How not to make a fool of yourself as a strategist

Nobody wants to be perceived as a lousy strategist. Even if someone’s job has both strategic and operational elements, for some reason, people are more likely to admit that they are not so great at processes and execution than being poor strategic thinkers.

That’s why we’ve put together a shortlist of the most annoying mistakes made by brand and advertising strategists. And, although we are not without guilt ourselves, we offer some guidance on how to avoid them.

1. Don’t rely on what you think is right

Too many strategists think that they can solve business problems by only applying their intuition, which often takes the form of so-called “consumer insight”. “Consumer insight”, which came into existence inside your mind, is only a hypothesis and the beginning of your strategic journey. To substantiate it, try to quantify it. Use your client research or run a quick survey to see whether the majority of the target audience agrees with you. Of course, there are insights that are difficult to measure, but if you want to be treated seriously, avoid presenting your gut feeling as a solid basis for any strategy. Research is your friend.

2. Get your sums right

Many strategists have a good grasp of words. Their writing is often flawless and they are great at articulating what they think. Unfortunately, they rarely use numbers – ironically, this is the only currency that matters to clients (especially the more senior ones). If you want to help your client increase sales in the long run (and this should be your ultimate goal), in the least, you need to answer the following questions related to your client’s brand and category:

– What’s the size of the market and is it still growing?

– Is your client’s brand performing on par, above or below the market? Why?

– What’s the biggest problem the brand has? How many people in your client’s target audience know the brand? How many consider buying it? How many really buy it? Why aren’t the rest buying it? How does the brand do vs. its competitors on these 3 KPIs: awareness, consideration, purchase? Where’s the potential for improvement? How can you help with that?

The numbers, when you start working with them on a regular basis, are not scary. When used properly, they clarify every problem and add structure to your thinking. Just try to avoid these two frequent mistakes, which are so annoyingly common that even famous marketing authors commit them:

A. Learn to distinguish per cent from percentage point. The difference between 2% and 3% is one percentage point; 3% is 50% more than 2%, but 2% is about 33% less than 3%.

B. If two things are correlated, be wary of deciding which one affects the other. Sometimes X makes Y grow, sometimes it’s the other way around, and sometimes it’s Z that influences both X and Y.

3. Simplicity and practicality eat sophistication for breakfast

We have mentioned this many times before, but we will keep on writing about it again and again. It’s better when your brief or strategy sounds familiar, is easy to understand and allows for multiple applications than when it’s unique, complicated to comprehend and even more difficult to put into practice. Strategy needs to solve a business problem, not to amaze people. The most valuable brands in the world are based on similar strategies and we are pretty sure that their PowerPoints (or Keynotes for that matter) are not distinguishable from each other. It’s the execution that differentiates them. If you can’t explain your strategy in one sentence, how can you expect a consumer to change his or her mind regarding the brand using your complicated rationale? The same is true of applicability – if you can’t immediately come up with a few ideas about how to bring your strategy to life, nobody will.

4. Be open-minded but have respect for your strategic skills

Good ideas can come from anywhere, so don’t be territorial. However, when the strategy is already agreed (and, in particular, when it’s agreed with the client) and you allow the team to present creative ideas, which are not based on this strategy, you’re simply undermining your position. How can anybody treat your work seriously, if you don’t treat it this way? We too often see great strategic presentations followed by ideas, which are completely “off brief”. This always prompts the question, where was a strategist, when the presentation was put together? Don’t let your strategy be ignored when you are 100% sure it’s the right strategy.

Relying too much on your own judgement, not understanding the numbers, being too complicated for the sake of uniqueness and allowing others to undermine your skills are the biggest and most frequent mistakes we’ve experienced when working with strategists. If you know any more, share them with us.


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