Confessions of a Strategist Who Doesn't Like Strategy

It's a means to an end, not an end in itself

York University is one of our clients at Ogilvy, and we recently did some work for their faculty of engineering, which inevitably led to lengthy discussions about the nature of engineers. Perhaps more than any other faculty, engineers are a proud community. After graduating, many engineers literally wear their pride on their hands in the form of a ring that signals a fellowship with all those who have chosen their particular profession. We wanted to understand why it was that engineers were so disproportionately proud. So we asked them, and their response was simple. Their pride stems from the fact that they are the ones who make things.

As a strategist working in advertising, I also make things. But most of the things I make never see the light of day outside of the agency. The things I typically make are roadmaps, perspectives and rationalizations. They are usually emails, documents or presentations, and they usually play an important role in making something, but they are not the thing itself.

And they shouldn't be.

You see, all too often I will read strategy docs that forget that we are not in the business of producing strategy docs. A blueprint isn't drawn to be hung on a wall. A blueprint is drawn to lay plans for how you will build something. But I will regularly encounter strategy documents that read like tomes to strategy itself. It's easy to spot these documents, and once you know what to look for, you will see them everywhere. They use language and references intent not on clear communication but on impressing other strategists. They languish in their own ingenuity rather than concisely pointing to a way forward. They exist in worlds conjured by the strategist, that are untethered to real human behavior or the need to actually transform the theoretical into something tangible. They exist to serve themselves more than they exist to service the creation of something.

This is perhaps why some advertisers resent management consultants. It's easy to create a strategy if you don't actually have to make anything at the end. We could all write blueprints if we didn't have to eventually roll up our sleeves and start hammering nails into wood.

But that's not us; we actually need to make things. We create value, not efficiency. And the spectrum of things we make is widening every day, and the role of a strategist is more valuable than it's ever been. So why waste it on strategy for strategy's sake? Our job is to dive headfirst into complexity and emerge not with a solution but with a plan. Our job is to give our co-conspirators the confidence that at the end of all the long days and revisions, we'll have something that will actually work.

That's why I love being a strategist, but I'm also very skeptical of it. The role of strategy is to make it easier to make things that work. If it doesn't do that, then it's probably getting in the way. And believe me, your advertising colleagues don't have time for things that aren't helpful; they are already too busy making things.

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Tom Kenny
Tom Kenny is chief strategy officer and partner at Courage.

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