Strategy Is Not A Department

Strategy is not a department.  There.  We've only gone and said it.  

"Ideas can come from anywhere" is a phrase that's often spouted by anyone who doesn't work in a creative department keen to add their tuppence ha'pennyworth into the melting pot of the advertising development process.  

It's true.  Ideas aren't the preserve of a single department. They can come from anywhere.

However, in my twenty years of working in this advertising business lark, I’ve found that great advertising ideas have always come from the creative department.

This might be something to do with the fact that creatives are paid to come up with great ideas. It's their job.  It's what they do.  It's why they're called "creatives".

Over the last two decades I’ve also observed that it’s become increasingly harder and harder for creatives to do great advertising.

The single biggest reason for this in my ‘umble opinion is that there has been a seismic shift in the role, influence and importance of a certain kind of planner in the creative development process.

The kind of planner who always wants to take the lead and decide what the advertising should say.   The kind of planner who wants to be the architect of any great leap in thinking.  The kind of planner who thinks his brief must be obeyed.  The kind of planner who wants his “idea” to be unquestioningly executed by a lapdog creative team.  The kind of planner who lives in cloud cuckoo land rather than the real world.

Agencies seemed to have willingly embraced and actively encouraged the involvement of these planning geniuses and it’s no co-incidence that a lot of British advertising has become unnecessarily complex, confusing and oblique as creative teams have been forced to work with bullshit or nonsensical strategies.

The fact of the matter is that great advertising can be easily created without the help of a planner.  All the best creative people I’ve worked with are also great strategists.  They’ve worked on crafting their books in their formative years without the help of a planner writing briefs for them and developed a strong instinct for generating engaging and impactful ideas that contain a single-minded central thought.

I think the outburst of “planner-baiting” that we’ve seen on the likes of Scamp’s blog are symptomatic of a widespread and deeply felt frustration from creatives that contrary to the original spirit of planning pioneers Pollitt and King, planners aren’t helping to make creatives ideas better.  They’re making them worse.  Much worse.

I was recently idly leafing through a back issue of campaign  (April 18th 2008 – we’ve got our finger on the pulse of the trade press here at Sell! Sell!) when I came across an article which illuminated the scale of the problem.

The theme was about the imperative for speed of strategic thought in these challenging times.

Here were some of the words o’ wisdom for some of Britain’s finest planning minds on how to successfully nail a strategy quickly.  They range from the mind-numbingly banal to the bleeding obvious to the esoteric and unfathomable. 

Take a deep breath;

"Ask your mum"

"Swipe something that's been used in another category not your own"

“Base your strategy around the right business objectives” 

“Continuously think of interesting strategies so when a brief comes you’ve got a beauty that’s ready and waiting” 

"The most important behaviours are ritualised.  Find the ritual and you've found the key to a better idea”

“Consider a brand’s unspoken truth, quiet regret, path not taken.  Because in its silence and inaction may reside its strength and identity”.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Of the 25 people who commented, only one, yes one, person mentioned the word “creative”. 

Step forward, Stuart Smith the then head of planning at W&K, who said the following;

“Dovetail your strategy and creative.  Develop creative ideas from day one, while developing the strategic brief.  Don’t be proud, turfist or old-school linear.  Allow early creative ideas to inspire strategy, which in turn inspire better creativity”

(It’s a somewhat sad irony that this voice of common sense is no longer working in the ad business as he left to join Google last year).

I wouldn’t deny for one minute that speed of thought is mandatory for agencies nowadays.  But if agencies want to arrive at an exciting, relevant and ultimately workable creative solution then they need to get creative people involved from the get go.

Show them the client brief.  Let them meet the client.  Let them ask questions. Make them take responsibility for what the advertising should say.  You’ll get much better creative work if that happens. 

Remember, strategy is not a department. 


  1. More wise words and planner loathing - I love it!

  2. So absolutely true. In my previous life, we had no AEs, no planners, no managers. The creative team sat with the client to determine their goals and understand their business, and we usually had brilliant creative solutions jotted on our notepads before the meeting was done. In my present life, there's so much strategy, that being creative and unique is virtually impossible. We also seem to be making more money on strategy than real advertising. I used to love going to work. Now I dread it.

  3. What the first commenter said.

  4. Well done sellsellblog. It's high time that the myth of planning was outed. Sad thing is that nobody of any importance will give a shit in the bigger agencies. They've got too much to lose financially by cutting planning out of the loop. The even sadder thing is that I have to post this comment anonymously as publicly backing this point of view would probably result in me rapidly "pursuing other interests".

  5. Interesting perspective - and sadly one that is all too true of certain planners. But please don't tar us all with the same brush. There are some of us who truly believe that we are here to work together in partnership to get to great work. I've run a department that had some of the wanna-be creative planning types - and they weren't the ones that creatives valued. In my opinion - and backed up by experience, the best planners are those who see their role as providing a creative team with the nuggets, insight and interesting perspectives that can help them shape something brilliant. I feel sorry for those of you who've had such bad experiences as I know for a fact that there are plenty of creatives who are generous enough to admit that they couldn't have got to their idea without the help of a planner.

  6. This is so true.

    Before moving to the UK, I worked as a freelance in Canada. The vast majority of my work was done directly for companies, rather than through agencies.

    It meant that I met with the client from the beginning, tried as much as I could to learn about his business, worked out an approach that everyone was happy with, then went off and did the creative.

    The end result was pretty good work, done quickly, with little or no need for major revisions or re-working.

    It was only on moving to London that I got into the whole messy business of dealing with layer upon layer of planners and suits, where ticking the boxes on the brief was more important than selling the product.

    The result of all that seems to be good ideas that never get through, dull work, weeks and weeks to get even the simplest job done and costs through the roof.

    I think we'd all be better off if we actually paid the planners and other suits their full salary, but told them to stay home and watch TV and leave the rest of us to get on with the job.

  7. Planning should always be forward as well as backward thinking.

    Sure, we can have an idea that sparks creative, but very often we planners are here to show logic-hungry clients that a great idea can be retro-fitted to a strategy.

    Matt Hunt, Head of Planning, DDB Health

  8. It's the old balance of logic versus magic. And there are people who can do either one or the other a little better. It is about the right and left brain. Strategy is not an idea- in fact an idea is the result of a good strategy which involves consumer deep diving, research, understanding the brand proposition etc. Which planners have the mind and the time for. Once this is distilled into a clear one line brief, creatives can fly and come up with a great idea. In fact, the one line brief can also be cocreated with creative teams. Advertising has always been about team work and this has produced the best results.

  9. Babita, no doubt team work is important, but I'm not sure I agree about the rest. The best recipe for great work isn't necessarily the 'one-line brief' that everyone is so obsessed about. Sometimes, it's just letting the creatives in on the problem early, before it's been thought to death.


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