Avoiding strategic misfire

Not getting the level of strategic support you’d like from your agency partners? Luke Meurant cautions that a lack of internal understanding of brand strategy may cause the incorrect deployment of external resources.

Underlying the growing cries from client-side marketers seeking more strategic support and input from their agency partners, there seems to be an issue with the under-delivery of strategic input. If marketers aren’t getting the required strategic support when agency partners have the capability to deliver it, they need to reconsider why that is, and that starts with how they approach deploying their resources. 

Agency partners are fundamentally the resource of the in-house marketer, whose role it is to allocate resources to maximise the return. When marketers fail to deploy the strategic skill sets of their agencies, they face a basic problem of not maximising ROI from one of their critical resources. 

As is the case with many commercial problems faced by an organisation, solutions are generated when we divide the issue into elements that are able to be investigated and solved. Development of a brand’s overarching market strategy is no different. A great marketing strategy has the following key characteristics: it’s feasible within the parameters of the business’ capabilities, it’s suitable for their external commercial audiences, and the outputs of the strategy will be acceptable to their internal stakeholders. If marketers better address these three areas in the development of their strategies, they’ll be better able to understand how and when to deploy their agency as a strategic resource. 

Prior to this, though, it’s important that marketers truly understand three fundamentals: 

Feasibility relates to the competence of the business to deliver on the plan laid out before it when strategy development is complete. Passing a test of feasibility requires the marketer to have intimate knowledge of what the organisation is capable of, as well as the many restrictions it faces at the time of developing the brand promise. Beyond this, it requires the marketer to test their internal knowledge of the operation of each relevant department, to ensure their assumptions are validated or the myths debunked. Understanding, for example, what service levels are sustainable or product performance metrics are in place is crucial ahead of building the brand promise or proposition. 

The suitability of the marketing strategy is a test of how the wider market, the current customers and
the prospective or desired customers will respond to execution of the plan. A deep understanding of the needs of the audience with respect to product and brand is required here. This is rarely a step that any insights-driven marketer will neglect – and as modern marketers, empirical data gleaned from formal market research is, or should be, our foundation for market planning. The major flaw in a number of marketing strategies, though, is
that this is the only input that’s seen as relevant or given any gravity during the formation of the strategy. Similarly, long-held assumptions of internal audiences as to what customers want or need must be separated out from this to a large extent, as quality scientific research should challenge our current market beliefs. 

Marketing strategy acceptability is largely determined by the goals and aspirations of the key decision-makers within the organisation. Strategists who include their senior-level decision-makers when they develop their strategy generally have the highest level of success when it comes to signing off on the strategy. The senior leadership team provides critical inputs at an early stage that ensure their objectives are met by the roll-out of the plan. It is, however, of critical importance to note the differences between the desires of senior department managers and their knowledge of what their teams are truly capable of, or what’s feasible for other departments outside their influence to deliver on. 

Executable marketing strategy development delivers on the commonalities or intersections of these three inputs. Separating these areas as distinct steps in the development of strategy provides a view for marketers to assess where they might add the resources available to them, in particular their creative, media and strategic agency support. 

Understanding when and how to deploy resources in the development of each of these inputs is essential to the success of strategy formation. Although it’s critical to avoid keeping agencies at arm’s length throughout the process, engaging too deeply at the wrong times often results in an externally created marketing strategy that leads an internal department, rather than a collaborative business strategy that guides partners. The sweet spot is therefore when and how to engage agency partners. 

Successful agency relationships rely on multiple points of contact between agency and client. This helps to build a fundamental knowledge of the client’s business model as well as shifting industry dynamics. But it’s essential that the process of disseminating information to agencies is formalised and structured with regards to matters of
business capability. 

The agency partner is still an external party to the business and in unstructured meetings and through offhand conversations, senior managers will (almost) always feel compelled to paint a positive picture of what their business is capable of delivering. Marketers benefit from seeking the inputs for feasibility independent of agency support or involvement to ensure a true understanding of the business strengths and limitations are reflected in the strategy.

Marketers need to involve agency support comprehensively in determining the suitability of their strategies. Collection and analysis of market insights, formal studies and others is where agency partners play the most important role. Because agencies serve multiple brands, their multi-industry knowledge base is a critical input on matters of wider cultural change, media attitudes and market trends. 

More so, as constant analysts, agency partners have a greater skill set when it comes to seeking relevant formal market insights and interpreting them, whereas in-house marketers are often wedded to a single industry focus. Marketers need to exercise true partnership approaches when collecting and collating insights, and seek inputs for research as early as questionnaire development. This early engagement gives a true overview of the suitability of the strategy and the subsequent activity that follows. 

Seeking the aspirations of internal stakeholders to deliver acceptable strategic plans is where agency partners become a valuable support resource. In formal information-gathering settings, the marketer’s team can be aided by agency support by way of third-party moderation to assist in deeper investigation of business-wide and inter departmental expectations. Agency partners can also use these settings to better understand the requirements of their specific outputs from various business leaders and heads of departments (e.g. creative outputs). 

Although helpful in this stage of strategy development, the in-house marketer will always have greater visibility of the nuances of departmental requirements, any changes in direction based on shifting industry and competitive dynamics, and the fluidity of business priorities impacted by a number of forces. For this reason, the agency partner’s role is the support, albeit critical, that the marketer needs to deploy as appropriate.

Clearly, strategic input is required in more cases than the development of the overarching strategic plans. Valuable strategic input extends to individual campaigns and the execution of tactical activities; however, engaging agency partners at this early stage and clearly articulating their role sets the stage for ongoing inputs throughout the quarter, the year and beyond. 

Client-side marketers representing brands require their agencies to be more strategic, but in doing so need to set clear expectations and own the deployment of this critical business resource.

This article was originally published in the June/July 2021 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

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