Still loving big data [Part 2]… but what about strategy?

Muzeable Thinking No.4 from Tim Brooks 25th November 2012

More thinking out loud… we recently talked about some of the challenges that BIG DATA and the search for BIG INSIGHT are creating for brands and businesses. Our data rich, or obese -depending on your outlook – world is full of complexity and this is creating other challenges… not least for ‘strategy’.

At the heart of this lies a contradiction that goes something like this…

The world is highly complex and ever-changing, so traditional notions of a ‘fixed’ long-term strategy are increasingly impractical and probably ineffective. You need to be flexible and play what’s in front of you – and play it fast! Yet, responding to that very complexity requires deep strategic thinking – and sometimes it takes time to build a clear position[vs all the data] and a repeatable model that rises above the surrounding chaos/fluidity. This contradiction – the need to be both fast and ‘slow’ – has the potential to create confusion and even put a few scared rabbits in front of the headlights.

Some of the current rhetoric is describing a world where execution is everything and strategy matters less and less – we can’t bring ourselves to accept this! Surely ‘strategy’ STILL matters as a guiding logic that defines how a business will grow? The point is that strategy [and strategy consultancy] has to change and evolve to work in this new environment. In the future we will need to find more flexible models/frameworks that allow us to stay true to our ‘logic’ and coherently manage the key elements of our response to the chaos. Execution isn’t becoming more important – it’s always been critical – it’s just its ‘what’ and ‘why’ are harder to lock down than ever before. More experimentation does not have to equal less direction.

What needs to change?:
o For marketing the traditional obsession with creating a fixed positioning via endless workshops to lock down the insight and a single-minded something all packaged up in a highly specific version of the truth via a ‘brand arrow’ or a ‘brand circle’ or a ‘brand dodecahedron’ – whatever – just seems… anachronistic.
o Likewise, whilst finding a big comms idea that will cut through everything and make you famous can work, it’s hard to see many examples of people actually doing it ‘on purpose’. It always seems – and my own extensive experience of ad/comms production supports this – to be some very creative blind persons sticking tails on donkeys… that might not actually exist! Serendipity is not strategy.
o In our real time world marketing is increasingly driven by experimentation and if we’re honest we often don’t know what’ll work and what will be budget scattered in the wind. The new risk is that agencies and marketers in seeking sexy new stuff will let brands drift over time. That being [rightly] data-engaged will potentially see brands and businesses lurching from one interesting actionable data point to another equally intriguing actionable data point and unintentionally losing focus or, when under pressure, spiraling into a series of data-driven knee jerk reactions. Algorithms can actually compound this [witness elements of the banking crisis!], so the answer must be in thinking, not technology.

Increasingly all this all seem a long way downstream from the two key considerations that should be top of our agendas:
1. How can our business/brand deliver sustainable growth
2. How can our executional approach do what it has to do and balance our need for control/coherence and increased fluidity.

All of this is perhaps evidence that the consumer marketing models – founded almost entirely on branding and communications – that were at the heart of our past success need to be replaced by more rounded business approaches. Marketing needs to lead a deeper integration of data, channel, customer, service etc. and yes, it will include brand and communications, but as one part of this broader approach. Marketers need to first think business model and growth and not see their traditional, primary, relationship with the ‘agency’ as everything they need to succeed.

We need to ask ourselves tougher questions about the nature of our strategy – what does it actually look like and how can it ‘work’ within our specific culture and organisational realities? We need to challenge our notions on how we build effective long-term inputs. If strategy is to be useful, useable and used – it will need to be as robust and far reaching as ever, but it must be able to be executed with more flexibility and agility in the face of change and uncertainty. Increasingly strategy is about creating sustainable strategic growth frameworks™ versus building a more locked down, resource led strategic plan and set of pre-determined priorities. The strategies of my youth. Now, a small number of imperatives and some guiding rules of thumb, based on better understanding of how growth actually works will be its foundation.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for business and marketers is to understand that strategy DOESN’T actually start with strategy – it starts with GROWTH. Gone are the days of starting your strategy development by working on brand planning things… work out the growth mechanics™ of the category and focus exclusively on defining how you’ll grow – period. Then ‘strategy’ will simply be a tool to deliver this… perhaps not even a ‘thing’ in its own right! It will still need some vision and purpose, a clear destination and occasionally even a ‘rallying cause’, because that drives people, passion and culture, but the business stuff will be ALL ABOUT GROWTH! Maybe we all know that, but there is little evidence that it is replacing the old notions of ‘planning’.

History proves marketing and big biz don’t readily embrace behavioural change/complexity. They prefer the quick, simple fix. It’s why we love TV plans… the world of ‘x hundred GRPs, with x% coverage, at x OTS’ and whilst that isn’t history… it’s definitely not the focus of the future. So, behaviourally this is a big challenge and an opportunity and those who embrace new approaches [not necessarily radical changes of direction] without forgetting the truths of the past will potentially be the winners. It’s important because there will definitely be losers!

The strategy consultancies and agencies that will work best in this epoch will not work like we did over the past 30 years – when consultancy found its voice. Those who will succeed will be those who understand the new context e.g. it’s possibly less about one off clever ideas. They need to understand only two things BUSINESS MODEL/GROWTH and executing ROUTES TO MARKET. This will requires expertise in many things – most of which feed from the BIG DATA/BIG INSIGHT start point – heavy analytics; retail [brick and click]; how brands need to engage in the new hyper-connected landscape; when to broadcast and when to try and dialogue; when to sell and when to be a neutral voice to explain the category; how to embrace transparency; how to think at a category level; how to embrace the new globalization; and [where Muzeable aims to help] how to think more deeply, but just as quickly.

This needs us to be courageous and to take a fresh look at the rules of strategy, innovation, category and brand management and be prepared to re-write some of them. Given the complexity and chaos we all face don’t believe anyone who tells you this will be easy or who offers you a quick fix or tells you they ‘understand’ – they are a]lying or b] utterly stupid! We will need to feel our way into the next epoch.

So once again… we’re loving the BIG DATA and the complexity, but whilst too many people see it as a panacea the reality is that for most organisations it will remain about potential. We can get there faster if we [business leaders, marketers, strategy consultancies and data experts] link in an unholy alliance to initiate the AGE OF BIG INSIGHT, whilst we, simultaneously, learn how to re-invent ‘strategy’ – we think based on a world of GROWTH MECHANICS and GROWTH FRAMEWORKS – to be fit for purpose at both an enterprise and brand management level.

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