Last week I sat listening to a sales pitch. The subject: document handling. The young woman giving the sales pitch had all the prerequisites: friendly, articulate, earnest (great shoes, too). But something unnerved me. Throughout her spiel, she kept using the term strategic to describe how her company approached document handling versus the competition. And all I could think was, if strategic is used to sell document handling, what meaning does it have left anymore?
When the copier salesperson becomes a document strategist, we’ve got trouble in River City.
In all fairness, maybe a document handling company’s approach can be strategic. As a start-up, we’re not in the position to buy a strategic solution, so I was naturally a bit detached. I guess buying a copier, laser printer, scanner, and phone system separately would be considered tactical. But does buying them all from one source make it more of a strategic purchase? So while sitting there in my chair, sipping ice coffee and nodding attentively, I had a brief out of body experience. I found myself thinking: Is this what the majority of the digital industry has started to sound like? Liberally sprinkling the words “strategy” and “strategic” like salt on cured meat because consultants have told them this is what clients are looking for? Mouthing the words, but with little comprehension of what they mean? Or the talent and commitment it takes to truly back it up?
Just sprinkle the word “strategy” liberally to preserve your client relationships.
It all points back to human behavior—which of course, drives business behavior. If Forrester, or a consultant, or a book in the airport bookstore tells you your clients want something, then all you have to do it is say it like you mean it, and <poof> it becomes reality. If I move aside the cobwebs in my brain, I remember a time when I was employed in traditional advertising. Suddenly, branding was what clients wanted. And in Pavlovian fashion, that is what we started saying in capabilities presentations, whether we understood it or not. Hell, we were slapping print ads and storyboards on a wall in front of them. If this was now blessed as branding, so be it. It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially when it involves chasing dollars or protecting existing business. Our inclination is to stretch and say we can do things we either can’t, don’t completely understand, or at least have very little experience doing. But for those of us who do have experience thinking and doing work that’s strategic, what happens when the word becomes devalued? Not only by direct competitors in our industry, but by anyone believing it carries a competitive advantage? I passed a truck for a freight company on the freeway yesterday that listed three services (with some vague strategerie attached to them) and the word SOLUTIONS in type that was two feet tall. “10-4 good buddy, we got ourselves a strategic convoy.” Someone help me. Please.
“Meow, meow, meow.” Translated: “We beg of you, don’t say the S word.”
So what, you may ask, is my definition of strategic when it is applied to digital? I would describe it as this:
- A fundamental understanding of a client’s vertical and business objectives
- Complete immersion in—and appreciation of—brand essence, positioning and messaging
- Understanding of competitive landscape driving insight into opportunities, threats and risk
- User and vertical centered research which provide insight into user behavior, needs and solutions
- Establishment of a clearly defined measurement plan including goals/KPIs, baseline metrics, conversion points, and conversion forecasts
- A comprehensive experience brief that demands exploration of all possible on-line (and off-line) touchpoints, the solutions that make them possible, how the application of recommended solutions will fulfill a client goal, how solutions align to audience/market insights to drive results, and how solutions align to goals/KPIs for measurement
- Uncompromising experience design that begins with search, but encompasses a holistic approach to overall digital marketing objectives based on insights gained
- Iterative development fueled by sustained program management and analytics insight
That, to me, is what strategic means. If you hear the word used and it is not supported by this, it is something less than strategic. Buyer beware: a soothing sales pitch can easily turn strategy into a box that gets checked without any deeper investigation. The trouble is there are a lot more salesman out there than there are great strategists. Just as much as digital agencies want to say strategic, clients often are too eager to want to hear the word said by them.
But strategy is not talk. Strategy is a discipline. It is a belief system. It takes a fundamental understanding of what it actually is, how it works, and why it works. For every Razorfish or Digitas, there are countless other digital shops now adding “strategic” as an adjective to how they approach their work. Some will even bring strategists into their fold, a tactic that generally fails, largely because bringing strategic thinkers into cultures that have been built on execution and technology is a difficult proposition.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some brilliant strategists, both traditional and digital. I get to work with @deziner everyday. Then there are those I have worked with including @gkalantzis, @faithjames, and @jSmerick. And there’s one I still would like to work with @suespaight, but I have to settle for Twitter and the occasional cocktail with her. In the hands of these people, strategy will never be dead. It’s just that for the time being, the meaning has been diminished for me. Which leads to my current state of second-guessing: how often should the S word be used in front of a client? Because suddenly I fear that every time the word strategic is used, somewhere a kitten dies.
Your point-of-view, as always, is welcome below.