Part cultural insights, part data-driven foresight, part business analysis and part creative genius; the role of the creative strategist in an advertising or marketing agency is commonly misrepresented, misunderstood and even undervalued. Creative strategists themselves often find the response challenging when questioned about what it is that they do. Selma Bambur, ex-Creative Strategist for Dyson and Jaguar describes the angst-inducing task of explaining her job at a dinner party. Bambur notes that unwitting enquirers are either left thinking she is an “unhinged lunatic” or they “get bored of their own line of enquiry.” The question, she states, leaves her with a sense of foreboding.
Others take a more direct approach. Whilst talking to Campaign Live, Michael Wachs, previous CCO of GYK Antler, describes Creative Strategy as a coalescence of emotional thinking with rational and objective research - “merging emotion and logic is the solid foundation of any creative strategy.” He describes it as a means of harnessing results by exploring the “grey area between the underlying business strategy and creative concept.”
The reason creative strategy may cause so much confusion is that it spans so many areas. creative strategists not only need to be analytical thinkers with the ability to capture, interpret and translate data and technologies into meaningful insights, but they also need creative flair to take that research right through to the conceptual and idea development stage. A creative strategist within a creative agency will know not only how to simplify a business problem, but also to develop core insights and lead the direction a campaign needs to take. Creative strategy not only surfaces and analyses human and data-driven insights but also harnesses strategic foresight intelligence and aligns with topical issues such as diversity, equity and inclusion. A strategist will even consider the technological vehicle for delivery - Mobile? AR/VR? New digital product? Creative strategy very cleverly turns knowledge and foresight into a strategic decision-making tool.
On the ground, creative strategists may be involved in leading workshops, creating customer archetypes, undertaking demographic segmentation, developing roadmaps and steering design sprints. They will champion emerging technologies, data and market trends and see them as strategic tools in driving growth. The work of a creative strategist will also follow through into conceptual and idea development. They will ensure that there is a constant alignment between the core message, brand assets and media output at all times.
So, why is Creative Strategy worth the investment?
Tracey Follows, previously Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at The Future Laboratory and current Founder and CEO of Futuremade discussed the importance of strategy in creating a link between creative innovation and profit-generating media content whilst writing for the Guardian. Tracy uses the Grand Prix winner of the Integrated category at Cannes Lions 2016 - Netflix ‘House of Cards FU’ by BBH New York - to demonstrate that an awareness of the intellectual, moral, political and cultural climate - as gained through creative strategy - can provide a distinct commercial advantage.
Whilst award-winning campaigns may be celebrated, are they always ‘commercially effective’? Or, is their success confined to Media Awards parties and the pages of Campaign Live? Do they just win awards, or do they also contribute to the companies bottom line? Follows uses the 2016 John Lewis Christmas ad to describe how strategic insight in combination with creative execution helped John Lewis to increase their annual profits by £33m. In contrast, she goes on to question the highly innovative, yet strategically lacking ‘The Next Rembrandt’ campaign by JWT Amsterdam for IG Bank. Winner of two Cannes Lions awards, but financially, how successful was it to IG Bank’s annual profits?
Creative strategy shouldn’t dampen creative spirit, nor should it foil big creative ideas. Creative Strategy should act as a solid starting point from which big creative can blossom in a way that will connect with both audience and brand. A strategic approach to creative ideation provides as close as you will get to a guarantee of future effectiveness - “if you have a strategy, you can mitigate your risk.” Strategy steers big, bold creative ideas, it helps them to find their place, it enhances connectedness between the campaign and the audience and drives commercial profit.
“To create innovative ideas that really connect with many people in a familiar, mainstream way, we need a great strategy as much as great design and copywriting. For if we neglect it, how are we to know whether the ideas we decide or don’t decide to green-light are destined to exist as echoes in a chamber of our own making or to be heard loudly ringing out around the real world” - Tracey Fellows, CEO of Futuremade.