Think big, we are told. Size matters. It’s all about the big idea. Bigger is better. But when it comes to strategy and thinking what does big really mean? And is it actually better?
My former colleague Kev Chesters has talked in the past about the need for agencies to have bigger conversations with our clients. I could not agree more.
But in order to have bigger conversations I think we need to use strategy to enable broader conversations first. Across the business with a wider range of C suite partners. Not just CMOs and CTOs but COOs, CFOs and CEOs. This means that, as a discipline, the next generation of strategists needs to think broader than ever before.
What does thinking broad mean exactly?
In our industry, thinking broad means using a wide-angle lens from the outset of any client engagement. Thinking broad means avoiding going too narrow, too soon; strategy first, channels last. Thinking broad means understanding all facets of our clients’ businesses. Indeed I remember during the Ogilvy grad scheme, Mark Earls advising us to read the FT every day in order to understand how business works.
So why is thinking broad important?
Simply, because thinking broad means we can get stuck in to all areas of the client business and, ultimately, how we create the big ideas that change businesses for the better. For example, using a wide-angle lens is how the industry created Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, Boost Mobile’s idea of turning its stores into voting stations, and the excellent Cadbury’s/Age UK ‘donate your words’ idea.
Outside of our industry, thinking broad is how Alfredo Moser – in response to the energy crisis that plagued people of Brazil – came up with a way of illuminating his house during the day without electricity, using refraction of sunlight and plastic bottles filled with water and bleach. A mechanic by trade, Moser had a passion for physics and, by chance, had a bizarre conversation with a spiritual medium about light. From the breadth of those experiences, he was able to connect the dots in a new way and the idea was born.
We can see that thinking broad changes businesses. And in Moser’s case, thinking broad changes lives.
How do we think broad as an industry?
Simply, to think broad we need more broad thinkers.
What are their characteristics? Broad thinkers are generalists. in his excellent book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World”, David Epstein examined the world’s most successful people in their respective fields and discovered most are generalists, not specialists.
Broad thinkers are able to “see the whole board” – namely, all the aspects that surround a client’s business. Gillian Tett in her excellent book “The Silo Effect” talks about the need to recognise that information often lies in different silos and that you have to work hard to break them down. Broad thinkers piece disparate information together and make it coherent.
Broad thinkers are broad minded. People who are good listeners, who are fascinated by human behaviour, that’s so often irrational and unpredictable. And people who understand and respect the differences of other people.
Broad thinkers are lateral thinkers. De Bono’s concept of lateral thinking is demonstrated by the following metaphor; when faced with a problem, do not dig deeper, dig elsewhere. In other words, go broad.
So how do we think broad as an industry?
Recruitment of broad thinkers isn’t easy
We need more people who understand how marketing and business works broadly, not just specialist channels. We need more people who understand how the different elements of an end-to-end customer experience can be brought together. We need to get people in at the start of their careers and keep them broad in their thinking. Before they go deep.
We also need to invest much more in training our strategists. It reminds me of the joke between a CEO and CFO. The CFO asks what happens if we train people and they leave, to which the CEO replies what happens if we don’t and they stay? Learning on the job is all good but only in combination with solid foundations. We need to invest properly in a breadth of training. Giving breadth across the 4 Ps not just Promotion.
The rest of it is down to the individual.
To think broad you need to act broad
Get out there and see the real world. Speak to customers, employees, the person in the street. Get as wide a lens on the world as possible. As Steve Jobs said, you only get to connect the dots backwards, not by looking forwards – namely by drawing upon diverse experiences. The more you have, the better your ability to connect the dots.
With broader thinkers at their disposal, agencies can make the shift to being client partners that truly use creativity to solve business problems. Not just communications, marketing or customer experience problems but also proper knotty business problems. As we move into the 2020s that’s how we move away from cost conversations and into value based ones. It’s how we can re-establish ourselves and beat the competition. It’s how we grow, collectively and as individuals.
Go on. It’s time to make a big impact to your client’s business.