Simon says strategy

We’re all everyday strategists. Is it best to drive or fly? Should I take the client to restaurant A or restaurant B? Do I send a crush a single rose or a dozen long-stemmed?

We’re always seeking the best, smartest path to a desired outcome — and that’s strategy, in a way.

Intuition drives a lot of these plans and choices; a hunch or gut feel. But when it comes to marketing strategy, intuition alone doesn’t cut it. For marketers who carry the weight of performance expectations and budget realities, the stakes are too high for knee-jerk decisions.

Genuine, effective strategy isn’t intuition — it’s a methodical, disciplined yet artful approach to solving a business challenge. And unlike intuition, it’s not something that comes easy. We sat down with McGuffin’s Strategist-in-Residence, Simon Tiffen, to talk about what real, results-oriented marketing strategy looks like.

First things first: What’s the definition of strategy?

Merriam-Webster — two fine, if long passed, Americans — define “Strategy” as “A plan of action or policy designed to achieve an overall aim.” Hard to argue with that, but I’ll add that in business, strategy is what achieves the aim of turning the uninitiated — the observer or the curious — into the engaged.

How do smart marketers use strategy to their advantage?

First and foremost, they won’t invest a dime without it. No plan is carved and no creative developed until the strategy is set. And strategy takes into account a number of variables:

  • Where the brand lives in the consumer’s mind today and where the brand wants it to live
  • The audience for a particular product or program and insights that help define that audience in the context of the brand
  • The competitive context — the places and spaces where people come into contact with the category at large and the brand itself
  • External factors, like seasonality or the political or economic climate

It’s all a bit like making soup. You have to understand how to layer flavors — which ones to emphasize and which to use in a complementary role, so you end up with a dish that’s simple but sophisticated. That’s what you want from a marketing strategy — something simple, so it’s easy to understand. But sophisticated enough to create differentiation and get the audience thinking and talking about your brand.

We’re in a creative business. Talk about the relationship between strategy and creative.

Some might call them strange bedfellows, but it’s not so. A solid marketing strategy serves as the guideposts — bedposts, if you will — for creative development, tactical planning and activation. Strategy keeps the team focused on the most effective way to meet the objectives of the brand and the campaign. It also provides the agency and client teams a great tool for evaluating creative assets. If everyone involved is aligned on strategy, it removes some of the subjectivity from the process of evaluating creative as it’s being developed.

Shifting gears, how has online search affected strategy?

A large part of a strategist’s process is “discovery.” That’s aggregating all the information that’s relevant to the client, the audience, the product or service, the competitive context, and any other variables that might impact how we approach the challenge. The Internet has both shortened the time required to complete a robust discovery and opened up a great number of new sources of information. The flip side of that coin is that there are plenty of information sources that lack credibility, so you need to be pretty smart about what you’re reading and how you’re applying it.

And data’s role in redefining strategy?

Data has fundamentally changed how strategy plays in the agency space. Strategists are frequently partnered with analytics at larger agencies; ensuring they have access to the freshest, most relevant consumer data available helps create better context for challenges that we look to marketing campaigns to help overcome.

Whether it’s discovery via an Internet search or via a company’s data, a good strategist can quickly parse through all the information at their fingertips to get to a new way of thinking about the question at hand.

How does one go from heaps of data to a strategic direction?

Getting to an insight or direction is all about ferreting out the overlap, or intersection. We consider all the information we’ve gathered about our objective (what we’re doing), our audience (who we’re speaking to) and our client (who we’re doing this for), and add in extraneous information like seasonality and the economy. We’re looking for places where these meet; a common ground, you might say. Our strategy springs from this confluence.

How does strategy inform the creative brief?

Strategy is like a game plan. It looks at a marketing challenge from a holistic perspective and considers all participants — the brand, product or service, target audience, competition.

If the strategy is the game plan for the entire program, the creative brief is a component of the plan, designed to convey a poignant insight or key idea learned about the audience, the brand or the competitive set. The creative brief serves as a jumping off point for a creative campaign that will stand out in the mind of the audience.

So the brief is called a brief for a reason.

One of the great challenges in writing a strong creative brief is knowing what not to include, being purposeful and deliberate about the information you’re including. There’s a balance that needs to be struck between ensuring the creative team has the information they need and giving the team room to breathe. If you put too many guideposts around the creative, you’ll end up with very predictable work.

That leads us to the desire for both a strategy brief AND a creative brief. The strategy brief should take into account all the information that was collected as part of discovery. It distills that down to the really meaningful insights that are the backbone of the creative brief and helps the creative team push towards good work.

Just a couple more things. First, talk about the role of the agency strategic planner.

Planners are the unapologetic advocate for the audience. Our job is to become intimately familiar with the audience. We help the rest of the team understand the nuances of how a specific audience comes into contact with a product or brand at certain times of year and in certain contexts. We unravel how that ultimately makes the audience feel about the things we’re telling them in a piece of communications.

We’ve already talked about discovery, so no need to belabor that point. But if discovery is the strategist’s favorite starting point, our favorite end point is insights, or to be perfectly precise an insight. Speaking for myself, across half a dozen agencies and almost 20 years, the specific way “an insight” is defined varies, however ultimately an insight is all about developing a fresh perspective on product, market, brand or audience, and then being able to communicate that in such a way that it inspires interesting and original thinking.

Remember Goodby’s Got Milk campaign? The insight they unearthed is that the only time people think about milk is when they run out. The campaign dramatized situations where consumers suffered because they had no milk to accompany their cake, cookies, cereal or other foods. A humorous and fresh take on an appeal for milk.

Closing thought?

Strategy is a funny thing. Everyone talks about it, but opinions as to how to arrive at it, and of its perceived value, are all over the board. Some marketers think strategy is intrinsically part of a brand’s DNA, and while it can be, there are so many factors at play — competition, technology, changing audience habits. It always pays to drill down for insight and direction. That’s why we have a strategic discipline here at McGuffin to ensure discovery. We’re big believers in the process.

Interested in strategic exploration for your product or service? Or simply a strategic gut check before initiating your next marketing project? Simon says: We can help you arrive at a better course of action — and would love to talk.

Schedule a meeting with McGuffin by reaching out to Simon Tiffen or Chris McGuire.