Strategizing is for Prom Queens

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I hear the word “strategy” thrown on just about everything. Like rhinestones on a South-Texas-prom-queen’s dress, “strategy” is too often a cheap and easy bedazzle on everything from PowerPoint slides, to someone’s superfluous commentary in a meeting that is already running too long with too many attendees. Anymore, in my day-to-day, Strategy is quite the loose little buzzword.

Often, it is a noun, as in “brand strategy” or “I am a strategist." Sometimes it is an adjective, as in “strategic vision” or “strategic insights." Also, as an adverb, such as “strategically developed” or “strategically placed.” And let's not forget it as a verb, as in “strategize” (which for the record, makes me want to punch the speaker in the nose every time I hear it).

And that isn’t to say that I don’t use the word often myself. But I used to accept the word at what I believed was its face value — a sense of something great and purposeful. A sense that when I heard “strategy” — I knew we were talking about the key to winning whatever was at stake, the secret sauce critical to achieving the mission. I knew we’d be talking about something tangible, and most importantly — something actionable. (Strategy is, by definition, a military term that, in a nutshell, means using your brains and your guts to not only stack the odds in your favor, but empower you to make the right decisions when confronted with any obstacle.)

Now, given the bedazzling trend, I’ve made it my personal charge to pay much closer attention when the word “strategy” is presented. Analyzing it quietly in my head, from every angle. Challenging my own application of it constantly. Because the real disturbing trend, is not that the word gets overused, but rather that the very concept of strategy has become a crutch. A well disguised excuse NOT to act. An exercise in lengthy requirements-gathering to plan for problems and scenarios that don’t yet exist. A perceived need to create a long list of tasks for what should happen in the future, when instead we should be driving for real feedback via iterative launches in the present. I see terms like “strategic goals” and “strategic vision” plastered across PowerPoint slides, and the actual bullet points associated with most of these goals and visions, amount to little more than minute tactics positioned as passive options to explore. Presented in the context of “we are working on,” or “working toward,” or “think there is great opportunity within this area.”

And with that lack of conviction, certainty, drive — fucking nothing can be won. It’s all a lot of bling with very little bang.

So here is what I'm really driving at — let's all of us in the industry be more thoughtful with strategy. That when creating, executing, presenting or thinking about strategy in any context, let’s be critical of ourselves, of our interpretation of strategy and when/how/why it matters or is applied. As an example, do we sometimes create formality where it isn’t warranted — like laboring over a “social media strategy,” when maybe all we really need is to just be social? Or when our strategy feels like it is a moving target, and people struggle with how to articulate it — should we check our premises? Are there assumptions at play that have been driving a weak, obtuse strategy? And if the goals are ill-defined, then no amount of “strategic planning” is going to get us anywhere, even if we wrap that anemic goal in a shiny label called “strategic vision.”

Diamonds are a girl's best friend for a reason — because they have real value. The real, lasts-for-a-100-years-and-cut-glass kind of value. Fortunately, making sure your strategy has actual value is really pretty simple — just ask yourself, is your strategy something your team can:

• Articulate without a slide in front of them?
• Apply in any given situation?
• Execute against to deliver desired results?
• Feel empowered and confident in so doing?

This piece is cross-posted from The BRAT Blog from The Aha Method — a company that coaches teams around a better working dynamic.


Fantastic. It amazes me how few marketing professionals know the difference between a strategy and a tactic. As you point out, it is troubling how often the word strategy is thrown around, usually incorrectly. This should be required reading for every client, account service leader, and creative director. Thanks for sharing.


In the context of advertising and marketing communications, GOOD strategy is absolutely the special sauce. Problem is, these days, strategy is often served up by folks (to stay with the metaphor) who learned the receipe from their experience working at McDonalds. Literally. I cringe and laguh simultaneously when I see 20-somethings with VP or Director of Strategy titles with little experience and business training to back it up (note: I'm a 30-something). What's happened is exactly what this article describes--no one really knows what strategy is or what it's supposed to do, client and agency included.

A few things that have helped me understand and define good strategy for myself:

1. Tactics are how to win the battles; strategy is how to win the war.
2. "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." Sun Tzu
3. For advertising and the like, strategy comes down to the primary message of the brief; it's the say it straight/bad headline an account person might write.

I eventually learned that #1 and #2 are the things people who don't really know what they're talking about often repeat. And that #3 is really the only thing that matters to the development (and receipt) of media communications (social, "traditional" or otherwise). People want to make it more complicated than that, but strategy, good strategy, it really is about making it simple. Just the essence.

Asking our industry to stop misusing the word strategy is like asking to stop the misuse of the word branding. After all, there is perceived value (a.k.a. a bigger paycheck) for marketers and designers who fleece clients into paying for these services when they are really just delivering tactics or a logo.

I especially love the comment..."like laboring over a “social media strategy,” when maybe all we really need is to just be social?"

So very true!

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