This post originally appeared as an article in July’s NZ Marketing Magazine, on sale now.
Do you do digital strategy?
It’s a question that’s frequently asked of full-service agencies with some suspicion. It’s also, to my mind, a slightly odd question, but one that I have to confess to giving time to. So much so that I was extremely excited to go on a course with Hyper Island (with a degree of hyperbole they’ve been called the ‘digital Harvard’) a year or two back.
I waited with anticipation for the digital strategy section of the course, only to presented with a digital agency’s creative brief template that, apart from a few semantic differences, looked exactly like every other creative brief in the world. It was a Wizard of Oz moment. I pushed further and in return was given a lesson in the fundamentals of communications strategy development. The course leader wasn’t trying to be patronising. He just had no reference points from the non-digital world and therefore didn’t understand what ‘traditional’ strategy looked like either. And there’s the rub. There’s no difference.
Here’s what I think has happened over the last 20 years.
‘Digital’ agencies have developed in one of two ways; either as breakaways from advertising agencies by individuals who then spent the first decade or so throwing out anything they learnt from their prior lives for fear of not appearing digital enough. Alternatively, digital ‘natives’ established agencies without reference or learning from the traditional world. As a result, the digital side spent many years ensuring that they looked nothing like their full-service counterparts. It’s taken a long time for the two sides to engage deeply enough with one another to realise that in fact they’re not as different as they think.
Now there are many ways that a digitally-savvy agency will look different from those agencies still stuck in the old world. But these differences are at the process, conceptual, executional level. Strategically, don’t get sucked in to thinking there’s a whole new discipline out there. Good strategy is good strategy. The principles that JWT’s Stephen King developed with The Planning Cycle back in 1977 seem as relevant as ever. With five simple questions (Where are we? Why are we there? Where could we be? How could we get there? Are we getting there?) he provided a brilliantly simple structure for the strategic process. Find a good partner who can help you navigate this strategic journey and you’ll be in great shape. Because of course it’s not nearly as simple to answer these questions as it is to ask them.
The key to great communications strategy lies in understanding human behaviour. Get that right, at all levels of the Planning Cycle, and you’ve improved your odds of influencing that behaviour in your favour. How people currently engage with your brand in the digital world, why they do so, what sort of other behaviours they exhibit that are relevant to your brand or category, how we might influence changes in this behaviour – these are all good questions. But they are only part of a broader strategic understanding of the relationship between brands and consumers and between consumers and their worlds. Carving out digital as a standalone discipline just doesn’t make sense in this context.
Thinking of digital strategy as distinct from the rest of your communications strategy is self-defeating. It’s an artifice born out of the structure of agencies, not the real world. Look for great strategists, not those attached to any particular channel. For whilst the variety of inputs and possible outputs may have increased exponentially since Stephen King ruled the planning roost, the principles of good strategic thinking remain comforting in their consistency.