Making beautiful things will get you fired.
Sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.
Making beautiful things will get you fired because, odds are, you haven’t strategized which beautiful thing to make in the first place. Or why you’re making the beautiful thing. Or whether the world needs one more beautiful thing, anyway.
In other words: making beautiful things will get you fired if you weren’t strategic in your decision-making about that thing. That is, if you didn’t practice strategy.
Strategy, you may have noticed, is in trouble. As agencies have been pushed into best-of-breed corners — best digital product designer, best content strategists, best whatever — they’ve won business by making beautiful things faster, cheaper, and shinier than their competition.
But in that quest to make ever-more-amazing stuff ever-more-quickly, many agencies have given short shrift to the process of discovery and critical thinking that helps us decide what we should make before we make it.
Because our clients buy our beautiful stuff, but they’re paying for the impact it creates.
There are two ways to create work that has impact. You can fly on instincts and get lucky, or you can do strategy.
I’m a strategy guy. It’s what I think about and work on. So sure, I’m biased.
But if you work in the ad biz, it’s your job, too, to be a strategic thinker—not just a maker. Strategy isn’t simply the province of the nerds in the nerdery. It’s everybody’s responsibility.
And so no matter what you do in this business, there are steps you can take to make your work more strategic—and thus your agency’s work more successful. These are they.
1. Make peace with your ignorance
The biggest enemy of strategic thinking in adbizland isn’t Crazy Deadline, Anemic Budget, or Schizophrenic Media Landscape. It’s Fear.
Or, really, anxiety.
Marketing is an anxious business. Stakes are high. Consumers are fickle. Each new challenge is fraught with unknowns, politics, and details. And we agency folk are rewarded for being the ones who walk into messy situations and sort them out.
But let’s be real. We often pretend we know things we don’t. We often claim things we can’t back up. We often open our mouths and release rafts of bullshit instead of telling the truth. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. Bullshit happens.
The fact is that too many of us are too afraid to admit what we don’t know, and succumbing to that fear really knocks us off our strategy game.
Because anxiety literally short circuits that actual part of your brain that is charged with strategic thinking. When anxiety strikes, smart people make dumb moves. Happens to the best of us.
To combat this, I have three suggestions: be honest, have faith in yourself and your team, and clear your mind. Take a walk. Does wonders. But whatever you do, be okay with saying “I don’t know”. Because saying “I don’t know” frees you from the anxiety of in-the-moment performance, and your admitted ignorance frees you to discover the right answer (instead of setting sail on your homemade raft of bullshit).
2. Put strategy in the scope
Here’s an ultra-simplified flow chart showing how agencies kick off new work.
See the green? That’s where I’ve called out two absolutely critical moments where strategy needs to happen, if it’s going to happen at all.
First, after a client asks you to do something, take a beat and frame the problem. Interrogate the ask. If they came with a list of stuff, why do they want it? If they came with a campaign idea, what do they hope to accomplish with it? Why? Try to surface the deeper intention driving them to ask for your help. Help them sort out their objectives and reasons for doing what they’re doing. In the process, you’ll gain trust and set your team up for success.
The second moment comes after you kick off the project and before you start delivering work. That’s when it’s time to learn, think about what you’ve learned, and share your thoughts. If you don’t build in time and resources to explore facts and take in information, then you won’t have much of a strategy. Those things are the substrate in which good strategic ideas grow.
3. Think before you do
Once you’ve put strategy in the scope and set aside time to learn, the next question is what to learn. That’s often harder to determine than you might think.
Because there is SO MUCH you might learn that would all be helpful to you, and usually a very limited amount of time in which to do it. It can be quite overwhelming.
Every learning experience is different, but there’s a simple mnemonic trick you can use to make sure you cover your bases. It’s the Four Cs.
1. Client. Learn about their business, their brand, their products. Learn about their history and their long-term goals. Their style, their best assets. Their culture, their politics. Make sure you really get them.
2. Customer. Your job is probably to sell something. Learn about the people who buy it. Their shared interests, motivations, hopes, fears. The role the product you’re selling plays in their lives.
3. Competition. Learn who else is fighting to play the same role in customers’ lives. What are they saying? How are they presenting themselves? Are there forces beyond other companies that work against you?
4. Culture. What are the trends, patterns, tensions, and trajectories happening in our society that create opportunities for your clients’ brands? If you can find something good here, you’re probably onto something.
Doing all that learning isn’t easy. It does take time and skill. But that doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible. There are tons of things you can do without much time or expense to help explore key aspects of the Four Cs. Here are ten examples of research-y things you can do in one day:
1. Google stuff (look for credible research studies, quality journalism, please)
2. Read customer reviews
3. Interview friends/family or subject matter experts
4. Visit a place and observe people
5. Run a simple survey
6. Look for relevant case studies
7. Talk to your clients’ colleagues (like salespeople)
8. Look at their competitors’ websites, ads and reviews
9. Use a free social listening tool
10. Fiddle with Google Trends, Quora, Reddit, etc.
4. Have an opinion
A strategy is an informed opinion about what should be done to accomplish something. That’s it. After you’ve learned and thought and synthesized and problem-solved, you should end up with a simple set of opinions about things like:
1. What should we make and say
2. Why that’s a good idea
3. How we’ll know if our creation is working
These opinions should be simple and concise, in un-fancy, jargon-free English.
In other words, you should have a creative brief. Because that’s what a creative brief is supposed to be. A simple, straightforward utterance that makes strategy accessible and actionable for anyone.
5. Understand the tactics
We’ve all seen ridiculous marketing tech infographics like this one:
One of the common problems of our business is that as we go deep on our craft skills and daily to-do lists, we often lose touch with the broader picture of how marketing works.
Meanwhile, it gets messier and more complicated.
I don’t think we need to drop everything and become tactical experts, but I do think that anybody in this business needs to have a basic command over how marketing programs actually happen.
6. Draw a picture
Visual thinking is one of the most powerful tools in any strategist’s kit. There are loads of ways to visualize strategic thinking, but one of my favorites is to visualize (with honesty and empathy) what the audience is experiencing and thinking, while identifying and notating the best opportunities for the brands we work for to reach people and make a difference.
Yes, I’m talking about customer journey maps, which aren’t that new or exciting but can still be wildly helpful when done well.
7. Learn after launch
Much has been said about the importance of analytics to help understand if marketing is working or not. I’ll not belabor my point. I think it’s a good idea to measure work after you launch it, and that’s part of doing strategy well.
I’ll also say that some metrics are more meaningful, some are utter bullshit, and we’re all better served if we learn to tell the difference.
It’s noble and honorable to shoot for improving hard-hitting business metric, but the reality In marketing is we’re often relegated to more ephemeral targets (the bedraggled click-through, the battleworn marketing qualified lead).
My point is simply that everyone who works on marketing should understand how their work is being measured, and what those numbers tell us. Even thin metrics mean something.
Well, that’s about it.
I’ll leave you with a final point.
Delivering high volumes of good, fast, cheap work is a good way to make clients happy. But even happy clients fire agencies when they realize their marketing isn’t working.
You know which clients almost never fire their agencies?
And doing strategy is the single best thing you can take on to make your clients more successful.