by Ben Bush
Strong creative ideas are built on strong creative foundations. Creativity without strategy may lead to beautiful art. But it’s unlikely to move a business forward or entice the marketing team to return to its agency for another killer campaign.
It’s a shame, then, that a solid, well-articulated strategy – ideally one tied to a measurable impact – is so often hard to tease out of a creative brief. Saying you need a brand refresh, a website or a sales deck is not a strategy; it may not even be what you actually need.
As an agency-side strategy team, we know how important it is to get that core articulation of the client challenge right. It’s the only way we and our partners in the creative team can possibly hope to channel our energies in the right way. So that’s our immediate priority on any project or engagement: to set the direction, unearth the key insights and provide the foundation that gives the creative team freedom to express themselves to the full.
That articulation may be a relatively quick affair – perhaps a recasting of an initial brief into something more substantial – and substantive – based on some searching stakeholder discussions and a bit of a desk research.
Or it may be a far more involved process. A business trying to break into a new vertical segment, for instance, is going to need more than a hunch that it has a transferrable offering when it shapes its new narrative. Far deeper insights are called for, and that might mean market analysis, competitive audits, social listening, persona development, customer journey mapping… the list goes on.
Either way, we’re talking about a foundational strategic platform on which our designers, writers and developers can build.
This foundation, then, is our primary responsibility as strategists. Where it gets more interesting, is the other roles we must fulfil as the partnership between the strategy and creative team flexes throughout the lifecycle of a project. They’re not so much secondary roles – I’d argue they’re just as crucial – as adjacent responsibilities. Here are four of them.
Selling the dream
At The Frameworks, we pride ourselves on our ability to get to grips with complexity. Frankly, as a consultancy committed to supporting B2B clients across multiple industries, we’ve got no choice in that regard.
In the past week we’ve been unpicking the nuances of voluntary carbon markets and what they mean for indigenous forest-dwelling communities in sub-Saharan Africa; researching the chronic shortage of specialist radiotherapy engineers in North America; and discussing the role of test and measurement equipment in meeting UN sustainability goals. And those are just the projects we’re allowed to talk about.
In each of these cases we’ve embarked on projects with little or no prior industry knowledge. But that’s fine: it’s the strategy team’s job to get up to speed, building up a nuanced understanding of clients, competitors, industry context and audiences as quickly as we can.
Less obviously, perhaps, it’s our job to educate and inspire our colleagues, so that we build a shared understanding and appreciation of these nuances. Often this means taking complex ideas and distilling them into something accessible to everyone. (This, incidentally, is good strategic practice anyway: if you can’t articulate your strategy within a few sentences then, frankly, you probably haven’t got one.)
We’re a naturally enthusiastic bunch – and curiosity is pretty much a defining ‘Frameworker’ feature – so it’s not exactly a chore for us to pitch insights to our colleagues. But it’s worth remembering that the best insights are next to useless if they only exist in a strategist’s head.
As creative development begins in earnest, the strategy team’s role pivots to a more advisory capacity. We stay close, particularly in the early creative throes, because we’re passionate about the insights we’ve uncovered and the foundation we’ve built.
So, we’re on hand as a creative sounding board, ready to pitch in with a refresher on the underlying foundation if it feels like it’s needed. And if we see the creative team heading off on a tangent or going down an unproductive rabbit hole, we need to be prepared to step in; chances are we explored that diversion already.
Back when I was an editor, the most exciting and rewarding part of my job was picking up the finished magazine – fresh from the printing press – for the first time. There’s nothing quite like seeing something you’ve worked on manifested in an Actual Thing.
The key moment today is rather less tangible – but no less rewarding. It’s when I see my colleagues working hard together, collaborating, brainstorming and owning the strategic insights I’ve helped to establish. It’s not even about that crucial moment when we all realise we’ve cracked the big idea. The real joy, for me, is knowing that I’ve reached the point that I can step back a little and leave the ideas in safe hands.
And then, of course, there’s the moment when it all comes together. When big strategic thinking and bold creative ideas share a stage and sing for their collective supper: the pitch.
Let’s not kid ourselves: by this stage the client is only interested in the creative concept. But that doesn’t mean we strategists can sit back and watch. Our role once again is to champion our insights, but in this case to guide and ground not our colleagues but our clients, to help them understand that everything we’re presenting – even ideas they may initially find uncomfortable – is born out of key truths that we’ve uncovered together.
A new hat every day
A successful creative project is a fluid collaboration between multiple stakeholders.
Solid account direction is crucial, of course, to manage not just timelines and resources but client expectations too. Strong creative direction is also essential, as is the skill and dedication of individual designers and writers. Arguably, these are single-minded roles with clear boundaries.
The role of the strategy team, though, flexes between gleaning and dreaming, rationalising and arguing, logic and magic. One minute we’re convincing a colleague that there really is excitement to be found in supply chain optimisation, the next we’re holding firm in a creative argument with a client over a key line in a brand manifesto.
We’re brand guardians. Blue-sky thinkers. Champions of clients, ideas and colleagues. Sometimes it’s not easy to remember which hat we’re supposed to be wearing. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ben Bush is a Partner at the independent design consultancy The Frameworks. Ben takes overall responsibility for strategic projects, leading research, analysis and recommendations across a broad range of business and brand challenges.