Do you need a Strategy?

The word Strategy has lost its meaning – like ‘bespoke’, or ‘unique’ or ‘integrity’, it’s used so regularly that it now requires a word-pairing to actually mean something: Brand Strategy, Marketing Strategy, Financial Strategy, PR Strategy, Social Media Strategy, project strategy, operational strategy, company strategy. A strategy is simply a plan that brings us closer to our objectives.

In our work with clients, we often see a conflation between strategy and ideas, as if the two are one and the same. (They are not.)

Strategy is an idea until you act on it.

Regardless of whether your strategy is about brand or financials, writing a few aspirational lines is usually a lofty way of saying what the company should do, but if there is no clear action to implement the strategy, it’s simply a statement that makes people feel as if they’re doing something worthwhile.

Unfortunately, in most businesses the strategy gets forgotten when its team is inevitably thrown back into the day-to-day. For a strategy to work, it must be actionable, regularly referenced and used to measure the work being done to ensure the dial is moving forward.

Jim Collins said it best when he said good strategy should be simple. We can overcomplicate strategy because it’s easier said than done. We’ve all been in a place where it’s more comfortable to continue talking about something because in reality we’re unsure about where and how to start. While potentially difficult to implement, when a strategy is simple, it should be clear what is being attempted and to what end.

In creative business, strategy is generally focused around delivery of work and getting new clients through the door. There could be some press and marketing scattered about, even a bit of sales, but generally because the business puts the creative output at the centre of their organisation, any strategy is related to this, nothing bigger, nothing else.

Most creatives start businesses wanting to do the thing they’re passionate about, but few jump into creative entrepreneurship thinking about their overall vision for their company. Their company strategy is to do the work they want to do. They want to work for themselves and make their own creative mark on the world. The power of ownership cannot be underestimated.

This is a specifically difficult topic to negotiate within creative business. It’s uncomfortable explaining to a founder that while the creative part is the thing the business is selling, their focus on it as a form of business strategy is misguided and will create a rinse-repeat cycle that many were keen to avoid in the first place.

Most founders come to us when they’ve hit this point. They’re starting to see their creative business as more of a prison than a platform for creative expression. They don’t know what they’re doing it all for and it’s sucking the life out of them.

For some founders, just doing the work is enough. They want to do their creative work: make the thing, and then do it all over again, no vision needed.

A creative business is very personal, and while this is a totally legit decision on the part of the founder, it will require some management of expectations around the founder’s earning power and the business’s potential.

(Visions of grandeur held with no vision and no strategy are a pipe dream. The irony is that even if this smaller state is desired, it’d benefit from a strategy so that it stays the way the founder wants it to be but I digress…)

If we apply more modern thinking to creative business design, with clear company vision, creative output is just once facet of the organisation’s larger strategy. A creative business could be making shoes or shower heads, designing buildings, tables, logos, you-name-it: their output reflects why they exist, but is not the reason they exist. Interestingly, a wider vision gives more scope for creativity because no longer is it limited to a single creative act, product or service.

How then, does a creative company have a strategy when the main focus of the work is not part of its wider strategy?

In short, it doesn’t.

It is possible to have a strategy, even a simple one, without a wider company vision, but it is tantamount to wandering around in the dark. It’s definitely moving the business somewhere, but is it the right direction? Impossible to say.

Visual metaphors are helpful to understand concepts, so think about a company as a map of an uncharted mountain; its own version of Everest. The map shows all the expected things: valleys, dead ends, and peaks on the way to the summit. These are the potential risks, challenges, and mid- to short-term goals the company will have if it wants to hit its mission.

A good company strategy starts with the big plan for climbing to the summit of the mountain. A simple, clear yet bold statement about what the company wants to do as its main objective. There are points on the map along the way that get it closer to the summit, but also carve out time to take stock, have a rest, see the lay of the land, and indeed if it’s even climbing the right mountain. Perhaps it is the right mountain, but the current route isn’t working, and a change needs to be made; these points are meant to allow us to come up for air to see if where we’re going aligns with where we want to go.

These base camps are derived from the other sub strategies that point to the big strategy. A financial and brand strategy might get a company to Base Camp 1 (Goal 1), three years into their climb, but it will require a further additional operational strategy to get it to Base Camp 2 (Goal 2), four years later. Those strategies will have their own actions required that help move the company further towards the summit. Think of this like the type of shoes needed, the kind of ropes, whatever – we can extend the metaphor for days, but I think you get the idea.

At the core of strategy is action, movement, progress. You’ll notice at no point is there a discussion of output. The journey is the focus; the summit is the goal. Each mountain is specific for each company. Some might look similar, but the route, the steps taken will all look different.

A strategy is a plan that helps push a company towards its desired objective.

Where do you want to go?