The strategic ego

Strategy is such a fat word. It is imbued with so many meanings to so many people. It proffers status and ego to the bearer of that title be it a strategist or strategic company.

The strategic ego

Talking of egos, Napoleon was a brilliant military strategist, Dominic Cummings likes to think he is a brilliant political strategist. In the brand agency world, we all claim to be strategic, elevating ourselves above our ‘design by numbers’ competitors and of course, there are agencies who only ‘do’ strategy. The truth is we are all strategists to some degree. We have to be, otherwise there is chaos. Planning is part of the human psyche and critical to our success.

The problem is that it is not always applied and if it is, not necessarily in the right way. It has hierarchy with levels all the way down to tactical actions. The military understand this. Their line of command is organised around both the dissemination of plans in the form of orders yet with the ability for each officer at each level to plan to the needs of the situation and moment. Napoleon had a plan for the entire battle of Waterloo which would have worked had Marshall Ney’s plan to break the British lines with his cavalry succeeded. 

Designers make plans and therefore are by default all strategists.  Yet so often when we write a proposal with a planning phase at the front end the client says, “Oh no, I don’t need that, we’ve already done the strategy”. They are not entirely wrong. Like Napoleon, they have drawn up their battle plan, or rather brand strategy, which results in the brief we receive. But like Ney’s interpretation of the battle plan for his cavalry we also need a plan for design that interprets the brand strategy in distinctive and engaging way and which, hopefully, unlike Marshal Ney’s, will be successful thus avoiding the firing squad! 

Success comes for brands not just when there is a brilliant, initiating ‘idea’ but when the planning connects all the way through to the shelf and beyond. Each part of the chain needs careful thought and clear decisions that link all the way up to the driving concept and all the way down to the product in use These links are critical to avoid failure. It is not uncommon to receive an exciting brand idea that has absolutely no chance of being expressed through design. Or a brilliant design that loses all its lustre when it can’t be printed. Clearly no one bit of strategy is more important than the other so we should get rid of all the egos for a start and democratise strategy. Perhaps if Marshal Ney had spoken to the infantry things might have turned out differently for the French. 

Assuming the brand positioning and proposition are clearly defined, our job, as a ‘strategic’ design agency, is to interpret that brand strategy in a way that results in design that amplifies the brand’s defined values in a distinct and memorable way. That requires us to link those values through a personality and expression that matches our understanding of the consumer interaction. That’s not easy especially when we also need to consider the complexity of today’s marketing mix and the technicality of getting something to market. 

One way people avoid the deep thought required is to generate a whole bunch of designs and let the consumer pick one in research. Very poor practice in our view. Launching a product without truly knowing ‘why’ even if it is a success means you cannot build and grow the brand on with any plan around it. Yes, use research but know what questions to ask by knowing what aspects of the strategic intent the design has to answer. Use it to test and refine your plan, not absolve responsibility. 

We commissioned a survey of our clients a couple of years back in which our clients told us we stood out as a strategic design agency and so would select us for their very nuttiest of challenges. We are immensely proud of that, trying our best not to get big headed about it, and remaining clear in our minds that we are not a strategy agency, we are design agency that puts great store in proper planning.  

Nick Dormon
Nick Dormon

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