toilet roll don't panic


Strategy is constipated - here's the laxative

In case you missed it, we're republishing some of our most popular stories of the year so far. Here we talk to AMV BBDO CSO Martin Weigel about strategy and imagination

By Conor Nichols

Apparently - according to those that know - strategy is suffering with a bout of constipation. Hmm, so what to do? Drink some more water? Take some magnesium? Three strategist friends think not. They have opted for a clear out.

The trio - Martin Weigel, the chief strategy officer at AMV BBDO, Rob Campbell, the chief strategy officer, Colenso BBDO, and Paula Bloodworth, the head of international strategy at Uncommon - started debating the state of strategy during lockdown over weekly zoom calls that allowed them to vent about the industry and keep each other sane.

They picked up the theme again in Cannes to discuss how strategy can become exciting again. The strategists feel that strategy is in a corner and that the tools and models designed to help planners have now become the process and the goal - 'a lesser substitute for the majesty of independent thinking'. As a result, strategists are continually being outsmarted by those who recognise and embrace the 'endless possibilities of imagination'. “Imagination is the laxative,” says Weigel.

Colenso’s Campell began the discussion by touching on the “production line of conformity” existing in the industry. “Somewhere along the line we've chosen speed over quality, distribution over memory, relevance over intimacy, precision over fame, and convenience over trying. As the great Janis Joplin said, ‘you are what you settle for’. And at the moment, we seem to be settling for a lot."

Seeking to help solve the “low bar of quality” conundrum, Bloodworth puts the “imagination crisis” down to a misunderstanding of the role of imagination in its capacity to problem solve, as well as innovate. “Imagination is a last resort that for many is wasting away, in a world where all our text, data and prepackaged images are easy solution seeking processes,” she added. “Depressing but all hope is not lost.”

To dig deeper into Martin Weigel’s thoughts on the state of strategy, we caught up with him to explore further.

Creative Salon: You talk about strategy being constipated? Is there a solution?

Martin Weigel: All the strategy models, templates and tools available today are meant to help us rationalise our thinking and make it seem logical. But I feel like they've become cognitive straitjackets. For us, they were meant to package this thinking up and not be a substitute for doing the thinking itself.

I’m not putting a radical new idea on the table, but there’s a fair number of us that are in danger of overlooking what strategy really is and how it really operates. We're being pulled into a scenario where we assume strategy works forwards. Research, insight and the creative process - if only life was so logical, linear, and predictable. Strategy works backwards. It works back from what a brand or client organisation wants to be and makes it a reality. If you only ever work forwards, step by step, focusing on what you know today about the consumer, brand, or marketplace, you’ll only produce small stuff. What you really want is always big, imaginative, exciting and bold, compared with what you're told you can do or what you've got permission to do.

There’s also no data about the future, because all data is only ever about the past. The only way you can engage with the future is by imagining it. You've got to conjure it up in your mind. What does that better, more exciting, more interesting future look like?

It's not like imagination is a new tool for strategy. Strategy is about imagination. If you work in a linear step by step process, it's slow. Imagination doesn't work linearly. It leapfrogs and races to the most exciting thing you want to do in the future. Imagination works out what we have to build and create to make desires a reality, which is why we say, imagination’s for impatient people for impatient clients and brands. It jumps straight to the most exciting place you want to build or be, and then it does the hard and rigorous work of working out how to make it true and how to make it happen.

Do you think planning departments need to devise new skill sets to help produce high quality and innovative work?

You'd hope? You can teach a lot of things about marketing and strategy, but I'm not sure if you can teach imagination. It's probably about rediscovering skill sets. If you want to engage in strategies and imaginative practice, then get out of the office and off the screen and take a look at where the cultural innovations are happening. Go to people who are passionate about your brand because they probably have one foot in the future and are one step ahead of you already.

You also need to navigate that ‘toxic positivity’. If you want to make big imaginative leaps, then you need trust, transparency and truth. You need to be able to create an environment where it's a safe space to have ideas without being penalised or shut down. Equally you have to be able to call bullshit on things and not get upset by that. You need to be able to ask the hard questions and push each other together. You won’t make those big, audacious leaps by being afraid to disagree with each other and have amicable debates.

What do you think the future of strategy looks like?

It’s almost an existential question. My personal belief is that the core nature and essence of strategy has not changed. Strategy is about creating change and transformation and that doesn't happen if you follow a linear step by step logical reasoning. The big change and transformation happens not when you analyse yourselves to death but when you make big imaginative leaps and then put in the rigour, graft and hard work of working out how to make that a reality. That much hasn’t changed.

One of the stats we talked about in Cannes was that 40 per cent of CEOs don't think their organisational company will be viable in 10 years time if it continues on its current path. It made us reflect on the fact that the market for real change and transformation is probably a lot bigger than our capacity or willingness to deliver on real change. A lot of people want to tinker around the margins and fill in templates and tools. That's not going to help a CEO of a company who thinks their company might not exist in 10 years. You need audacious and transformative thinking.

We just need to rediscover and get reanimated about the true essence of strategy, which is looking into the future and working out where you want to be - and then working backwards. That's what client organisations of every shape, size, colour and type are grappling with. What are we going to be? Do we have a future? What kind of future do we want? How can we create value for people in today's world where tastes and needs are changing? And so rapidly? You've got a race into the future, push the beam forwards and race to the answer. Strategy is about creating accelerated realities that a huge market of client organisations are asking us to help create. The 'shuffling forward' mode of strategy is like playing the violin on the deck of the Titanic.


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