is likely that the Strategist’s Strategist will remain an endangered species for some time. Let’s just hope that advances in genetic engineering will enable them to be cloned before the species dies out completely.