"Shit can be shit or shit can be fertilizer. It’s up to you."
Eight strategists recap their 2020.
Hi. Hey. Hello. This is the fourth edition of The Other 90. If you missed the first three, you can read them here. Today’s post is a bit of a departure from what we’ve talked about so far, but hopefully you find it useful. As always, if you like what you read, share it! If you don’t like it, still share it, but I understand you’ll be doing so begrudgingly.
Let’s start here:
This newsletter is not the proper forum to dissect the myriad ways 2020 has been *cue the unprecedented supercut*. However, since the stated mission of this newsletter is to dissect the 90% of strategy people don't see, I thought it might be interesting to find out more about how strategists feel this year went. In short: Badly! But also, not so badly!
I spoke with eight strategists of varying backgrounds & experience about what 2020 has meant to them - the challenges, the wins, and the in-betweens. What follows is by no means a complete account of the year in strategy and what it means for the future, but hopefully it's a good start. Also, to be transparent, these interviews were done individually and not as a collective, but I've grouped the responses to help showcase the variety of answers and some of the interesting arcs that came from them.
On 2020 and its challenges
Jon Crowley, VP Strategy, Diamond: The biggest change [in 2020], unsurprisingly, has been the context - every single project and deliverable has been defined by both uncertainty (what will tomorrow look like?) and speed (given industry-wide delays and the time needed to adapt).
Jeffrey Kieslich, Brand Director: I've become a better firefighter, crisis manager, and client contact than developing actual strategy. Strategy is often the first thing that got cut, especially Brand Strategy when the crisis hit.
Chelsea Hartman, Senior Content Strategist: Even now when things feel a tiny bit more predictable, we're still constantly planning Plan As and Bs and Cs in case we have to pivot the strategy because something in the world at large changes (pandemic, politics, etc.)
Strategy Director: Every version of [this answer] I tried to write down got so dark I couldn't go through with it. (I'll give you the gist: everyone lies about everything and power is the only thing that matters. Feel free to print that, I guess?)
Brandon Lee Heard, Senior Strategist, R/GA: It’s right to say that 2020 has certainly been a shitty year: We’re all trying to make lemonade out of a tough situation. However, having the opportunity to understand and role play the different perspectives of the market under this year's historical circumstances was a challenge that made me so much better at my craft. For me, this is the most exciting part of strategy. Shit can be shit or shit can be fertilizer. It’s up to you.
On what strategy is missing because of the pandemic
Head of Strategy: I feed off of what I can see happening in behaviors in people out in the wild. While I have a cultural window to the world in places like TikTok, I think I’m having a harder time putting my “finger on the pulse” that is the difference between what people say and how they behave. People watching is a super power of mine and having to do it in a flat plane and only with what people WANT to reveal is hard. I think there’s so much that is invisible and hard for many people right now that I want to access and see and understand.
Jon Crowley: Months of distancing and isolation makes it harder to keep a pulse on how culture is changing, what behaviors are shifting, and how people actually FEEL. It's too easy to fall into the trap of overusing phrases like "now more than ever" in such a disrupted time.
Chelsea Hartman: I'll never take IRL brainstorms and working sessions for granted ever again.
On how the strategy community has handled 2020
Mary Ergul, strategist at Madwell: It makes me sad that the majority of people who have a similar job to me are so burned out by unreal expectations, deadlines and disrespect at their agency.
Brandon Lee Heard: Organizations have historically developed strategic practices to focus on specific areas, such as brand, social, portfolio, campaign, etc. In doing so, organizations fell into habits such as valuing the idea of hiring social media experts first, and strategists second. Strategy without strategic foundation.
It's why the complexity and uncertainty of this year engendered inhibition for some strategists, because it forced them to be different and they didn’t know how. If strategy is about being different, how can you be a successful strategist if you don’t know how?
Aaron Georges, Senior Strategist: I'm sure you've seen on Twitter how contentious things can be between old school planning and new school strategists. I genuinely find the debate fascinating but also exhausting and toxic.
At times, I feel like I'm getting pulled in both directions. On one side, it's these foundational components that have gotten us here, have a ton of value and perspectives that C-suites will care about but they have dated approaches, ignore culture largely, and rely on mediums that (lots of) people aren't prioritizing. On the other hand social/digital is continually inspiring, relevant, pushing brands to be their best but is often reduced to "tactics" from these pundits. I feel like a middle child in between both schools of thought and always trying to give due credit and attention to each.
On showing the value of strategy
Chelsea Hartman: It's sometimes been harder to lock a strategy before needing to show how a plan would tactically come to life. Clients really frantically want to respond to whatever moment or brief is most pressing, and sometimes that doesn't leave enough time for a full strategic exercise.
Jon Crowley: I think strategy is more valued in terms of importance in the process (less time and more uncertainty requires better strategies), but I also think there's less patience for "big" strategy that burns time and resources to get 5% more confidence in something that you were pretty sure about, or 5% more specific about something you already knew.
Jeffrey Kieslich: [Strategy] is valued less unfortunately. There have been many product launches that fumbled or failed this year due to COVID—and it's likely due to a bad strategy for the launch.
On what comes next
Head of Strategy: I think I am always caught off guard by how much room there is left to grow every year.
Jon Crowley: There's a lot less trust in or commitment to the way things have been done / what worked in the past, and we're going to need to justify our existence as a line item all over again in 2021.
Mary Ergul: I realize having a life where you're not controlled by work and spending non-work time recovering from work is so important. I will do everything I can to have that for myself and instill it in others.
Jeffrey Kieslich: What's been tricky is that brands are even more risk averse. Budgets are shrinking. Departments are folding. How are we supposed to stand out and help people find a great solution if their marketing is less-than-great or way too broad?
Aaron Georges: I'm curious about where this pool of strategists who have been in the weeds, including myself, ends up in 15-20 years. How do we continue to adapt and grow as strategists and how does the discipline evolve for us to be appreciated? Do we become more media-centric? More data-centric? More design and UX-centric? I think they're all valid options but in general, where we are now might not be enough. [Link added by Aaron for context.]
Hi, it’s Rob again. A massive thanks to all of the strategists that took some time out of their busy lives to answer some random questions from me. I’m not sure what I was hoping to find in these answers - maybe some reassurance, or a semblance of similarities that can help bind us - but I can say that the willingness of this community to self-analyze and look at the landscape of the category with a critical eye is very on brand.
Bergy Bits are icebergs that are under 5 meters in size, so this area is for tidbits I find interesting.
I haven’t watched Emily in Paris, but I do love the concept of “ambient TV” and the idea that what is traditionally thought of as the “second” screen (our phones) is in many cases actually remaining our first screen in terms of attention, not the other way around.
If you are are as fond of our discipline as I am, consider supporting We Are Next so that the next wave of strategists can help make us all smarter and better at our jobs.
Growlers are icebergs under 2 meters across. This is where I share a parting quote or thought.
I just want to say thanks again to everyone for the kind words about this newsletter over the last few months. In a sea of Substacks, I hope this is one that you at least casually glance at the title of before deleting in favor of all the others by much smarter and more interesting people. I’m publishing at an absolutely blistering pace of about once every six weeks so maybe I’ll see you again sometime in late January?