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HOW MEDIA MADE ME A BETTER BRAND STRATEGIST
 

My first posts were in creative agencies, and my last in a media agency, but always in strategic roles: brand strategy, integrated marketing, and connections planning.

The dual experience, I thought, promised to make me a valuable contributor to any kind of marketing and communications agency: Someone able to bridge the gap between traditional brand strategy foundation and the new opportunities arising in content, media and technology.

What I’m finding is that most everyone sees this bridge as one directional, from strategy to execution. As it’s commonly put, this is someone who’s able to “walk the talk,” or “bring strategy off the page and to life,” or “think and do.” While that’s certainly a meaningful contribution, it’s fulfilling only half the job.


I believe it was in 2005, at the 4A’s Account Planning conference in Chicago, that Russell Davis argued strategy was execution. Everybody understood the duty of the strategist to get hands-on in the execution to ensure the strategic intent was respected until the end. We, the nerdy planners, started dreaming about joining production meetings, getting the best food, hanging out with the coolest people.

Now, when I say that execution is strategy, it seems like people (especially strategists) get nervous. It’s as though I meant that you could substitute strategy with a bunch of successful tactics, or that I want to replace the brand strategist at the creative AOR with a bunch of strategists from the social media, media, and public relations agency.

What I really mean is that we can transit the strategy-media bridge both ways, and inform our brand strategy with the learning and experiences we obtain from understanding the connections planning and activation side of the marketing business. In other words, I mean that media can make you a better brand strategist and improve your brand strategies, making them truly actionable and, consequentially, more effective.
I’m not talking only about becoming a more “rounded” strategist, a better strategist, I’m talking also about making 4 specific improvements in the approach to brand strategy. All of them originating in the media agency/connections planning world, before crossing to the creative agency/brand strategy world.

- 1. Getting people as actual people and not only as conceptual targets with fancy names to inspire (or justify) our cultural standing as a brand. Being in media forces you to get closer to the real people, to be a listener for all of their dimensions: as a potential user of your communications, in the different stages of the consumer journey, in their emergent behaviors, as participants in different communities — the runners, the commuters, the busy moms — and in their alternative means to build meaning.

- 2. Leveraging the power of data, beyond the insight and toward the signal. There’s a lot of noise about the lack of humanity of data and the importance of telling the story behind the data. But what about unfolding your brand story through data? It’s hard to imagine a better way to get closer to people and influence their behavior than by connecting when they are “telling us” they are receptive by generating signals: posting a status, driving through a location, tracking their progress. Using these data as a signal for positive predisposition, the right context or situation, helps our brand be welcomed to add value, and start building a relationship.

- 3. A brand is composed of both brand beliefs and brand behaviors. Most brand strategies I’ve received from ad agencies focus on defining a purpose and the brand beliefs, usually through a beautifully written manifesto. However, when we are trying to define the behaviors or activate on the purpose, or “act not ads,” things start getting undefined, and integrated teams get lost in deciphering what the strategy means beyond the campaign anthem.

- 4. There are Big Ideas and there are Media Hungry ones. This concept is from my time at Mediavest working with Claudine Cheever. Originally, Media Hungry ideas were created by the media agency as their “engagement or experience strategy” and they were made to work as a complement to the Big Ideas from the creative agency. In reality, Media Hungry Ideas are bigger, richer, more powerful and generous than “traditional” big ideas, and should replace them. Or, to put it differently, for an idea to be truly Big, it should be Media Hungry.

Recapping:

Not surprisingly, more actionable brand strategies are the result of infusing more action-solution driven thinking (or design thinking) into the strategic development.

As Paul Feldwick noted in the WARC series about the future of strategy, “Whatever changes — and a lot does — our industry can only keep itself grounded if it holds tight to these three principles. Achieving real effectiveness, understanding consumers as people, and understanding how what we do influences them, these are three massive tasks that won’t go away”.
Good connections planning and media strategy operate under these principles in this new and transformed world, and walking from this other side of the two-way bridge could help brand strategy become more relevant, useful, simply better.