Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Truly Strategic Advertising People Are Essential

I am always hearing from creative people that account people are not strategic (lately, I have been hearing that planners are not strategic, either). I have posted many times about account people needing to be stronger and better trained so as to become strategic partners with their creative department and their clients.

Strategy requires understanding the underpinnings of a brand or even a category.  It is what makes the brand successful and what separates it from its competitors.  The reason why junior account people should do competitive analysis is to come to an understanding about the marketing and selling both of the client’s brand as well as competitors – it isn’t just about who spends what and where.  Advertising – any advertising, whether traditional broadcast or print or digital – should be the manifestation of strategy.  I have always believed that understanding the historical competitive environment (meaning going way back in time) will lead to insights into a brand and a category.  Often, the most consistent brands in terms of messaging and strategy are the leaders in their categories.

Strategy is the foundation of a brand. The strategy for Coke and Pepsi are perfect examples.  Coke has been “America’s soft drink” for generations.  And the “Pepsi generation” – younger and hipper has underlined the brand for as long as I can remember. Despite changes in execution and campaigns, both brands remain true to their basic strategy.

Ironically, clients do not always understand their own brands.  Over the years, there have been many ad agencies which end up being the true protector of the strategy (In some cases, the client is the keeper of the strategy; see below.).  More than one agency has been fired when a new CMO arrives at a company and wrongly wants to change the strategy in order to put his or her imprimatur on a brand. 

And yet, sad to say, too many ad agency people, both creative and account and, possibly even planners, fail to grasp the essentials of their brand’s strategy. I interview a lot of account people, particularly juniors, who don’t “get” their own competitive analysis.  But this all goes back to lack of proper training. Because the training is missing, it isn't surprising that many people in the business don’t understand this essential part of advertising.

Strategy should be everyone’s job. Unfortunately, today it does not seem to be anyone’s responsibility.  Account management, when it comes to strategy, has been replaced by planners, but planners too often define their role as the more limited voice of the consumer or insights rather than strategy.  Creative people are often too busy executing individual ads and campaigns and don’t really get to the true essence of their brand’s strategy.  And account managers are too busy getting the work out.  That is also true of clients. Which leaves no one to watch the brand.

In the heyday of Absolute vodka, Michelle Roux, the genius behind the brand, could look at two executions proposed by his agency, TBWA.  He had the uncanny ability to totally understand which of the two presented ads was the best manifestation of Absolut’s strategy. He was the ultimate keeper of the strategy and the brand.  His vision enabled Absolut to become the number one imported vodka because he kept the strategy intact.  Managing the tone of voice and attitude while maintaining its consistency is essential for the long term success of most brands.

And it doesn’t matter if it is television, radio, print or digital content.  Someone must be the strategic master.


  1. Great post, Paul. I agree that with the advent of "planning," the strategic ball was taken from account management, and never really picked up. That left a hole for "strategy consultants" to convince clients they could develop brand strategy without having to execute against it.

  2. I have worked with a murder of "planners" over the years. A few got strategy but most did not. I remember one time suggesting to a planner that we go out for a mall crawl and do a bunch of store checks. She had no idea what I was talking about.

    1. Chris: Store checks is a lost art. Many truths have been determined while counting facings!

  3. Hi Paul,
    Great article. I always enjoy reading your posts. I couldn't agree more. Back in the 90's I started a competitive intelligence department within an agency for a big client. My staff consisted of 6 people right out of school as I believe that it was so important for Jr. level to understand strategy/objective/target, etc right from the beginning. Analyzing the category in terms of the competitors creative and spending and then writing assessments for the clients was a great way to build a strong core for what they would need as they moved their way up.

    1. Truly understanding the entire competitive advertising environment is great training and background. Thanks for sharing this with me.


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