'Strategy' Is Overrated: Planning For The How, Not Just The What
"It is my job to create universes"
Philip K. Dick
There is a prevalent myth (at least in some quarters) that strategy defines the What of advertising - What are we trying to do? What do we want to say? - and that creativity defines the How.
To my mind, this fights human nature. It fights the nature of advertising. And it gets in the way of creating really good advertising.
Let’s recap first the argument in favour of the importance of the How.
Messaging in context
The psychologists Watzlawick, Bavelas and Jackson have distinguished between so-called ‘digital’ and ‘analogue’ communication.
‘Digital’ communication they argue is logical, conscious, explicit and intellectual. This is used for the sharing of information about objects and for the transmission of knowledge.
In contrast, ‘analogue’ communication encompasses virtually all non-verbal communication. It is implied rather than stated, and it is experienced to a large extent unconsciously.
A digital clock givens us unambiguous replicable information about an abstract number. While an analogue clock expresses time spatially - it’s open to interpretation.
Watzlawick, Bavelas and Jackson conclusion draw from their studies and analysis:
“Wherever relationship is the central issue of communication, we find that digital language is almost meaningless. This is not only the case between animals and between man and animals, but in many other contingencies in human life, e.g. courtship, love, succor, combat…”
Voice matters more than message.
It’s the How, not the What that matters in human communication. And if strategy focuses purely on the What, then it’s not thinking about a very significant part of the communication process.
Responding to aesthetic wholes
Looking to advertising, Stephen King in JWT’s Planning Guide noted back in 1974:
“An advertisement as a stimulus is a combination of medium, words, pictures, movements, symbols, associations, tones of voice, etc. The stimulus is received as a totality; the receiver does not separate content and form. The individual elements of an advertisement have no meaning on their own. They can only be judged in combination.”
Feldwick has similarly done much to remind us that advertising, like art does not work through reductionist concepts, but through the experience of aesthetic wholes.
So the What and How are inseparable - we exercise, as MT Rainey has rather nicely put it, ‘brand impressionism’. We don’t ‘take out messages’, but are left with general impressions from what we’re exposed to.
Planning for brand worlds
Chris DeFaria, Executive Vice President of Digital Production at Warner Brother has talked about just working out the plot of a movie isn’t enough:
“There is a certain type of movie where world-building is at the core. The measure of the success and value of the film isn't as simple as what's in the script, or as with many movies, who the attached stars are. There is a group of films for which those things aren't unimportant, but there are other criteria or elements that help market the movie, and also define the audience experience of the film... Those movies tend to be heavy with visual effects, or an entirely animated... And one of the things they all seem to have at their core is an idiosyncratic, internally consistent worldview that has been made visual. And that's where we get this idea of world-building... The story is going to rely on the creation of a whole universe that has its physical laws, its social laws, its aesthetic laws and consistencies. And that's sort of the first step in creating a production plan is creating those worlds.”
I like the idea of thinking about the physical, social, and aesthetic laws and consistencies of a brand’s world.
DeFaria cites two examples of movies where the plot (the What of a movie) alone doesn’t capture adequately their true magic and power:
“Because often you're looking at a story, ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ as an example, you say, this is a story of a little boy who runs away from home, goes to an island and interacts with some fantasy creatures ... and that sounds okay, but not really until you begin to see the world that the movie will take place in do you get excited. You see the tone of the characters and the environments and [those within the studio] can begin to see the potential of the movie. Or with ‘Watchmen’, you have a very complicated political drama, and in a pitch, it sounds interesting, but it doesn't necessarily feel like a compelling pop culture film. But when you begin to build a world around it, which is what Alex did with Watchmen, of course drawn from the original graphic novel, suddenly it brings the story to life. It gave it a look.”
One need only look at the difference between the original storyboard for Tron: Legacy (at the top of this post) and the finished product to recognize the truth of what DeFaria is talking about:
That we can characterize James Cameron’s Avatar as ‘Pocahontas in space’ demonstrates that much of the innovation in human storytelling is in how we find new renderings of existing stories:
All this suggests that the collection of adjectives we shove into the part of the brief we label ‘Tone of Voice’ or ‘Personality’ really does little or no justice to significance of the How.
In as much as the briefing and subsequent conversations matter more than the brief, if we’re to have properly high quality creative conversations then one of the most important contributions of planning must therefore be to feed the creative process with a clear and stimulating point of view on the brand, its purpose, its convictions, and its voice.
And however we might choose to accomplish this, it surely demands more than just a half dozen adjectives. Because all this provides important clues and stimulus for thinking about the executional rendering - the physical, social, and aesthetic laws and consistencies of the brand’s world.
The inseparability of strategy and execution
When so much of the magic and effectiveness of advertising lies in the How rather than the What, strategy isn’t just the bit that precedes the creative process. And (as I’ve argued before) execution isn’t merely the dressing up and colouring in of a strategy or message. Execution is the content.
So distinguishing between strategy and execution ultimately really isn’t that helpful. Because every executional choice and decision - from casting to user experience - has strategic import and influence.
Strategy then, is execution. And execution is strategy.
The inseparability of strategy and execution - of the What and How - has important implications for how we work and make decisions.
The implications for evaluating strategy
It means that we cannot fully and confidently evaluate the right-ness of any given strategy in advance of actually having an execution. Or at the very least, in advance of having tried out in some shape or form its executional possibilities. I think it was John Hegarty who once opined that “You haven’t got a brief until you’ve got an ad.”
Which is why I argue that 'strategy' is overrated.
The implications for evaluating work
All this suggests that without taste, vision, and the ability to imagine executional possibilities, we cannot possibly make informed and confident decisions about advertising.
And what holds true for ourselves holds equally if not more true for the non-advertising professionals in our lives. Namely the audiences for our work. Otherwise known as consumers.
When so much of advertising’s effects depend on how it is rendered, all evaluations of people’s responses to rough work must be caveated with the proviso “depending on how it’s done.”
Which is why advertising decisions must always carry with them an inevitable, inescapable burden of risk.
The implications for how we work
None of this should suggest that we dispense with planning. Or that planners assume the role of creatives.
I’ve been perhaps a little dismissive of the contribution of the What to the creative process, for there is still an invaluable What to answer.
Planning’s contribution to the creative process still needs to be anchored in defining and articulating what the opportunity or challenge is that creativity, branding and communications must solve.
As Adrian Holmes, the former chairman of Lowe once observed speaking about the creative process: “Great solutions require great problems”. Identifying the nature of the challenge, the behavioral change sought, and the role of communications in this has always been the real sharp end of planning.
So there is still a What that matters. ‘What are we trying to solve?’ is still the most vital question to be asked in any creative process.
But strategy also needs to come with some sense of what the possible How’s might look and feel like. The inseparability of ‘strategy’ and ‘execution’ means planning cannot stop thinking and come to a screeching halt at the borders of strategy and execution. It must think beyond ‘strategy’.
If planning treats ‘strategy’ merely as the bit that precedes the ‘creative process’, treating the creative brief and the definition of the ‘message’ as its key deliverable and output, then not only has it utterly sold itself short, but it has also woefully misunderstood how much of advertising (and human communication) actually works.
And of course if strategy and execution are inseparable, then it demands that planners stay involved throughout the creative process (the Fire And Forget approach to planning being nothing short of absurd) and that creatives stay involved throughout the strategic process.
Mindsets, skillsets, processes and structures that get in the way of this happening are in the way of success.
Interview with Chris DeFaria at http://www.jawbone.tv/articles/item/498-world-building-at-warner-brothers-chris-defaria-on-the-power-of-digital.html
JWT Planning Guide, 1974
MT Rainey, ‘A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips’, Admap, May 2010
Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, Don D Jackson: Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interractional Patterns, Pathologies, And Paradoxes