Fashion, Rhetoric And Ass-Backwards Strategy: A Corrective


“That’s what we’re teaching people about the business. Bluff, jargon, and vacuity”

Dave Trott

Stephen King  - the father of all planners - resisted any suggestion that there was one, universal, all-encompassing theory or model of how advertising worked. Rather, he argued for dealing with the specific, understanding that clients’ business circumstances and needs were specific.

His “useful, if perhaps a little over-simple” Planning Cycle would still seem to be an eminently sensible approach to thinking about addressing any client’s business needs:

Planning cycle2.001

Crucially, rather than pre-judge it, it leaves entirely open the nature of solution.

Poor Stephen King. He must find himself rolling in his grave a great deal.

Because it would seem that swathes of both marketing- and adland would rather practice ass-backwards strategy.

Ass-backwards strategy is easy.

First you making a sweeping generalization:

Interruption is dead.

Advertising is the price you pay for having an unremarkable product or service

Campaigns are dead.

Advertising is dead.

Marketing is dead.

Permission marketing is the new marketing.

Content not campaigns.

Interruption marketing is a race to the bottom.

Utility trumps image.

Traditional advertising is passé

People trust people, not marketing.

The big idea is dead - you need lots of little ideas.

It’s all about the interest graph.

Be in beta.

It’s about fans, not consumers.

It’s about communities, not consumers.

Word of mouth trumps messaging.

Be mobile first.

Make products that communicate.

If it’s not participative, it’s not an idea.

Content is where it’s at.

You have to have a cultural purpose.

Passive consumption is dead.

It’s all about the social graph

Lightweight social interactions are the future.

Mass-marketing is dead

You’ve got to aggregate and curate

It’s about transmedia narratives

Always on content is essential.

Do, don’t say.

Light lots of little fires.


Take your pick.

Then and only then do you ask:

“Now what’s your problem?”

In other words ass-backwards strategy works like this:

Planning cycle2.002

It relies on making specific recommendations based on very general - and more often than not entirely superficial - evaluations: “I read some half-baked research supporting my prejudice and given my lack of interest/skills in rigorous data analysis I’m inclined to believe it.”

Or it indulges in the fantasy that there is a formula for success: “Whatever the nature of your particular and unique business and marketing needs, this is the template for success.”  

Or it assumes the standards and rigour of cheap and lazy journalism: “Hey, let’s not allow lack of evidence and real enquiry get in the way of a good headline.”

Or it denies uncertainty and forgets that business performance in any competitive marketplace is relative, not absolute: “Do this and you will succeed. Never mind the competition and what they are doing.”

Or it argues backwards from channel, technology or platform characteristics to a client business issue: “This is what people can do with our channel/platform/technology. And that’s the key to solving your problem.”

Or it assumes that correlating factors are causal factors: “Company A is doing X. Company A is growing. Therefore X is the reason.”

Or it puts vested interest ahead of real analysis and problem-solving: “I’m from a design/word of mouth/social media/advertising/mobile/activation agency. The key to solving your business problem is design/word of mouth/social media/advertising/mobile/activation.”

Or it puts doing what’s fashionable ahead of doing what’s right: “I read about it in Contagious/saw it on some guru’s blog/heard about it at SXSW/it’s what everybody else is talking about/it’s won lots of creative awards/my resume needs this to be credible.”

Ass-backwards strategy can most certainly make for fun (and sometimes thought-provoking) conference and blog fodder.

It might provide agencies with the comforting illusion that they have a unique ‘positioning’ in an over-supplied marketplace.

It can provoke entertaining pub arguments.

More helpfully and importantly, it can help stimulate real and genuinely valuable debate and speculation.

And it certainly can make for some tediously self-regarding and shamelessly self-promoting books that succeed only in robbing Shakespeare’s language of all its elegance.

But it is not strategy.

It hardly goes without saying that technology is opening up all manner of new and exciting ways of connecting with consumers, so of course we should be exploring, testing, prototyping, discussing and evaluating their potential. There can, after all, be no creativity without innovation.

But we'd do well to distinguish between speculating (however valuable a role that might play) and legislating.

For I’d like to think that we’re able to approach our client’s business needs with a genuinely open mind as to what the solution might be. Rather than just an open mouth.

Perhaps we could more frequently recall that our task is to find the right (i.e. effective) thing to do. Not advocate the most fashionable.

And in doing so, we might perhaps recognize that sometimes the most fashionable thing we could do might well turn out to be precisely the wrong thing to do.


Dave Trott for planting the seed:

Paul Colman, whose brain I have plundered.

Judie Lannon, Merry Baskin eds. A Masterclass In Brand Planning: The Timeless Works Of Stephen King (the one don’t-apply-if-you-haven’t-read-it, mandatory piece of reading for every planner)