We’ve heard time and again that clients want consultants and agencies to be ‘more strategic.’ This applies to all kinds of agencies, from design to marketing.  What does it really mean? 

Do you know what? It’s super interesting that you’re hearing clients say they want agencies to be more strategic, because  we’re hearing almost exactly the opposite from our European and North American clients at the moment.

Many of our clients paid one of the big consultancies to come in and do a six to twelve month strategy piece. Research was undertaken, workshops scheduled and findings delivered. Everybody had a fun time in the process, but jump forward eighteen months and little if anything had changed. The highly polished strategy decks are now sitting untouched on the corporate email server, while everybody involved has gone back to the day-to-day business at hand. 

This says to me that while many companies do want to be more strategic, they don’t know how. And when they do get help, they don’t know what to do with it. You see, most companies don’t have a strategy problem. In fact they often have far too many competing strategies flying around. Instead most companies have an execution problem – the. problem of knowing how to turn a high level strategy into something meaningful and deliverable. 

The reasons for this are simple. Most companies are optimised around short term needs like quarterly targets, annual presentations and eighteen month earning predictions. Companies focus so much energy on hitting their tactical goals, they rarely have the bandwidth to think more strategically, and when they do come up for air, it’s only for a short period of time before they get swamped by business-as-usual again. 

Strategy projects become some kind of corporate vacation from the norm. An opportunity to think and behave differently. But like most of the good intentions we make ourselves when on holiday – I’m going to eat better, I’m going to exercise more, I’m going to spend more meaningful time with my family – they quickly get forgotten in the general milieu of life. 

While companies say they want their agencies to be more strategic, they often aren’t set up to deal with the results when it happens. Instead they get stuck in the middle of the strategy-delivery trap. Oscillating between high-level, but largely un-implemented strategy, and day-to-day delivery. 

So rather than strategy, I’ve come to believe that what most clients really need are a set of easy-to-implement tactics. Tactics that help break their strategy into smaller, more achievable  packages of work, which help them deliver their short term needs—earn (or save) more money, hit specific targets, or reduce risk—while simultaneously moving them a stop closer to their strategic goals. 

This is because delivering a new strategy implies some change of direction, and changes of direction are always hard. Especially if the company, its teams, and incentive structures are all based around doing what they’ve always done. 

In an effort to be more strategic, what do agencies/consultants get wrong?

I think it’s super easy for agencies to come up with a new and improved strategy. They’re used to talking to the customers, spotting new trends in the market, and analysing a company’s approach from a dispassionate, third party perspective. 

It’s harder for agencies to communicate the truth behind their new strategy, because it often relies on the company giving up long held beliefs — beliefs that have seemingly got them to this point in their careers. If I had a dollar for every time an executive claimed that they knew their audience, but were then shocked when we shared our findings (well, I guess we probably do have those dollars as that’s how we charge). So the first challenge is dealing with the inevitable cognitive dissonance that comes from having an external person claim to understand the business better than you do. Most agency strategies fall down at this point, but there’s a very good reason for this. Time.

Agencies rely on their clients changing their minds overnight, as a result of a single killer presentation. But in reality that’s not how people’s opinions change. I’ve long believed that execs rarely change their options, they just retire and new people join with a new perspective. If people do change their opinions it happens over a long time. In fact it seems to follow an eerily similar process to the five stages of grief. First anger, then denial, then bargaining, and finally acceptance (the less said about depression the better).

Because most agencies work on a project-by-project basis, they tend to fire out the strategy deck, get hit by a wave of anger or denial, and then move on to their next engagement. But the strategy deck has done something interesting. It’s opened up another possibility. As pattern-matching animals, we start looking for information that either validates or invalidates the new world view. And the more time we spend looking, the more validation we get. So a strategy that was ignored nine months ago suddenly starts to feel like it wasn’t just the right solution, but the only logical solution. 

For a lot of companies, looking at a strategy deck from one of the big consultancies can feel like looking up at a sheer rock-face. It feels undoable. They just don’t know where to start. So there are a small but growing number of consultancies like Clearleft who act as mountain guides, helping our clients drop down ropes, hammer in their first anchor, and start to climb, safe in the knowledge that we’re holding on at the other end and won’t let them fall. 

Ultimately the best way to tackle any big challenge is to break it down into its component parts, and tackle them one stage at a time, with somebody who’s done it before, who knows what they’re doing, and has your back.

That sounds like you should be delivering a tactical solution when asked to be more  ‘strategic’?

Absolutely. It’s super easy for somebody to go to a personal trainer and say, show me what I need to do to get fit. The answer is probably a mix of eating better, doing more exercise, and making a few targeted lifestyle changes. Coming up with the strategy is easy. The hard bit is actually implementing said strategy, day in, day out. So my belief is that agencies need to act a lot more like coaches. Not just writing up the programme, but being there every day to provide encouragement and support; to pick them up when they falter, and to tweak the programme based on what’s actually working and what isn’t, rather than on some one-size-fits all theory. 

So clients are saying ‘be strategic’ when they really mean, ‘I want to see measurable business results.’ Given that agencies have only so much influence in an organisation, do you think it’s fair to expect this of them? The big question: Should an agency commit to a tangible business result? Even bigger question: Should agency fee be tied to a business outcome? 

Companies and teams want to do better. To work more efficiently and effectively, to find new revenue streams, and to make (or save) more money. ‘Strategy’ is the culturally acceptable term we use when asking for help to do this. But the resulting strategy is often too big and too daunting to implement. And so we blame the strategy—or the lack thereof — and get back to our day jobs.  The reason for this is simple. People are wonderful, inspirational creatures who always have more faith in their ability to deliver something than past experience would have you believe. It’s an important form of self-delusion that has propelled the human race forward for millenia. Because if we knew how hard this stuff actually was, we’d probably never do it in the first place.

So knowing this tendency to bite off more than we can chew, I think that when people say they want strategy, they generally mean it. But I think they’re generally happy if the result is actually a tactical improvement, that pushes one or more metrics forward by a suitably acceptable amount.

As for agencies being paid based on outcomes, there’s a long history of companies experimenting with the concept of ‘value pricing.’ Like communism, I’ve always felt that value pricing makes a ton of sense in theory, but falls down when it comes into contact with complex systems and human avarice. So while I’d love to see more agencies being paid for the value they generate, rather than the time they spend, I think it’s an incredibly tough nut to crack.

Do you believe that the business pressure caused by Covid is responsible for this focus on ‘measurable results’ or do you believe it will now be  standard expectation from organisations?

I think that Covid will naturally force peoples perceptual horizons to narrow, and so it should. There’s little point working out a ten year strategy, if you’re not even sure you’ll be in business next month. So I do think Covid will force companies to think more tactically, and focus on shorter term gains. My hope is that twelve months of belt tightening will see a lot of companies through the current storm, and as they start to come out the other side — in a hopefully better position — their gaze will naturally turn to the horizon again. 

I suspect that come the start of the new financial year, which happens in April in the UK, companies will start thinking a bit longer term. I’ve always been interested in corporate time horizons as I think it mirrors some of the challenges they face with the strategy-delivery gap. 

Companies either seem to focus on what’s happening right now, which in corporate terms in the next six to twelve weeks, or they think about what will happen in the mid-future, five to twenty years out. What companies often miss is the beautiful space in the middle. Yet it’s in the space in the middle where we find the most traction; running product innovation sprints to help companies figure out where they’ll be going next. The big vision is important, as it plants a flag in the sand. But every journey starts with a single step, and it’s these single steps that are most important.

Nick Foster from Google and The Near Future Laboratory talks about Now, Next and Future. Most agencies seem to focus on the now. Most consultancies (and futurists) love to pay with the future. I’m most excited about exploring what’s next. 

It’s a rough time. What is your advice for creative professionals, whether in agencies or enterprises, who have never really seen ‘business outcomes’ as part of their mandate. How do you even get started with the shift?

I’m not sure I have a neat answer for agencies I’m afraid. I’ve been advising younger creatives to double down on Growth Design. If you haven’t come across the field of Growth Design before, it has its DNA in Growth Hacking and Conversion Rate Optimisation. While those two disciplines emerged from start-up Product Managers and Search Engine Optimisers, Growth Design has its roots in customer (and user) experience.It tends to eschew the focus on growth at the expense of everything else, in favour of balancing a company’s need to grow with a customer’s need to get the job done. So in my experience, growth designers tend to have a much stronger moral core.

Gaining and offering skills that can clearly and demonstrably help your employers deliver on their growth targets will be a key aspect of the next few years. But it has to be done in a moral, ethical and sustainable way in order to maintain trust. 

10 COMMENTS

  1. Great advice -not just for our agency partners but for our teams. Don’t use ‘strategy’ loosely. First figure out what the hell you want in the next 12-18 months

  2. We hv never faced a situation like this before – so I would argue that we do need strategy but agree that its not the shiny deck strategy but something with an eye on quick and dirty implementation because who knows what the next yr will bring.

  3. I’d love to ask Andy if he could share an example of how they implemented a strategy created by another consultant. In our experience, every new consultant wants to throw baby out with bathwater

  4. Not sure I have ever seen an instance where an old strategy deck was pulled out and implemented. I work with a Big 5 consultancy and clients are far too scared of implementing something outdated – especially now. Not sure if that kind of pattern matching really happens. bur agree on overall point of clients judging consulting by measurable results now.

  5. Let’s not dump all over the agencies please – if your financial model is geared for max number of projects a year, then that’s what you will naturally go after. This can only change if agency models change and they are given enough time to effect change. Otherwise it all sounds very good but impossible to achieve in the real world. Also this moderation of comments is bloody annoying THC

    • I think that’s why Andy says there is no neat answer for agencies – if you are an agency owned by a big group, your hands are tied, it is almost impossible to deviate from the model. i think this interview is much more useful for clients who need to think about what they really want

  6. A good, honest conversation with your client before the project starts can sort this out. I can offer the example of a brand design project, where there has traditonally been no ‘measurable’ tactic possible. However, we used an internal poll as our compass and agreed that the needle should move when the poll was conducted after. It was a small thing but made a huge difference to client confidence.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated according to our comment policy. Your email address will NOT be published. All fields are required.

Please enter your comment
Please enter your name

Sign up to stay on top of the fast-changing design and product landscape in India.