Adapted from a presentation given at the 4A's Strategy Festival in October of 2013.
Our business today finds itself at a critical inflection point. As we continue to watch the slow death of the agency of record model, the rise of project based relationships, and vague, rushed or bogus RFPs, the advertising industry is as turbulent and unpredictable as ever.
According to IBISWORLD there currently are 13,133 advertising agencies listed in the United States, many of which are competing for the same client briefs. And as service offerings across the industry become both increasingly specialized in many areas and consolidated in others, we often compete against agencies outside of our respective weight classes as well as agencies who may have just spun off from a reputable shop just a week ago. Never to be dissuaded, the barrier to entry for any agile agency professional wanting to hang their own shingle is at its lowest. And with no project too small, or timing demands too unwieldy, the number of new entrants isn’t likely to subside.
And let’s not ignore everyone else who we compete against for the same business. It’s no longer rare that we find ourselves pitching for projects against media and tech companies and sometimes even the client’s own internal teams.
So not only are we competing against our own clients for business, we are competing against them for talent. In a 4A’s study published last summer, 65% of advertising professionals, the same people who get to make things that are seen and shared by millions around the world, claimed that the most creative people they know do not work in advertising. No longer do we as an industry hold the monopoly on magic making.
And what about planners? We are far from immune from this new reality. It affects us just as much. These intensified demands on agencies mean us having to do more with less, staying nimble and finding new ways to get to smart solutions faster.
And because of this, the field of planning has become fragmented.
In order to stay relevant within our own agencies we’re breaking down the walls of our planning departments and creating more cross-functional roles and amorphous for ourselves. Some call it innovation; others might call it acts of survival.
To begin with, you have account planners.
So on, and so forth.
Yet while we adapt and evolve within agencies and seek more stable ground to stand on, we often get criticized for taking on too much.
Or sometimes not enough.
Some might say our discipline is losing its discipline.
We’re constantly challenged to expand our strategic capabilities and bring in more tools outside of the classic planning toolbox.
There’s strategy and coding
Strategy and filmmaking
Strategy and comic books
Strategy and information design
Strategy and Final Cut Pro
Strategy and what’s next.
The point is that on any given day, you might confuse strategists for a lot of things. Be it editors, producers, researchers or writers. We also borrow traits from account and media folks and do our best not to step on the toes of creatives with our clever thought starters or kernels of creative ideas.
Therefore the reason why we suffer from a lack of respect from clients and colleagues today is that they no longer know what to make of us.
The client wants to see a one page brief and we want to make a 10 minute documentary. Creatives want us to provide a runway for their ideas so we organize a fashion show.
Is this helpful? Undoubtedly.
Is this our job? It might be.
The area between our own creative and strategic interests and the work we’re charged with producing is where we often find ourselves. Unfortunately it’s within those small gaps where our work gets substituted, maligned and worst of all, ignored.
We constantly try to develop and bring vast skillsets to the table, yet doing that doesn’t always make us as agile, sharp or efficient as having a few really good ones.
Ultimately, as curious, engaged and entrepreneurial planners, we’ve all become victims of our own creative pursuits.
As much as we’d like to take on everything and focus our attention on all the things that we find compelling, we simply cannot. There are just too many exams to prepare for and not enough time for extra credit assignments.
So how do we break this unsustainable cycle and build respect for what we do?
Ironically, we need to start planning for planning, and chart out a clear course for how we want to be seen among our clients and colleagues and better establish ourselves in the process of creating communications in fast paced and competitive environments.
The idea of “planning for planning” is, at it might suggest, a way of firming up the ground we stand on and further position strategists within agencies and brands so that unique skills can be acknowledged, incorporated into the creative process and shared with others.
To address the perception issues of strategists and concretely address the areas where we can impact the development of creative ideas, it begins with increasing the understanding of responsibilities, passions and what we hope to do.
First and foremost, we should focus on the fundamentals and do the things that have long been expected of us. Yes, it’s critically important that we continue to bring new things to the table, but we need to really own the things that affect the effectiveness of the work.
Each strategist within your agency has his or her own style and interests and therefore brings something different to the process. Strategists should share their passions, interests and talents with their teams and clients so that they can be called upon when the communications challenge requires a specific skill.
These are the things like photo essays, cultural deep dives, and white papers that not only satisfy those creative itches of ours, but also add value to our teams and clients and can lead to breakthrough work.
If our goal is to have strategy be better understood and appreciated by clients and colleagues, we cannot afford to be reactive in our approach to solving problems nor should we be the ones waiting in the wings for our number to be called. By leading the charge in bringing everyone together, strategy and strategists become more central in everything we do.
There’s incredible value in driving collaboration, especially if the purpose is to find new ways to grow our clients’ business. It needs to be a shared exercise that starts with us.
So while we find ourselves staring in the face of much uncertainty, we are also well equipped to navigate the many unknowns the future holds for our discipline. Strategists by their nature are interested in the unknown and are at their core, inspired by achieving a new level of understanding. But before we go off and attempt to solve the challenges of tomorrow, we first need to build understanding among our colleagues and clients by removing the unknowns surrounding the roles that we as strategists currently and one day hope to inhabit.
Delivered at the 4A's Strategy Festival, October 29, 2013