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Killing Big Strategy

I started working at Teehan+Lax a year ago. I am often reminded by Dave Gillis, one of the partners here, of something I said shortly before I was hired:

“Any good Planner or Strategist worth their salt can look at a complex problem, go away for a month, dig up some insights, and craft a compelling argument around why we should build a certain set of tactics to solve it. But that’s a fantasy.”

This is exactly how many companies have done digital strategy for years. And it’s how I was taught and how I’ve traditionally done strategy. This approach continues to be extremely profitable for our industry, which typically bills by the hour for this work.

But I’ve come to believe this is a relic of traditional ad planning that needs to be killed, and I wanted to build a discipline around a new approach at Teehan+Lax.

The old way

Here’s how traditional strategy tends to work. You devote a team of smart people to the client’s problems. They do a lot of listening to understand their client’s objectives, then go away for a while to do some demographic/psychographic/technographic research.

They dutifully comb through consumer research and reports, hoping to uncover some magical insight that will unlock some door. For instance, they might discover that there is a statistically significant percentage of 16-24 year olds in Missouri who like kitten GIFs. So they recommend that their tortilla client sponsors a Facebook kitten GIF contest. Maybe they’ll even create a microsite for it. They will spend months planning and conceiving a campaign, cross their fingers and pray that it will ultimately deliver results.

This process assumes that, if only you find the right needle in the haystack, you will know exactly what to do and can prescribe a perfect solution.

Except you probably won’t find that magical insight by looking at stacks of consumer research. Or spitballing ideas in a room. And even if you do stumble on something significant, the ideas you brainstorm in response to that insight might not be the right answer. Even worse, you probably won’t realize all of this until you’ve burned through your budget and looked at the numbers.

This is the main source of digital marketing landfill – countless microsites that were never visited, mobile apps that nobody used, contests that only had 20 entries, and tweets that were never read. They are the unfortunate result of an approach that attempts to predict a positive outcome in a world that resists these types of predictions.

But people continue to get paid to do this work. So I guess it might sound like career suicide to say that, as a Planner, I want to kill big strategy. Why would I abandon something that many clients are still happy to pay for and which has paid my salary for the past several years?

It has to do with my desire to make digital things that people actually want to use. Things that solve real problems for real people. And that requires a better process.

Moving forward

My thinking is grounded in three key assumptions:

  1. The world is increasingly complex and fast-moving. It’s therefore impossible to come up with a perfect strategy in a vacuum and rationalize it in a 200-slide PowerPoint deck.
  2. We should be making things that people choose to use because they solve real human problems instead of simply distracting them from the things they want to do.
  3. People don’t behave the way they do because of demographics or psychographics. A 50-year-old single mother in Iowa may have the same problems as a 20-year-old married man in New York.

So what does a new model for digital strategy look like? There are two key parts.

The first is getting to a minimum viable strategy that will focus the team’s creative energy in the right direction. I always ask myself: “What is the minimum amount of work we need to do up front to get to an informed working backlog?”

Our team has a series of tools that we use to do this. The one we like the most right now is the jobs-to-be-done framework. It’s a fairly simple idea to understand, but more challenging to execute. The premise is that your customers have functional, emotional and social jobs in their lives that they might hire your product to do. Uncovering and understanding these jobs is the best method we have found to make product design decisions that will lead to something that solves problems real people have.

The second part is to start making things. If you started with 360° that you could potentially start walking in, you’re now able to focus the team in an informed direction that you can start exploring. Start small. Experiment with different approaches. Test your assumptions in code and refine your understanding of the problem as you go. Instead of conceiving in a vacuum, you will discover new problems and opportunities that you only could have uncovered by exploring, experimenting and testing.

As the project moves forward, Planning’s role is to ensure the team remains focused on the right problems, to collaborate with designers and developers to create solutions that will solve these problems, and conduct tests as required to refine our approach. Just because there’s no big up front strategic phase doesn’t mean our work ends.

This requires a shift in thinking but, as you stop focusing on selling highly-priced ideas and highly-rationalized tactics that you simply execute against, you’ll be liberated from the fantasy of big strategy to make high quality products that customers would hire to solve problems in their lives.

Eric Portelance More posts by Eric Portelance