The year ahead for strategy: the only certainty will be uncertainty

Planners may like a plan, but 2021 is likely to be another year of uncertainty. As society goes through fundamental shifts, strategists will need to break out of the filter bubble and connect with consumer sentiment across the country and political spectrum. Empathy will be crucial as the pandemic exacerbates existing inequalities. But while being adaptable is a strength, brands must not abandon their values. They will be critical for brand success.

The year ahead for strategy: the only certainty will be uncertainty

'Strategy in 2021 is going to need to be an art not just a science'

By Jessica Lovell, chief strategy officer and founder, Wonderhood Studios

Strategists like to have strategies in place, we like to have a plan. But as 2020 saw whole categories such as airlines and hospitality disappear overnight, Reckitt Benckiser have its best year ever, spam sales leap out of nowhere and steady stalwarts, such as Unilever – which normally expect growth of between 2% and 5% – experience growth rates of -40% to +25%, all plans were rewritten, often before they had been presented. The one prediction we can make with any certainty about 2021 is that it is set to be another year of uncertainty. 

And this means that more than ever, strategy in 2021 is going to need to be an art not just a science. As strategists, we will need to hone the art of agility and entrepreneurialism. Because the art of pivoting quickly is going to be the ultimate competitive advantage. And the year ahead for strategy looks destined to be defined by the need for agile strategy. 

Here are three thoughts on honing the art of an agile strategy. 

First. Agile can’t mean random. Strategy must not forget the importance of rigour and best practice. And clarity about what your brand stands for, the values it holds and why it exists are more important than ever. If a brand is going to be agile, it needs to do so in a way that is consistent and authentic to what they are all about. Losing sight of this risks being accused of being tokenistic. 

Second. Understand the consumer temperature. If you are going to change and adapt your plans quickly, you need to make sure that you really understand what the customer and cultural mood is. Don’t just talk at people, but understand what people’s needs are and be useful. Use data and social listening to inform, read, talk to people, observe, feed yourself on a diet of customer and cultural understanding. And then think carefully about how you apply it. There was a lot written post-Brexit about getting outside the adland bubble – this is more important than ever if you are going to have a strategy that responds to events. 

Lastly. Be prepared to rip it up and start again. Think about how you can reinvent strategy in its fullest sense – the acts, not just the ads, how the brand shows up in the real world. And enjoy creating opportunities out of a shredded plan. 

Hone these skills and out of the chaos we will end up with some great strategies and brilliant work in 2021. Come to think of it – these aren’t
bad lessons for strategy back in the “normal” world. Perhaps we can continue to benefit from some more vibrant and agile strategies when we are out the other side.

'Our best tools are conversations'

By Damien Le Castrec, head of strategy, Droga5 London

This hasn’t been a year that invites further prediction but a better strategy could emerge from it. Here are two things we should keep doing in the year ahead:

1. More openness

The national lockdowns might be pulling us apart but they have
also helped strategy to open up to others. And the past few months have been a reminder that our best tools are conversations, not presentations. 

Conversations are inclusive; it’s strategy talking with people
not at them. They’re liberating, they get us to spend less time crafting slides and more time texting scrappier insights on WhatsApp. Conversations simplify our thoughts and spark new ones. They test our strategies, we see what sticks and what doesn’t. Conversations invite others to contribute and challenge. They move things faster from strategy to execution. Without them, strategy stays within strategy. But with them, strategy improves, gains influence and is felt in the work that we make.

2. More generosity

The current situation invites more humility and generosity. Two qualities that go against our reputation as strategists: a) loving working on our own and b) striving for being the smartest person in the room. 

Who knows if this is true or not but I’ve been lucky enough to see that strategists can help out strategists. Several times a week, our department meetings become a safe space where we can get contribution and validation from others. And those meetings are critical to keep our self-confidence up. It demands confidence to express a point of view on a complex and ever-changing world and to take the first leap in the creative process. It’s good to see a strategy that doesn’t try to outsmart others but one that helps others get smarter. And it is this same generosity that we see today on LinkedIn and Twitter, where many of us have started talking and mentoring those who aren’t in the industry yet. 

No matter what lies ahead of us, a more open, humble and generous strategy will help us go through it. 

'Change has to come with empathy. Fierce, uncompromising empathy'

By Lucy Jameson, founder, Uncommon Creative Studio

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” In 2020, we felt the full force of Lenin’s words. My prediction is that 2021 will provide more of the same, but with bells on.  

We’re still facing coronavirus, Brexit, systemic racism and rising inequality. There’s a once-in-a-lifetime shift going on from physical to digital that puts us further in the stranglehold of big tech.

A global recession is lurking behind the current furlough schemes, waiting to strike in 2021. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s worst-case scenarios predict unemployment peaking at 13.2% in the first quarter of 2021. And the climate emergency won’t go on pause for any of this either. 

So, in 2021 we have to move out of the survival mode that’s characterised 2020. Just “hanging in there” is not an option. The good news is that amid the doom and gloom lies opportunity and change for all of us. But that change has to come with empathy. Fierce, uncompromising empathy.  

In the depths of a global recession, we need to understand the storms people are facing, even if we are not in the same boat. We have to find ways to break out of both our social media and support bubbles to see what’s really happening. Yet again, we witnessed the failure of traditional research and polling in the US election. Instead, we need to find ways to walk unfamiliar streets, to visit other people’s shops, to have a chat and a rummage around their houses. But that of course is going to be harder than ever until a vaccine is distributed at scale. 

So, let’s experiment with new research approaches to feel the friction people face. In the wake of the last recession, I experimented with two new research panels, Grapevine (chatting to barmen, cabbies and hairdressers – people who talk to people for a living) and Unheard Voices (chatting to those usually ignored by research – the unemployed, people with disabilities, those with criminal records and so on). What’s the 2021 equivalent? 

Understanding alone is not enough, though. Why not channel our inner underdogs and think like Megan Rapinoe, Kamala Harris and Marcus Rashford? Ferocious caring needs to come to the fore.  As strategists, our job is to help pave the way to a different reaction. We have the chance to influence more than a brand’s voice, we can influence its actions, too. So, let’s find those clients who want to make a difference and advise them how to help. Then let’s make them famous and successful. But, underpinning it all must be fierce, uncompromising empathy. That is what has to characterise the year ahead for strategy. 

'People don’t care about what makes a brand tick'

By Katie Mackay-Sinclair, partner, Mother

I was surprised to hear that the certainty of planning has been whipped out from under us by 2020. It never had any certainty for me. I now also have “perspective” from 12 months’ maternity leave and you know what? When it comes to what we do at work, everything has changed, but little has really changed.  

In the past year I became a normal person. More interested in my newborn baby than the latest ad, pretty much like every other real person out there. I only noticed the rare campaign… and I’m a partner at an ad agency. I did, however, roll my eyes at the mirrors to the new reality; felt disappointed by those who abandoned their brand worlds and tone of voice to showcase yet another “we get you” Zoom montage; and more than anything, realised how rare it was to have the confidence and courage to know who you are and how you show up – and to stick to that when things get tricky. This is something working on the great chicken crisis of 2018 wrote in indelible ink in our strategy playbook.  

With the world turned upside down, the reality check I’ve always given has become even more prescient: real people don’t care about what makes your brand tick. But show up with insight and conviction and you’ll be the communication I’m happy to see when all I feel is discombobulated. We’re not meant to have favourite clients, but there’s something that connects mine. The lesson that comfort in our industry comes from taking unrelenting joy in feeling uncomfortable. This is what’ll see us through whatever 2021 hurls our way.

Great things have always been born out of adversity, but I think there’s more at play here than making the best of a bad year. Raising a child has taught me to have unbridled hope in the future no matter what. Let’s use what we’ve learned from a year of tragedy, uncertainty and transformation to deepen our skills of resilience, our ability to truly care and our empathy for what’s really important. We’ve been given an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and shape the agencies and brands we lead to be not just fit but thriving, for a future I couldn’t have imagined as I got ready for maternity leave. Feeling uncomfortable has never had more purpose.