Strategy models are not orphans

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Illustration by: @momok (I don’t have to credit, but I want to)

While developing work for both recent client projects as well as my D&AD masterclass, I realised one of the cardinal sins of the way many agencies and consultancies present strategy.

Most times, when an agency puts a model or a framework in front of a client, it as if it came from nowhere. It is almost never credited to the original inventors. Even agencies that would never share a creative work without crediting its origin (although orphan case studies and best practices are also common), often wouldn’t dignify strategy the same way.

To add insult to injury, models and frameworks are often veiled in a new layer of fluffy labels or get some random new appendix. And let’s just slap a (TM) on the ugly new name and shape we’ve given it because heavens help us if a client will ever catch us using a tool used before, or (Gasp!) by a competitor.

This is beyond bad form:

  1. It devalues (and often plagiarises) the hard work and research of the original creators and many of the great marketing thinkers (they are few, but we do have them). As well as undermines the important work of places like the IPA or prominent universities.
  2. It positions our craft as some loose thing, floating on its own instead of part of a body of knowledge. As if marketing isn’t a sophisticated discipline and professional training or deep study of it are meaningless. Quite often through that process the original thought and intended use of the model are lost.
  3. It opens the door to both sides ‘improving it’, messing with it, and giving birth to all kind of mutated chimaeras. While I’m all for playing with concepts and theory, and evolving the field, once that habit meets the drive to create ‘ownable IP’ and moves back and forth between multiple clients and agencies a few times — those things mutate into less and less useful structures that just obscure answers, or worse — camouflage bad strategies.
  4. It leads to dogma — holding tools too tightly. It’s the law of instrument: if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem would look like a nail (and my word, the origin of that one would make your head spin). Not trying to tattoo a limited amount of models onto your positioning means you can use a wider range and choose the right one for the job. Providing access to the background and nuance of the ones you choose, and openly discussing it with your partners — you can use them better. Also, in a world of emergent meaning (and theory), it’s better to match the tool to the challenge, not the other way around.

I’m not saying that every time you present a model you have to delve into a meta-analysis of its history. Just don’t pass it as some traditional wisdom or your own idea and definitely not as proprietary IP (unless it is indeed a breakthrough innovation in the field, well done you — I want to follow and read everything you do).

So let me make some personal resolutions:

  • I will credit ALL my models. When I present a 3Cs analysis, I will credit it to Ohmae (epic man). When I talk about relevance and differentiation, I will credit Aaker or Y&R’s BAV (depending on how I’m using them). And when I come across some Frankenstein’s monster of a framework, I will name and shame and point to the origin of bits and pieces and where it went wrong (and I don’t care if it’s used by Unilever or Coca Cola) — because that could often save the work.
  • I will continue to prefer the best tools I know but also deconstruct and dismantle bad models and frameworks when I meet them through client and agency work. I will try to kill the chimaeras who stand in the way of clarity. Politics be damned — If you always give your clients what they want even when it’s not what they need, you’re not a consultant — by definition.
  • I will never pretend I’ve invented or reinvented the wheel. I will never try and sell a client a mutated onion that is in fact an old-school pyramid… If I’m working with something tried and tested — that’s a good thing. We can still use it for breakthrough work. That’s what hammers are for.
  • On the flipside, when the method is experimental, I will not pretend it’s failsafe or the end all and be all (‘omega supremes’, I call those. It’s always the next version, and the next one after that.).

Yes — Athena, the goddess of wisdom may have sprung fully armoured out of Zeus’ forehead. Gods and geniuses get a pass. The rest of us should credit and celebrate our teachers, mentors, sources of wisdom and inspiration and the makers of our tools. Not bastardise their work.

(apropos, this reminded me of the ‘conveniently, an orphan’ trope. And btw — management consultancies sin in that way too.)

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