Marketing Slice: Structure as a Case for Future-Proofing the Strategic Planning Function

The first part of this article, which you can read here, set context to the importance of the strategic planning role and suggested openings for more growth the function can provide. This second part expands on one of such ways; structure — adapting the MECE framework — as a within-reach means to getting value on both the agency and business sides.

MECE: Integration through diversity (ITD). Competitively superior and delightful solutions are easier and faster to achieve, on a regular basis, with a cohesively aligned strategic planning team, possessing diverse, unrelated disciplines.

Consider OneGreenPlanet’s revealing thought on the extinction of humans in the absence of a mutually beneficial co-existence with bees, ants, bats, termites, and frogs. Then, think of the members of an efficient strategic planning team as different species without which the ecosystem will not survive.

The value of the interdependence of skill, which for a time allowed advertising monopolize creativity more than any other profession, is even more evident when considering that the ideal strategic planning team thrives when able to lean strongly on the diversity of background and multiplicity of approaches towards achieving insights that bear universal and cultural relevance. Essentially, the more diverse, the better the output. It is vital for the team to leverage this expected innate practice in the play for impactful and delightful strategic outcomes, the kinds that incorporate precision of thought and the elasticity of ideas.

In the pursuit of, and focus on traditional strategic planning set-up, agencies may have seen a reduction in the dexterity and efficiency of solutions, and also a neglect of the quest for quality strategic thinking; thereby, starting clients on the road reaching out to other places for tactical support.

Barring no strategic strength desired by an agency or a business, the integration through diversity technique works better than the typical strategist by title, marketing background, and wishful strategic capability format for recruitment that is prevalent today. The most recent and popular being a strategic “power of attorney” agencies now confer, some enforcing, on account managers to play the role of the strategist.

Additionally, ITD also proves to be a useful advantage at the point of executing those ideas with realistic measures and expertise accounted for; consequently, boosting client confidence. When this happens, the long-standing deficit of strategic planners considered as lacking execution capabilities is corrected. In fact, execution capability is a factor that has often stood in the way of transition into more operations and business management-oriented leadership positions for many planners; even when strategic planners are thought to make really outstanding leaders.

Achieving an integrated team does not mean setting aside expensive hiring budgets, or losing fundamental, time-tested marketing principles in a desperate move to adopt new ideologies. On the contrary, it encourages adaptive, iterative, and cost-efficient methods of advancing the capability of the strategic planning team to proffer meaningful solutions.

Therefore, my preferred structure will combine a team of generalists and specialists. The team will include 1) a strategic thinker & planner. A generalist who has a good understanding of the language spoken and understood by the creative department, the business’ bottom line needs; and can effectively merge both without risking excellence and value of output. Responsibilities involve leading intellectual rigor, strategic direction, consumer dynamics, metaphoric elicitations and patterns, questions, interpretations, the enacting and enabling of strategic decisions, and execution. 2) an intelligence analyst with keenness for research, ethnography, human behavior, data gathering, and analysis, and revelations; and 3) a creative strategist, specialist possessing technology and digital know-how as point man on CX design, immersive and delightful engagements, content, trends and trend update, with simple knowledge of data & algorithms, coding, testing, and prototyping.

For a case in point, in February 2011 Airbnb announced its 1 millionth night booked in over 100 countries. The brand had just achieved a major breakthrough towards becoming a Unicorn (a term named after the fabled beast by venture capitalist Aileen Leen in 2013 to express the statistical randomness of a privately held startup company reaching a $1 billion valuation) in barely 3 years after it was founded. Later that year, it had bookings in over 182 countries. However, instead of throwing a deserved celebration, the company’s leadership chose to employ the services of Rebecca Sinclair, founder and head of User Experience Research and Design at Honest Designs. Her task was to lead a round-the-clock session with Airbnb’s strategy team to determine how the company could sustain its success, disrupt itself, and keep its thriving product-market fit.

Armed with the knowledge that storyboards played a key role in keeping the Disney team focused when planning the creation of their first standard length animation film led by Walt Disney; and being a former designer for IDEO, Rebecca interpreted storyboards as a customer journey. She proceeded to get the entire team immersed in past, present, and potential Airbnb customer journeys in a move that established a strategic vision and positioning, using a visually compelling device as a strategic tool. The result transformed Airbnb’s entire product strategy and opened the brand up to developing new business verticals, such as Airbnb Restaurants and Airbnb Experiences.

A well structured strategic planning team is ready for modern business competiveness. With a specialist who helps the squad achieve a good understanding of Customer Experience (CX) and a generalist who uncovers rare insights to map out multiple consumer journeys; the ITD team is able to find the most effective and sustainable places to interact with, help, and affect the consumer faster and more precisely than a traditional strategic planning team. For the ITD team, the core of strategic planning operations becomes a) solve clients’ business problems with multiple perspectives and technology, and b) keep the entire strategic planning team, perhaps the whole agency, up-to-date on human and tech changes.

Furthermore, it is crucial to bring in people with different discipline, directly or indirectly, to the team and broaden the thinking of current planners. Taking a cue from Murray Streets of FCB New Zealand, one must expand the team’s remit to actual “strategy” and strategic thinking practice as opposed to the more narrowing “planning”. This expansion is critical to help generalists and specialists grasp how skills exchange and blend, especially as clients and marketers seek more enjoyable and unique ways to communicate and connect with an increasingly marketing immune consumer.

Where an agency gets the combination right, which is infrequent, a significant structural growth of the strategic planning team comes from focus and experimentation. The team should not be distracted by or diverted into other aspects of the business to cover for the inadequacies or insufficiency of those units. The team requires heights and depths of clarity and objectivity which often necessitate it to take a consultant (not sacred cow) position in the agency. Doing so allows the team to meet equally stacked expectations, expose problems, provide solutions, and present opportunities. Right there is where the ROI rests, untapped.

It is now crucial to adopt the ITD model in an economy seeing massive growth in demand for tactical solutions to specific problems per time. Traditional long-term, thematic planning which has huge budget considerations at the point of execution and questionable immediate returns is no longer sustainable. The rapid entry and founding of movements and causes, tech startups, NGOs and other entrepreneurial ventures who rely on timed funding to scale means agencies and businesses can no longer rely on communication and length of time for thematic campaigns to deliver impactful solutions. They have to embrace, iterative thinking, tactical ideation and execution, and product creation to grow these businesses. This potentially offers them room to invest in the best of these ideas for sustained revenue and relevance.

Looking ahead, truly advanced and discerning clients will understand the power of having teams that are better integrated and can authentically blend different types of strategic advice that will move their businesses forward; accordingly, making their lives easier, and helping them lean on their agencies with extra confidence, in an ever more connected and complicated market, to produce more effective and long-term solutions.

Read part 1 of this feature.


About the author

olatomide asher is a strategist with 7 years of experience taking on strategic marketing management positions in practices spanning brand management and consulting, digital marketing and core technology services. Working with renown advertising agencies in Nigeria, he has direct impact on the growth of some of the biggest local and multinational brands operating in Africa.