The following is a notated version of a talk I gave last night at the APG Noisy Thinking event on 21st Century Strategy.
When the APG asked me talk about '21st Century Strategy' I’d not long before read Emily Bell’s brilliant Hugh Cudlipp lecture about the future of journalism. Emily talks in that lecture about the growing ‘tabloidisation’ (and not in an entirely negative way) of news output and specifically about (like the new breed of ‘digitally-native’ news organisation) news rooms that now feature optimisation desks, insight, analytics and data specialists, and even aggregation desks. A kind of journalism that is fully integrated with the social web:
‘Tabloid or popular journalism is being done by the same outlets that produce the most serious chin-stroking think-pieces. In 2005 the Huffington Post pioneered this ‘mullet strategy’ for journalism, which looked neat and respectable at the front, wild and hairy at the back.’
I think there are many parallels that can be drawn between the challenges faced in the practice of journalism, and those in the craft of strategy. But I think you can’t really talk about the future of strategy or planning without talking about the future of agencies. And the context in which agencies are now operating is of-course shifting dramatically. It’s a context that threatens the very lifeblood of our clients. Work done by Professor Richard Foster at Yale University showed that the average lifespan of a company in the S & P 500 had declined from 61 years in 1958 to 18 years today.
Data from IBM has shown that the majority of marketers believe that their roles will change in the short and mid-term, and a sizeable minority believe that they need to actually reinvent their roles (yet comparatively few know how). Small wonder when technology provision in just the marketing sector alone (let alone all the other vertical functions in a business) is exploding, marketers are increasing talking about the ‘marketing technology stack’, and the most exciting things for them in both the short and longer-term are creating joined-up customer experiences and this thing called content marketing.
Could we have imagined a few years ago that a consumer electronics manufacturer (GoPro) would have already garnered over three quarters of a billion views on YouTube, a soft drinks manufacturer would have 700 people (larger than many media owners) in a building in Austria devoted to nothing but content, or that Amazon could get so adept at customisation that it is serving up different content to every one of its 250 million odd monthly active users, or that a company (Facebook) could completely transform its revenue base from a standing start in little more than two years, or that a search engine gets so good at using data that it can understand the nuanced context of how we talk about something to give us a better answer to our question.
But as I said before, the future of strategy is closely intertwined with the future of agencies. Drawing on the work I did for The Progression of Agency Value project, repurposing Gilmore and Pine’s Economic Value model gives us a good model for understanding that the future of agencies, and therefore strategy, will be about progressing from providing services toward delivering value through experiences and ultimately about helping to affect transformations or changes in the client organisation itself. We seem to ask the ‘What is Strategy?’ question a lot, and I wonder if it’s because whilst the fundamentals of what strategy is remain the same, the context for how it is deployed is always shifting. Lawrence Freedman’s definition talks about strategy as a fluid, flexible, continuous thing that responds to unforeseen situations. Noah’s thought about strategy really being about building algorithms (rules) that help drive optimal outcomes in decisions is good because it takes account of the fact that humans are critical to designing those rules, and that algorithms are constantly being updated to take account of evolving environments. So clever ways of putting people together with technology will always win.
Columbia Business professor Rita Gunther McGrath (in ‘The End of Competitive Advantage’) talks about how organisational strategy is shifting from maintaining sustainable competitive advantage to building a series of transient advantages, which in turn has implications for the fluidity with which you allocate talent, organising resources around opportunity rather than existing structures, continuous innovation, continuous experimentation and a ‘fast and roughly right’ approach. This, and the increasing convergence of strategy, innovation and transformation creates opportunity for agencies and for strategy. And if strategy is increasingly starting to look like innovation which is starting to look like transformation, then the interesting places are in the overlap between planning, service and experience design, and organisational change.
The exemplar of GAFA and their ‘vertical stack’ approach shows the possibilities of creating user-centric systems that use data to join up customer experience, taking value from interaction at one touchpoint and using it to enhance the experience at another touchpoint. So opportunity exists at the centre (optimisation, automation or augmentation through creativity, of BAU or core services and functions), and at the edges where innovation happens (emerging understanding, set-up and design of the new). But all of this, as the Cap Gemini/MIT Sloan study shows, requires us not to pursue shiny new technology for the sake of it but to always remember the value of the skills, behaviours, culture and leadership that surrounds it.
My final thought was about Sturgeon’s revelation that 90% of everything is crap. There’s a lot of crap advertising around. There’s a lot of crap content marketing. When it’s so easy and cheap to create stuff and put it out there, more than ever the role of the planner/strategist is to stop stuff being crap.
So 'Mullet Strategy' is about being neat and respectable at the front (creating exceptional joined-up experiences and good campaigns based on great insight, strong creative ideas - and not being crap). And it’s about being wild and hairy at the back (working with clients to create continuous, responsive interactions and experimentation that might generate new learning, improve capability, and ultimately change the organisation itself - and of-course, not being crap). In this way, and in reference to Oliver Burkeman’s wonderful piece in The Guardian about how 'Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time', perhaps we just need to join with our clients in winging it a bit more.