Fair Exchange: Proof of strategy is in execution (and vice versa)
by Erna George (@) Back in the olden days (yes, I feel old as I write this), I was taught that there were three critical elements in creative strategy development and execution (campaigns or any other): the big idea, execution and the differentiator — a veritable triangle, so the three couldn’t be separate.
Nothing progressed until the articulation of and golden thread between them were clear. Today, these aren’t presented in the same way or with the specific discipline to link these and, while brand differentiators are clear, often the gap between strategic concept and execution is the difference between success and failure.
Both a failure
Ever heard the adage about an average strategy executed well is better than a great strategy poorly executed? In my view, both are a failure and there is a distinct problem in seeing and treating strategy and execution as separate elements.
How did these two become unglued? The idea that one person of process manages and thinks of the strategy, and then another must execute it, is where things go wrong. Why are these no longer a continuum? Why, in client teams, is strategy driven only by senior management? Why, in some agencies, is the strategy left to the strategist?
The thinking can’t be the purview of a few and handed over to others; this causes the first disconnect. I believe that handing over a strategy to a creative team, activation teams or junior brand teams to execute without cascading clearly or onboarding will lead to gaps but, even more, I believe that it is a misnomer that you can develop a strategy without sense-checking it with examples of execution. Can you really judge if the strategy is exciting without reflecting on how or if it can be brought to life?
Swept up in orchestral sounds
Marketers may get swept up in the orchestral sounds of the big thinking, without considering executionability (not sure this is a word — but I think I like it!). I believe that, if the ability to execute isn’t made clear at the outset, brand teams can’t sign off strategy or concepts. A big campaign idea is only strong if it can be effectively leveraged at appropriate or across multiple touchpoints. The big thinking (justification) that is presented in boardrooms on campaigns or new launches never makes it to the ears or hearts of the consumer except via the execution idea, so ensure the strategic ideas are depicted clearly via the messaging, imagery, call to action, TVC or whichever execution you are employing.
In fact, anyone writing strategy has to have a deep understanding and appreciation of execution — options, channels, fresh thinking. You don’t have to do the doing but thinking and execution go hand in hand and, if you don’t understand the execution channels or options, you can’t be effective at developing strategy.
Other than ensuring strategic concepts are able to be executed, a key principle about the strategic idea is that it should be ‘big enough’ to be able to stretch across a few years; this results in strong and deep memory structures being created with target consumers.
Back then, the way to prove a strong idea and develop brand roots was to showcase that the big idea had legs by displaying the multiple execution routes that could flow from it. This ensured longevity, as the big idea is refreshed and made relevant by a new execution expression over a period of time. Think of an idea like family reunions or brand x bringing families together; this could be expressed via a few executions:
- The big 10-year family reunion
- The welcome of the soldier from war
- The prodigal son returning
- Standing tradition of a monthly family Sunday lunch
These may be employed at different stages to create the story of family reunions and bonding around the brand, and may ensure that a big idea could cover various media or channels, ie a TVC reflecting the big traditional family get together around family favourites, a website withbBrand x capturing and profiling consumers’ beloved family-dinner favourites, social media profiling family reunion stories or memories and the brand’s role within these. This idea is broad enough to have legs and narrow enough to offer distinction. The big idea or overarching theme can build connection overtime and impact more powerfully.
If proof of the strategy is in the execution, what are the critical recipe ingredients and methods? Sometimes, it works to look to the recipes that have worked in the past:
- Strategy and execution development are an iterative approach or least a continuum (keep the brand objective and differentiator at heart)
- Understand execution options deeply, so you can imagine the strategy to life — this allows you to prove the strategy beyond the talk
- Ensure that the big idea has legs by confirming it has a few execution options; this builds brand relevance and memory overtime
Lastly, consider the chicken/egg quandary of which came first, the execution or the strategic idea? Even though the execution expression is magical, when it’s shown that the strategic or campaign idea has no further legs, those with experience can tell the execution idea came first. Retrofitting big-idea strategy to the execution does happen but mostly offers little medium- or long-term benefit. Big-hit wonders which fit the brand, objectives and discriminator can be useful disruption options, or to win short-term tactical gains. If these opportunities are viewed in this framework and, with long-term/strategic brand-building being done the right way, all can be well in the world.
There is room for both, so enjoy the pudding — as long as it’s created in the way your brand needs.
After starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her monthly “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.
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