Are your agency strategists really salespeople in disguise?

Have you noticed how there are now strategists almost everywhere you turn in marketing and advertising?

Media strategists, Social media strategists, Channel strategists, Content strategists, in fact there is a strategist for almost every marketing discipline you can think of.

And what about this?

Have you ever met a strategist who was not recommending including their discipline in your marketing plan, or investing more? I would love to see that, a social media strategist recommending you cut your social media and put the money into another channel. Yeah, right. Talk about the fast move to the unemployment line.

So here you are, a marketer with a reasonable budget (I mean a reasonable budget from a business point of view, because as every marketer knows no budget is enough from a marketing perspective) and agencies and suppliers who are trotting out their strategist to provide strategy for you.

Is it surprising that so many marketers are starting to look like lawn sprinklers? Spraying their budget over as wide an area as possible but not really getting anything wet?

The strategic process

There are a number of definitions of strategy, but my favourite, because of its simplicity, is it is a solution to a problem. In most cases that problem for marketers is how to achieve a business objective with the resources at hand in the situation you find yourself.

You see, strategy is largely a reductive process. It is defined more by what you will not do as it is by what you do.

In the words of one of the greatest and earliest military strategists, Sun Tzu, your strategy defines the battle you will not fight, the armies you will not attack, the leader you will not follow.

It is a reductive process to eliminate options until you have the options that will maximise your ability to achieve your objective.

Great brands and great brand strategies are a hallmark of this approach, often reflecting a discipline of committing to as few channels as possible and executing them really well.

The sales process

Sales on the other hand is characterised by trying to maximise the purchasing opportunity. This means finding ways to overcome the customer’s resistance to purchase by fulfilling the customer or client’s needs, usually by being able to provide them with more options or greater flexibility.

In many ways these specialist strategists are doing exactly that, in trying to encourage purchase by convincing their clients that they need to embrace the ever growing number of options available to them, especially the one they are offering, because this will help solve their problem.

This is an additive process, as intrinsic to the sales pitch is that the marketer needs all of the options they have now, plus this one, and this one, and this one. It adds options to the strategy, rather than encouraging marketers to decide.

This is appealing, because we know that the process of eliminating an option is a difficult one for people because it comes with the risk of loss. Loss is a painful feeling. It is much more attractive to add to the options than to reduce options.

On this basis, are these specialist strategists providing strategy or are they simply selling their speciality services that they represent?

This impacts agency rosters

Some of the major projects we have undertaken in the past 12 months have been focused on helping major companies to trim their extensive agency and supplier roster. When we talk about rosters, we mean the whole marketing roster of suppliers providing services paid from the marketing budget.

It may, or perhaps may not surprise you that for these companies with a relatively modest marketing budget we have found rosters with supplier counts not in the tens or twenties, but in the hundreds.

And if you wonder how this happens, it is because the marketing strategy looks more like a shopping list of things to do rather then a strategy. It is not the solution to the problem that needs to be solved; it is a list of services that may be needed to solve it.

In the process of rationalising the roster, removing the duplication of services, eliminating the conflicts and consolidating the suppliers to the core requirements we also manage to save the marketers a significant amount of their marketing budget.

Or perhaps a better way to express this is we put buying power back into a budget that has been stretched too thin over a wildly disparate roster.

Before agencies start complaining, it also creates more sustainable arrangements for the agencies still on the roster, with greater revenue for each agency, delivering economies of scale and providing a clearer and more defined role.

For the marketers it is also much easier to manage the roster, with each agency having a specific role aligned to the marketing strategy and its requirements.

The strategy problem with big rosters

The other problem for marketers with large rosters is that each agency on the roster invariably has a strategist, because it has become accepted that a strategist is required for the agency to ‘add value’ to the services provided. It also allows the agency to move ‘upstream’ to influence the decision making process on where the marketing budget will be spent.

Ironically, strategy is often a discipline that is under-remunerated by many marketers, perhaps because strategists and especially specialist strategists have become a dime a dozen.

Do not get me wrong, I am not against the concept of strategy. It is vitally important to have a strategy, in fact without it you’re effectively operating in a vacuum. What you do not need is multiple strategies, because if they are not aligned to the overall business and marketing strategy then you will end up working at ineffective cross purposes.

But for a strategist to prove their value they must produce a strategy. And unfortunately many feel that it is not enough to have a strategy feed off the marketing strategy, it needs their own unique insights and findings to develop a strategy to position the services they can provide in a unique and hopefully compelling way so that they get to implement this strategy, because this is where more of the marketing budget is spent.

Test and learn is still important

Some may be thinking that this goes against the concept of test and learn. In the current dynamic market, it is important to be constantly testing the strategy to ensure you have the right mix, rather then sitting and waiting for a poor result to force a change.

Some marketers complain that they simply do not have the budget to test and learn because their entire budget is committed to executing their current strategy. But undertaking the roster review can release the budget from the waste and duplication that already exists in a poorly aligned roster.

The next issue is then how you are going to undertake the test and learn process. Some marketers confuse the test and learn approach with simply adding new capabilities to the strategy mix without setting up parameters to test the effectiveness of these new services. More and more get added and no-one ends up assessing the results leading to failure. Ironically leading to bloated and wasteful agency rosters.

You have heard the concept of ‘fail fast’ but the fact is testing something and getting a negative result is not a failure as you have learnt that it did not work. But doing things and getting a negative result is a failure if you did not learn what it was that was not working.

How to stop strategy being sales

One way is to eliminate all of the outsourced strategists that do not contribute to the overall strategy. Here’s a hint on how to identify them, look for a specialist discipline descriptor that precedes the word strategy in their title. See the first paragraph for some examples.

The fact is that a strategy should be solving a problem and that problem should be aligned to achieving an organisation objective. How to invest your media budget is not really a strategy, it is a plan. How to implement and execute social media requires a plan. The plan can have an objective and that objective should be aligned to a business objective.

I know some people get really confused here with the nuance of the language. But let’s use this simple example to demonstrate the difference.

If the business objective is to grow market share by 5%, the strategy outlines the marketing disciplines or channels being used to achieve this and the level of investment and results for each of those disciplines to contribute to delivering this objective. Then all that is required is a plan for each discipline on how to achieve this.

These are not more strategies, they are simply the specific, individual plans aligned to delivering the agreed strategic objective.

In this way you do not need five, ten, twenty or more specialist strategists telling you how to integrate their specific discipline into your marketing plan, you just need the one agreed strategy from which all these plans are aligned.

TrinityP3’s Strategic Supplier Alignment service helps you to untangle your supplier roster, understand its strengths and weaknesses, and develop an optimal structure to improve your performance. Learn more here

2 thoughts on “Are your agency strategists really salespeople in disguise?

  1. so isn't the logical conclusion to the challenge of managing and paying for this glut of specialist strategists to end the 'village model' and move back to one overall agency partner with whom clients can develop a strategy that can then be planned and executed by disciplinary experts either within that agency or as separate implementation experts

  2. Hi Nick, I do not see how this is a logical conclusion. You can still have a village of specialists but reward them for results and not simply the number of hours they work. We have very successfully created remuneration models that effectively reward agencies for not doing something if it means delivering results. So to say it is logical appears illogical to me. Get a group of specialist strategists and collectively reward them for thinking that leads to delivering results and not reward them for simply recommending and selling their specialist services. Now that is logical.

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