The year ahead for planning

From tearing down agency silos to trusting our hunches more, 2015 is the year when we must radically change the way we work to drive strategy forward. By Craig Mawdsley.

Craig Mawdsley
Craig Mawdsley

This needs to be the year when strategy stops standing on the precipice, wondering whether to change and instead takes a leap of faith to lead a radical new way of working.

Most of us are still thinking too conventionally, still taking refuge in TV, still treating digital as though it were a new medium when, in fact, it’s a new mindset.

We need to get agile, or rather get Agile (the proper noun, not the verb). Radical change is coming, and we have a decision to make – either we let the change happen to us and get pushed, or we take a leap of faith and change ourselves before we’re compelled to.

We need to smash down walls between strategy and all other functions, so they’re helping us do our job and we’re helping with theirs. We need to try something new every day. We need to start documenting what’s really working and what isn’t, so we all learn faster. We need to think of the people we used to call consumers as audiences and collaborators. We need to persuade our clients to go on this journey with us.

Our agencies are full of people with the potential to contribute to our thinking, but far too few of them are doing it. We draw a line around those of us who are strategic and those who are not, limiting the potential of our ideas. It’s a criminal waste of time and creativity. This year, we need to make strategy everyone’s job.

And if we do this, 2015 will be the most exciting year any of us have had in our careers. It will be the year when we guarantee the future of our industry and our discipline. The year when, instead of doing digital, we start to be digital. The year when work gets better and better and better.

So this is our choice: dive in, get messy, make mistakes, radically change the way we think and work (and persuade the rest of our agencies to come with us). Or just do what we did last year and become gradually less useful. I know what I’m going to do.

So, how do we change in 2015?

Help your agency organise around problems, not departments

Strategy and creative need to stop being departments and start being activities, carried out by smart people who work together, irrespective of their job description. Rather than huddling in our departments, we need to get out and surround problems. Agencies should feel like a series of circles around briefs, devising ideas, whether those are strategies, executions or one leading into another. Creative directors should be there before the strategy is developed and strategists should be there after the execution has been sold.

This has implications for how we use our spaces. Our agencies should feel like workshops for our future, rather than museums of our past. More space should be dedicated to modular work areas, less space should be taken up by offices and meeting rooms. It’s human instinct to find solace in departments, but it’s an instinct we can shake off with the community we can find in our projects.

Stop the relay race and work in multidisciplinary teams

The conventional relay race (client briefs us, we rewrite it, we brief the creative team, they present the idea to us) gives strategy power, because we have our own special bit of it. Whatever we have done with those two hours, two days or two weeks, they are ours, no matter how pedestrian the outcome or how few deckchairs we have rearranged.

Stopping the relay race takes that power away. Because, suddenly, we don’t have a special bit in the process. None of it is ours. But if we can work out how to influence and be influenced in a respectful and open way, then all of it can be ours.

It’s much harder to draw a line around the strategy bit, but the ideas that come out at the end are so much better that no-one will care.

It is always better to be part of a team that achieves greatness than the sole author of mediocrity.

Meet daily to review progress

At the moment, too many projects are punctuated with surprise reveal moments. Key members of the team disappear for a week or so and then, just before you need to see the clients, they pull a rabbit out of the hat. Or sometimes it’s not a rabbit. It’s a cat or a sheep or an otter. And you were really hoping for a marmoset.

This is lunacy. The kind of lunacy that has made "pushing back the  client meeting because we haven’t got anything" a core and valued skill of account management. Our clients and our account handlers should never be put in this position.

Every day, everyone (yes, including the client) should know exactly what’s going on. Just try it. What exactly are you afraid of?

Of course, we need to do it with respect and confidence that, if you’re in the middle of the process, the ideas will not yet be perfect. But watching them emerge and improve is exhilarating.

You will find that it suddenly takes all the stress out of the process and the client buys braver strategies and more exciting work. No alarms and no surprises, as Thom Yorke used to say, before he began doing all that alarming electronica.

Work in the open so everyone can see what you’re doing

Strategy and creative are deeply introverted departments. We like to work in the dark, afraid that the perfection we have crafted will inevitably be smashed to pieces if anyone sees it.

We need a bit more confidence in one another and a little less arrogance in the immutability of our ideas.

We won’t piss on each other’s work and none of our ideas are so good that they can’t be improved by collaboration.

The reality is that most of us are working on half an idea. We think it’s a whole idea, but it’s usually not. All the best stuff happens when your half-idea meets someone else’s half-idea. And your half-idea is never going to meet its perfect partner unless it puts itself out and about a bit.

Most of us are still thinking too conventionally, stil taking refuge in TV, still treating digital as though it were a new medium when, in fact, it's a new mindset

Steve Henry (I think) once defined creativity as two things that shouldn’t go together, together. And, nowadays, we are realising that that process shouldn’t only happen inside the brain of a single individual, it should happen among as many people as possible, because then all kinds of wrongness start to mingle and really interesting things happen.

So fill your walls with half-formed hunches and invite people to make them better. They will help, and your ideas will take wings and fly. There’s really nothing to worry about, as you are always in charge of the final outcome. That remains your main job, but added to it is the need to create an atmosphere where others can help.

Get to ideas and prototypes earlier in the process and then continually optimise execution

At the moment, we spend 80 per cent of our time coming up with the idea and selling the idea, and only 20 per cent of our time making it. That process pretty much guarantees that anything we produce will be conventional and costly. Which I think covers the majority of the executional output of our industry. But if we invert this and trust what we all know – that our first thoughts are usually the freshest and most incisive ways to solve a new problem – then we can change things.

It requires us all to spend a lot of time getting to know our categories and consumers before we ever receive a brief (otherwise, our first thoughts will inevitably be misinformed nonsense). But, if we do, then we can get to the really interesting stuff much faster. Making unconventional work that doesn’t break the bank.

It requires strategy to be there throughout, but that’s where the new frontier lies now – strategy that balances doing with thinking and learns equally from both. Collaborative, iterative thinking has the potential to drive strategy forward, where solitary sporadic thinking holds us back.

Give it a go.

(Thanks to Russell Davies at Government Digital Service and Matthew Taylor at the RSA for the presentations and conversations that helped shape and inspire this thinking.)

Craig Mawdsley is the joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

Click here to read Andy Nairn, Richard Huntington and Alison Hoad's view on Mawdsley's manifesto.