Why strategy in agencies needs strategy

Publicis Groupe's Tahaab Rais likes to interrogate the obvious problem to find the problem beneath the problem

The rare breed. Yet, the first whose time is reduced in a scope. The least celebrated. Yet, the first ones needed when a brief comes in. Strategists are critical. Yet, not many journalists ask for interviews around strategy. So, thought we’d make one up, with quite a few… provocations about why strategy in agencies needs strategy.

The role of strategists is often misunderstood. What do you actually do? 

Unfortunately, the role of strategists is frequently misunderstood. Strategists are not brief-writers nor do they only package presentations. But not enough from our kin are actively contributing to the actual creative product produced nor elevating the value of strategy to clients and agency folks alike.

The way I enjoy working is avoiding theory and philosophy and instead, being involved throughout the process: Identifying the real problem – interrogating the obvious problem to find the problem beneath the problem. Looking at all the research and data available.

And using that to inform but getting off chairs and observing people and lives, uncovering untapped and untold truths that feel right. Building and defining a distinctive meaningful role for brands and products. Giving all the teams a strategy that will drive growth. Making sure, by working conceptually with teams, that the solutions come to life across a data-driven journey and connections plan. And being involved in measuring it, to ensure it’s effective.

Strategy often plays second fiddle to the creative idea. Why? And should this thinking be overturned?

Correction. Poor strategy and lack of rigour leads to strategists playing second fiddle to the creative idea. Strategists should not be plumbers who retrofit strategic ideas and make presentations to pre-sell the creative work.

How should this be overturned? Simply by stepping out of our closet and doing what strategists should be doing. Identifying a big problem that excites. Uncovering a truth and a strategic approach that makes people go ‘Aha, that’s interesting!’.

And being involved throughout the creative process, partnering with creative and other departments, making sure the solution is well-connected, relevant to people and importantly, effective.

Re-learning and re-educating one’s self is crucial too. This entails an investment (both monetary and time) in keeping up with the constantly evolving world – by constantly absorbing knowledge and data through varied information resources, studying and mastering relevant A.I. tools, reading financial reports and annual reports of companies, and exploring as well as creating new ways to think and make.

Should strategists lead agency processes?

An agency’s strategic methodology should become its process. It’s not enough having a beautifully-crafted agency purpose for media articles or seminar talks. It’s about converting that purpose into an operating system where everyone works with it and contributes to it.

In such an environment, strategists must assume the role akin to the master conductor in an orchestra. On brands, strategists must aim to sync the people, the client and the agency’s own teams across disciplines. Upsell and cross-sell to clients.

For the agency, strategists must sync her or his own department, the different disciplines and partner agencies.

The first leadership goal is for strategists to make sure everyone is in tune. The second leadership goal is to make sure everyone (agency and clients) are trained on it and embrace it.

Do agencies have a strategy problem? 

Yes. While we do have some really smart strategists, we need many more of them!

The trouble is that because there’s not enough understanding of what strategy entails, there’s not enough time scoped for strategists and hence, there aren’t enough quality strategists working as strategists should.

Most clients I’ve met value strategy. They enjoy conversations with strategists and respect the role of strategy.

But because most agencies don’t charge enough for strategy, strategy often becomes a cost centre vs. a profit centre that it should be, given the value of strategists.

What would you like to see change within agency structures?

The most important thing to change is the financial structure in most agencies. There’s a critical need for strategy leaders to sit the business and the finance teams down and take them through the strategic process, right from the get-go all the way to the execution and the evaluation, and help them understand the time that is needed and the value brought in.

And be involved in scoping so time is scoped accurately and comprehensively enough and clients pay for the time they want and demand from strategy.

In terms of the organisational structure across agencies, strategists should be sitting at the centre of it all, as the master-conductors.

By Tahaab Rais, Chief Strategy Officer, Publicis Groupe ME&T