The dying art of communication strategy

Ian Perrin
By Ian Perrin | 28 March 2014
ZenithOptimedia chief executive, Ian Perrin.

Back when agencies were bundled together, many of the good ones were driven by a “strategic planner” who worked with the marketing clients to plot a strategic approach to communications for their brands. They were multi-skilled thinkers who understood business, brand, creative and media objectives and rolled out a solution that delivered against each.

It was a difficult job, but an important one in ensuring that all disciplines of communication were on the same track. With agencies splitting into advertising, media, PR, digital and many others, the role of bringing them all together basically fell away.

Cue the dawn of the millennium, and a number of strategy only agencies such as Naked, Michaelides / Bednash, Nota Bene and BellamyHayden came to the fore.

Whilst they were well positioned to provide this service for clients, these types of companies have either become more or less extinct or have diversified into execution. There are plenty of reasons for them falling by the wayside, but the most obvious is that a business model of providing a strategy for executional partners to follow is too narrow to profit from.

I would also argue that being divorced from execution prevented them from moving fast enough into critical new areas expertise and technology.

With these companies mainly just a memory and agencies becoming increasingly siloed, it begs the question; who now should a client expect to deliver their communications strategy?

The advertising agency is certainly best placed to provide this guidance as the creative drivers of the business, but few have an understanding of critical functions such as channels and data. Some agencies such as Cummins Ross and The Monkeys are attempting to make integrated strategy work, but few boast the scale required for it to be significant.

Media agencies, ourselves included, have that data and understanding at our fingertips, but very few genuinely understand brands and the creative process. Digital agencies certainly provide a rounded view of how to communicate in a specific area, but often lack knowledge in traditional broadcast and retail.

Within this context, there is also the question of whether clients are prepared to pay for communication strategy. Many already get frustrated by paying for a creative strategy, a channel strategy and a digital strategy, when really they should all be the same thing. This means that strategy folk are on the decline in many agencies, with the good ones finding careers in other areas.

The typical agency response has been a turf war over who “owns” this space, when a more practical solution would be for us to work to combine our relative expertise and create virtual (or actual) strategy hubs responsible for providing this direction. But there may well be better solutions.

Either way, the longer it takes us to the resolve this, the faster agencies will become executional suppliers rather than business partners to their clients.

Ian Perrin

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