The Triangle of Disrespect
The most likely reason the strategy is f**ked
It’s been a while. I could provide some excuses, given the global pandemic, but realistically, I didn’t have a lot to say.
This is a newsletter about the future of advertising. And in periods of intense change, I prefer to observe and learn, rather than to predict. It’s hard enough to predict what’s coming next when trends are relatively stable, because life is about people, and people are not rational.
So let’s talk about the present, and something that hasn’t changed: strategy is often a lone wolf profession that doesn’t play well with others. Even when we like to tell ourselves otherwise, and blame someone else for lack of collaboration.
Let’s introduce our players:
Brand Strategist - prone to TED-talkish moments of masterful presentation, and “a-ha” moments that get heads nodding.
Core Belief - marketing exists to create affinity and build associations, and everything else is just execution.
Signature Move - emotive brand advertising that is fundamentally purpose driven.
Digital Strategist - lives on a behavioural and cultural cutting edge, can actually speak to young people without seeming desperately out of touch.
Core Belief - metrics and targeting driven digital advertising changed everything about marketing, and if you don’t focus there you will fail.
Signature Move - building (or leveraging) community and/or hyper-relevant content.
Comms Strategist - sweats the messaging framework and GTM even more than the brief, has judges everything by the execution.
Core Belief - driving results is about the right message to the right person at the right time, and context is the biggest part of impact.
Signature Move - tailoring content and/or experiences to the time/place of delivery.
While they generally stay separate, they do need to work together. And this is what that relationship looks like:
Let’s get this out of the way: I’m speaking from personal experience here - I have been every one of these people and a hybrid of most of them.
I started in social and digital strategy largely because it was where they’d let a 24 year old (with minimal experience) lead strategy.
I switched to comms strategy work (we called it ‘connections planning’ at the time) because it was an opportunity to bridge digital, research and behavioural thinking. (And because it was a bigger agency and better money, tbh.)
I pushed my way into brand work because I was tired of the limited options that come with someone else setting the agenda and getting to do the big creative solve. In most of my working experience, the brand agency leads.
When I was a digital strategist I felt like no one else understood metrics, that brand strategy was wildly out of touch, that broad reach was meaningless if there wasn’t clear measurement to back it up, and that great targeting mattered more than the channel.
When I was a comms strategist I felt like digital was myopically focused on what Google and Facebook could measure (and therefore told them was important), brand was really only interested in the TV 0:30 and the YouTube long cut (unless they had an experiential or innovative idea that they could turn into a TV 0:30 or a YouTube long cut), and that I was the only person who understood that the same people who watch TV also go to websites.
When I was a brand strategist I was frustrated at how platforms and media channels were constantly trying to redefine the brand idea to make it more fun for them to execute, that everyone was jockeying to be involved in the brand conversations / decisions, and that everyone essentially thought they were the brand strategist, because everything is brand and brand is everything.
(At least a few people who have worked with me in the past are wondering if I’m talking about them. I am, only because I am talking about EVERYONE. Including myself, at some points. These are really, really common attitudes in strategy, ESPECIALLY when you’re looking at inter-agency relationships.)
This is the triangle of disrespect.
As strategy is right at the beginning of the process in most/all agencies and teams, this is why you get a digital campaign that has no connection to the brand purpose. This is why you get a comms plan that seems to ignore the ‘meaning’ of the product for the ‘message’ of the idea. This is why one leg of this stool is so often COMPLETELY absent from the final product.
Strategy fails when we waste time jockeying for position.
This is why I hate the word “planner” - it’s really only used to separate one kind of strategist from another, usually in a hierarchy.
All of these strategy disciplines (and others not mentioned) are vital. Where we fail is putting them in an order - “we’ll crack the brand / campaign idea, then the digital strategy, then the comms plan to link it all together” - and pushing people out of the process when they complete their stage.
These are three things that need to be done, that feed off of and learn from each other. The fight to “lead” usually turns things into a waterfall process where a lot of the learning and good ideas are either lost forever in the transition between teams, or worse, turned into “gotcha” moments in an attempt to make the other team look bad to the client.
This is the triangle of disrespect. This is how we fail.
Each of these disciplines goes through research, synthesis, hypothesis/territories, and a strategic recommendation. If you connect during / at the end of each of these stages, everyone’s work gets influenced by everyone else’s thinking. You end up working in parallel and together, rather than in competition.
The solution here (“work together”) isn’t innovative or shocking. The important part is - this is not just the dynamic of your individual team or inter-agency team or the specific partner that you think happens to suck. This is not original. You are not original, in your tendency to assume the thing you do is coincidentally the important thing.
You’ve been indoctrinated, into the intra-strategic version of the same conflict that literally defines agencies: whether creative, strategy or account service should lead.
You might get to temporary success by buying into a hierarchy where one transcendent genius put their specialty at the top, but sustained success and healthy work environments rely pretty significantly on realizing you’re not superior to the other people and roles that make up the team.
Beware the triangle.