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The Dying Art of Strategy

Rob Foster - Observatory International Rob Foster Managing Partner, London June 7, 2023

Images of chess pieces to illustrate strategy

Famed ad man Bill Bernbach once proclaimed that “creativity is the last unfair advantage” in marketing, a statement that arguably still rings true to this day.  What also seems true in the modern marketing industry, however, is that the same could also be said about strategy.

Marketing is becoming increasingly dominated by price, speed and machine-led decision making, which has the potential to render proper strategic thinking a dying art form.  Recently the chief strategy officers for both Wavemaker and PHD have left their positions.  Is this perhaps indicative of a worrying trend where strategy and strategic thinking is being devalued and/or ignored?

Impact of the current economic climate on marketing strategy

The current economic climate is tough for brands and consumers alike, and marketing often finds itself in the firing line when costs need to be cut.  36% of marketers surveyed for Warc’s Global Trends Report 2023 said that they planned to reduce marketing spend in 2023, despite the evidence of the long-term negative impact this would have.  This reduction will have an impact on the skills and capabilities being employed, both internally and with agency partners.

Client-Agency relationships run the risk of becoming transactional during economic depressions.  Procurement departments tend to be more involved and requests focus on asset production volumes or percentage savings in the media buying.  There is a commoditisation of skills.  In such an atmosphere as this it becomes harder to assign value to less-tangible capabilities such as creativity and strategic thinking, and so if cost has become the objective then these become deprioritised or cut altogether.

That feels counterproductive to success.  After all, the value of a good strategy is that it drives competitive advantage.  It is thinking tailored to your organisation and your specific objectives.  Why would an organisation want to devalue this?

How technology is impacting marketing strategy

Technology has a large part to play in the current shift away from strategy.  Martech innovation across the last 10-15 years brought more speed, data, scale and channel fragmentation to marketers’ fingertips, however the new age of artificial intelligence purports to offer actual thought and decision-making.

It is hard to go a day in the marketing industry currently without hearing something more about AI or being invited to an AI-focused webinar, and if the promoters are to be believed then the possibilities with this technology are virtually limitless.  It can be easy to become swept up in the hype when the likes of Bill Gates make statements about AI such as the following:

“The development of AI is as fundamental as the creation of the microprocessor, the personal computer, the Internet, and the mobile phone. It will change the way people work, learn, travel, get health care, and communicate with each other. Entire industries will reorient around it. Businesses will distinguish themselves by how well they use it.”

Marketing will inevitably change based on this technology, and in some areas it already has done.  There has been a deference of thinking, likely driven by the assumption that technology is now capable of doing that job for us.  Control is being surrendered to machines under the pretence of ‘innovation’ and of being ‘future-facing’ but it is leading to a lack of human thinking which is strategic and creative.

Artificial intelligence clearly can do many things, but true creative thinking is arguably not within its realm.  Data-informed and data-led decision making is not the same as emotion-based thought processes and experience, and it is these that generate great creative thinking.  AI has no soul.

The musician and songwriter Nick Cave was recently presented with a song created by ChatGPT which was ‘written in the style of Nick Cave’ and informed by his previous body of work.  While in theory the AI song had accuracy in terms of a similarity in style, Cave called ChatGPT an exercise in “replication as travesty” and referred to the song as “a grotesque mockery of what it is to be human.”  The song lacked authenticity and origination, something which all brands strive for in their advertising.  Asking a machine to produce marketing similarly risks replication disguised as innovation.

Just because a machine can produce an output doesn’t mean that the output should be accepted without question or critique.  Artificial Intelligence is, after all, producing results based on being taught our human lessons and learnings that have come before it.  It goes without saying that to be successful the results of the process still require human management, evaluation and application.

The industry focus on technology is rightly one of excitement and potential opportunities, however there is a worrying trend of technology becoming the strategy itself rather than it being an enabler to help achieve a strategic vision.  If use of technology becomes the starting point of a process then it creates a narrowed view and, while short-term goals may be reached in terms of instant cost-reductions, hyper-targeted activations or speed gains, the likelihood is that long-term growth will be forgotten or sacrificed.

Need for human intervention in marketing strategy development

Human thought will always be needed.  The rise of specialist strategy agencies indicates that this is something lacking in many current agency models, though it may be there but simply not utilised.  In the ‘standard’ model where a client utilises a creative agency on one side and a media agency on the other, strategy can often fall down the crack in the middle.  This is especially true for big global organisations who are balancing the need for centralised, consolidated management versus local market requirements.  Structuring an appropriate model – and knowing where to find that vital strategic creative thinking – may not be easy without an in-depth knowledge of the landscape.

Smart marketers know that strong strategic thinking can help to solve business challenges – however the necessary time and resource needs to be afforded to this approach for it to deliver value and be successful.  In a world where all organisations can in theory access and utilise the same technologies, it is the smart, strategic thinking of individuals which will help to drive competitive advantage and room should be made for this in your marketing structure and processes.

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