There are no Unicorns in Strategy

I met with a prospective client last week. 

He was the Head of Marketing, Brand and something else I can't remember right now — he played this role for a very large, national organisation. I met with him to introduce him to my business and hopefully, one day in the near future, work together.

We hit it off really well and I walked away feeling like we could get along quite well — business development isn't too different from dating.

During the conversation he confided in me and told me that he was struggling with implementing the business strategy which he was handed by the Executive team.

I asked him why he was struggling — "I don't know what to do with it, it's filled with visions, jargon and dreams — I'm not clear on what the strategy is."

This poor guy was handed a strategy that didn't tell him 'how' — it just told him about the aspirations of the business and left out how those aspirations were going to be met.

He continued, "It's like they expect me to pull a fucking rabbit out of the hat."

And that is exactly what they expect of him.

Consider for a moment — this guy is our client!

Over the years (and as recently as last week) I've worked with executive teams whose version of strategy is to tell you about the goals of the business and leave you hanging like a kid staring into the window of a lolly shop without any spare change in her pocket.

And this isn't just the common thing amongst Heads of Marketing or Senior people in Senior roles — this is the common thing in most businesses, most creative agencies and most design studios.

In this context, strategy it seems, is the art of making unicorns appear out of shitty Powerpoint presentations.

There are no Unicorns in good strategy.

Side note: I deliberated long and hard about whether to capitalise the word Unicorns and after consulting with my 10-year old daughter and 8-year old son, they damn well deserve it.

Saying that, as wonderful as Unicorns may be — there aren't any in good strategy.

But there are a shit load of them in bad strategy.

One of the things I've found both frustrating and interesting throughout my career is that true 'strategic business problems' seem to be pushed 'down' the chain when the executives in those businesses simply don't have it nailed.

I've seen this time and time again — marketing teams exerting enormous pressure on their agency suppliers to solve business strategy issues.

This has meant that agency and freelance suppliers like most of the people who read this journal are put in an interesting position:

1. You're petrified because you're out of your depth
2. You've adjusted and you're now doing lots of different types of work
3. You're trying to navigate through the mire and learning as you go

All three scenarios are valid and very real in an industry that at times is a commodity and other times a true partner.

These scenarios also lead to a lack of uniformity around what good strategy is and how it is developed.

I'm grateful to continually meet many people within our industry, through my journal, my business, mentoring and speaking engagements — and the common thread is that there isn't a common thread when it comes to the 'strategic side of things'.

There is confusion, mixed messages and jargon.

If one side of the debate is that our creative output as Designers is starting to look the same — the opposing side of the debate can be that our strategic capabilities are all over the fucking place.

One agency owner told me that they meet with their clients to listen to their problems and then go away and 'develop a strategy over a group lunch with each other' — presenting it a week later in a Keynote presentation. 

I asked him if he had tools or methods and his reply was "honestly, we just use intuition."

Another Strategist I interviewed recently responded to the same question with the following — waving her hands in the air for effect:

"I lock myself and my team in a room for as long as it takes — we make sure we use all of our insight and expertise to arrive at a good strategy. We pull things from the internet and try to create insight from ...."

She lost me at locking herself in a room.

Another strategist mentioned that they use a 'proprietary method'. After a little time and a few questions, his 'proprietary method' was a workshop and a presentation where her team put forward creative ideas.

And then there is our friend the Head of Marketing, Brand and Something else I can't remember from the top of this article — this poor guy had to pull a rabbit out of a hat and he was about to brief me to help him.

Alarm bells rang.

I've come to develop a heightened sense of awareness of this situation and I tend to nip it in the bud as they say — as soon as possible. This situation is when your client has their back up against the wall because their superiors haven't done their job, and now, your client is passing the responsibility of solving critical business issues and sometimes marketing issues, onto you — the Designer. The Communicator. The Strategist.

This, in my opinion is why so many people in our industry make shit up when it comes to strategy. 

Their backs are up against the wall as are their clients' — they're given an opportunity to 'do more strategic work' and they need the revenue — so they do it.

Leading us to have a wealth of crap methodologies that don't resemble good strategy by definition, at all.

We're left with a long list of aspirations, visions and goals that amount to nothing more than a long list of aspirations, visions and goals.

Good strategy tells us why, what, when and how.

No Unicorns.

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