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February 1, 2011
The Art and Science of 'Stratecution'
 
I think I have figured out a handle for how we’ve been operating in the new normal—the new, mixed-up, fragmented, always-on, consumer-controlled, track-able and optimizable marketing world we live in. But first, let me tell you how I came to it.

About a year ago, a young (but well-regarded) Account Supervisor asked me to move her to another piece of business. “All I’m doing is executing,” she said. “I prefer more strategic accounts.”

I knew where she was coming from. I mean, there are Strategy Consultants, Chief Strategy Officers, Strategic Planners. You can’t say the same about “Chief Execution Officers.” To most people in our business, the strategy represents the brain work; execution, just the arms and legs. And if we quantified the amount of time and money (and salaries) most companies spend worrying about, debating, intellectualizing, and perfecting strategy vs. execution, it would likely be 100 to 1.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I have high regard for strategic thinking and top-down planning, having spent many years on CPG assignments. And strategies, and the insights behind them, are obviously critical to success. But in today’s marketing world, control over message, medium, and consumer are scant. As uncertainty and lack of control rises, the importance of execution kicks in.

The truth is that strategy and execution need to go hand-in-hand. You need the insight-driven, business-focused, brand-inspired thinking of top-down strategy. You also must work bottom-up, recognizing the everyday realities and real-world complexities you’ll face, while also being nimble, improvisatory, and open to evolution along the way.  It’s equal parts strategy and execution, or what I call “stratecution.”
 
Stratecution is insight-led, but execution driven, which is messier, more complex, and much more challenging. But it’s also more interesting and creative (not to mention more effective).

As I see it, there are four key tenets:

Don’t Romance Theory

Let’s face it—even the best strategy in the world is only a hypothesis. And too much time, money, and effort are wasted waxing poetic about it. In trying to bottle the strategy, frame it for the wall, to make it perfect and keep it sacrosanct for the entirety of your efforts. But like kaizen, which focuses on continuous improvement of all process and activities through real-world experience, what makes a brand’s activity worth romancing is its real-world activation, adaptation, and ongoing improvement.

The real world is more complex and layered than any linear, single-page strategy can be—so stratecution needs to be more like a parfait. While you naturally will have a smart, single-minded strategy for your brand or product, you need to understand there may be several different targets, with several different messaging needs, at different points in the purchase funnel.

Stratecution also favors reality over abstraction. Instead of thinking in terms of theoretical generalities, like broad target audiences, think in terms of specifics, like people and actual moments of engagement.
 
Describing your target as “Women 35-49” or “QSR visitors” is not enough anymore. You need to think about people, their motivations, about what they are looking for at specific moments of engagement, and why or how you can be relevant. Need states may change depending on where the engagement happens, which will dramatically change your message.

And you must always bear in mind that, in the real world, things change—the most brilliant plan ever developed still will not be “perfect.” When I look today at the actual Porsche Panamera launch plan vs. the neat and clean, theoretical, four-phase plan developed beforehand, it’s like looking at a Jackson Pollock vs. a color-by-numbers painting. But the actual plan reacted to real, in-market behaviors and results. Our projections for leads and their sources, for example, changed dramatically throughout the campaign—thus forcing evolutions and wholesale revisions to the plan. Activities led to re-activities, making the plan more complex, but also smarter and more effective. We attained our goal of 100,000 leads for the car—with a campaign that ultimately looked very little like the original plan. This brings me to the next point.

Always in Beta

We need to change our focus from attempting perfection up front to spending the time aiming for it in the real world, learning and getting feedback from real people along the way. The information and insight gleaned from launching is greater than the cost of finding a few bugs or needing to optimize your efforts early and often.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the idea of a “launch” is completely archaic. First of all, the idea of launching a campaign as a finished product that won’t change is over. Launching is now continuous, “always on.” Secondly, in many categories, enthusiasts and insiders are often discussing and debating your launch long before you roll out a campaign. A launch doesn’t always start when you want it to, nor does it end because you placed a “final” paid ad, so it’s a good idea to consider getting out in the real world with something sooner rather than later.

Stratecution also demands a bias for action. In today’s marketing world, you can’t sit back and expect to win with a single home run—you need to create and maximize as many opportunities you can.  I love what Herb Kelleher said: “We have a ‘strategic’ plan. It’s called doing things.” In all of our programs, we are constantly on the lookout for ways to try new things, respond to activity, or take advantage of new opportunities.

Remain “Stupid”

Stratecution requires a focus on learning vs. knowing—one needs to happily acknowledge his or her “stupidity,” approaching all efforts as ways to gain additional knowledge and improve. Thus, measurement is critical, and mistakes are a natural part of the process. In the words of David Kelley, “Fail faster. Succeed sooner." While few clients (or agencies) would want to admit it, you can bet some of the most effective campaigns out there used early learnings—and even their failures—to vastly improve performance.

Give a Damn

Regardless of process, approach, and culture, at the end of the day, people themselves are the most important element of stratecution. And the people on the team have to care about excellence, learning, action, and results. Like the Porsche mantra, “there is no substitute.”

What we’ve found is that our ongoing efforts to optimize our programs, re-calibrate our efforts, and improve every step of the way pays off. Routinely, we find ourselves driving leads, driving down costs-per-action, improving ROI, driving traffic, and achieving goals. Stratecution works.

So, my response to that Account Supervisor? That’s your preference. But I prefer stratecution—part art, part science, and healthy doses of both insight and flexibility—the approach that offers agencies and clients unprecedented possibilities for and control over their marketing programs, not to mention better results.

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Michael Baer has over 20 years experience as a marketing and advertising leader and innovator.  Michael is also the developer of "Stratecution," a new way to think about marketing in the digitally-led "new normal." He's passionately blogging about his beliefs at Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories.