Agency strategists, look away now. I should have worked this out ages ago but have only recently arrived at an inconvenient truth. Sometimes brand-owners don’t want what we do, even when they’ve called a pitch.
They say they want strategy, of course, who wouldn’t? But better execution is often what they really crave, and – lest we forget – perhaps all they need. And if it’s just better execution they want, it might be wiser to focus on that – to get out of the way even, to let go (for now, at least) of your deeply held masterplan.
Yes, although both parties mean well, there’s an occasional mismatch between the strategic inflection that agencies typically seek to provide (or presume is required) and a brand-owner’s situation analysis – that their problem isn’t strategy, but execution. Unacknowledged, that’s something that keeps agency wheels spinning pointlessly and diffuses limited brand-owner resource also.
The roots of that mismatch can be found in The Halo Effect, Phil Rosenzweig’s masterful dissection of managerial grandstanding and post-rationalisation. A book that reminds us all that companies are temperamentally and organisationally inclined to blame poor execution rather than return to the strategy table when things aren’t working out (blame, in short, gets outsourced by leaders).
Let’s contemplate this first from the point of view of agencies, specifically when they are pitching and so necessarily flying more blindly than on existing client business (unless things are really bad, that is).
They’re generally thrilled to be shortlisted and reticent about asking tough questions – from pitch fees (remember those?) to access to senior stakeholders. Getting to bone honesty on the issue of strategy versus execution often meets the same fate.
Agencies keep a new business tally, of course, inflating the value of their pitch wins and glossing over any losses as they do, quibbling with Campaign and other scorekeepers as necessary. But their time might be better spent looking at patterns in their pitch data, to see how they might optimise this most speculative and expensive of resource allocations.
When my partners and I scratch beneath 101’s pitch track record (from a vantage point of top five performance this year, according to the AAR’s most recent report) we conclude that we do especially well when our prospect has been looking for what I described earlier as genuine strategic inflection.
We have – with the benefit of hindsight – sometimes over-prescribed strategy when a client was just looking for better execution.
We’ve been most successful when answering questions about the underlying direction of a business or brand, not just the executional clothes it wears – how do we dramatically improve our position and performance as an arts charity? How do we encourage young people to make some form of pension provision? How do we re-orient our service against a second generation Asian audience?
Questions like these demand strategic choices before they can be properly explored executionally. Our choices on each paved the way for "wins" from Art Fund, Scottish Widows and BBC Asian Network respectively. But had each one just been looking for better execution, we may not have won them.
On the other hand, we have – with the benefit of hindsight – sometimes over-prescribed strategy when a client was just looking for better execution.
The lesson for agencies is this – before committing to a time-consuming and resource-intensive pitch, be sure that you understand whether it is strategically or executionally motivated. Strategists, be aware that your unconscious bias will always assume it is the former.
And so to brand-owners. There are outliers of course, but client organisations are typically run against broader strategic horizons than the average agency. There’s no shortage of three year plans and brand pyramids. It might not feel like it but "steady state" often prevails, just as it should when you aspire to build a long-term consumer franchise.
The lesson for agencies is this – before committing to a time-consuming and resource-intensive pitch, be sure that you understand whether it is strategically or executionally motivated.
In that managerial context, it’s easier to fault execution than underlying strategy when performance drifts. Why go back to first principles and go through all that stakeholder management again when we could, for example, just change ad agency? (I exaggerate to make my point.)
That’s a problem for all of us, however, because in these turbulent times, ongoing strategic reflection and enquiry is critical also – enduring success is rarely just a matter of "better execution". The choices you have made (or not made) as a business and a brand need to be revisited, even if it’s just to re-commit.
Everyone wins when we stand back from the brand’s situation and the periodic "invitation to pitch" to examine what’s really required to boot the business on. A proper degree of self-awareness about whether we are inviting strategic or executional rewiring won’t just save agency strategists’ sanity, it’ll mean better marketing too.
Laurence Green is the founding partner of 101.