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Don’t Forget About the Tactics

The biggest frustration I have with planning is actually how we use the creative brief to solve every problem. It’s like using a hammer to fix everything around the house. I understand that more progressive planners customize the content and delivery of the creative brief to address a specific problem, the issue is that no matter the format, the intent is always to deliver a single strategic idea. And a single strategic idea can only get us to the creative concept. It has no implications for how the concept is executed.

That is a problem for me because execution is the part of the idea that people interact with. They don’t see the strategy or the concept, but they see the content on the page, the feel of the experience and the usability of platform. It’s the visceral, tangible parts of the experience that forms the opinion about the brand. So why are we so dismissive of it as strategists?

I worked on the “Summit on the Summit” campaign from HP a while ago. I thought it was a pretty cool idea and very well produced. One of the big challenges on the project was that we spent a lot of money on creating content (commercials, viral films, websites) and had very little money for scaling our audience. That’s not atypical. But what I realized was that there were tons of opportunities in that campaign to build organic scale had we taken a moment to think it through.

One of the coolest pieces of the campaign was the website ( It was billed the “tallest website” because it could scroll the height of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The website would have a fact relating to each foot you scrolled up – that’s over 14,000 facts. We used Mechanical Turk to source the facts. The missed opportunity wasn’t the costs incurred. It was the fact that we didn’t give people a chance to volunteer to do it for free. We failed to use the production of the website as an opportunity to get people engaged and give them ownership of the campaign. That wasn’t covered in the creative brief. It also wasn’t mentioned in the creative concept.

One of the most liberating things about working in this business is how much we value being able to think about the big picture. But I think there’s an opportunity for us to see the big picture through to the end. While I only have one example with my limited experience, I believe that there are similar stories of opportunities left on the table because we overlooked the importance of tactics.

Strategies that Cut to the Chase

For one reason or another, I’ve been keeping closer-than-usual tabs on the news lately. Some of the most appalling things I’ve been reading about are the strategies and tactics large companies and governments are using to turn the situation in their favor. This is what I mean:

Fast Company revealed how Republican congressmen led efforts nationwide to create laws that make it harder for young people to vote. Those laws center around requiring proof-of-residence documents such as driver licenses and restricting last minute registration. It seems reasonable until the article points out that the states where these laws are being debated are key states that the Republican lost during the last elections because of the youth vote.

Another example comes from the HB Gary debacle with Anonymous. Part of the leaks revealed that companies are investing in “persona management” software that allows a small team of people to manage a ton of personas. The goal is to use those personas to influence conversations online.

And the latest example is in Wisconsin where Forbes revealed that Governor Walker’s efforts to kill public unions are actually driven by the Koch Brothers; the sibling duo that manages Koch industries, a conglomerate with companies such as: Brawny, Dixie, Vanity Fair and many others. Unions are bad for business so the Koch Brothers found ways to fund the politician that would kill them on their behalf.

My initial reaction to these cases was shock, due to the blatant evilness of their intentions. Then it shifted to pity as those ideas are ham-fisted and fly in the face of the authenticity and transparency trends that seem so important these days. But now, I’m very impressed.

There is something about their ability to pinpoint the exact spot they need to target. It’s like finding that one Jenga piece that will cause the whole tower to fall. I think I do something similar where I want to find that single thought that can spring a strategy. But the difference is that I don’t think I’ve ever thought to frame a problem as a tower that I’m trying to take down with a single stroke. I think the key here is to understand the interconnectedness of the situation at hand. Then you’ll understand the structure of the tower and the weakest point to attack.

The second thing that’s very interesting is the actual tactic they’ve taken to solve the problem. It comes in all shapes and sizes and does different things. I realize that in our business we try to encourage the same things as well, but I’d argue all the ideas we produce end up trying to persuade or convince the customer to believe or do something. What these examples opened my eyes to is that an idea doesn’t have to address the customer or end user at all and it might be more effective to target a part of their environment using tactics such as interference, confusion, sabotage and others.

This is interesting to me because I work at a place where we believe that brands are more effective when they do things, rather than communicating things. So far, we’ve focused on helping brands do things with or for their customers to solve business problems. What these case studies are starting to open up for me is the idea of a brand doing things in the market to solve business problems with or without the customers.

An example of this can be found in this month’s HBR. There’s an interview with A.G. Lafley where he described how P&G tried to get into the bleach business and wanted to do a test market in Maine to avoid getting noticed by their rivals at Clorox. Well, Clorox found out and flooded the test market with free samples and it effectively put an end to P&G’s expansion. Problem solved.

I certainly don’t know whether I have something or not. But, what it is doing for me is opening up my mind a little about strategy being more tactical. The way I’m doing it now (and I’m assuming how most brand strategist do it) is still very conceptual, meaning we think about strategies as frameworks and ideas that may imply tactics but are not tactics themselves. The reason why this type of thinking is attractive to me is that it cuts to the chase. Conceptually-driven strategies feels like a very roundabout way to achieve what you want. There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance when creating and then unveiling the solution, hoping that customers will get involved and play along with your marketing scheme. Tactically driven strategies have a sense of focus that seems to be much more efficient.

I think the next step is to keep an eye out for things that are happening out in the marketing world that are more tactically driven and perhaps looking for opportunities to test this thinking out. The latter is a little tricky since branding is an inherently conceptual exercise. But if we believe that modern brands achieve more by doing rather than saying, then it’s worth a shot to consider the possibilities.

Techies vs. Marketing


Those of you who read Dilbert will recognize this as a running gag. But those of you who rock the 9-5 will recognize someone who will actually do that someone in the marketing department.

I’ve talked to some tech people who will say that marketing people are exclusive and elitist. It’s just like in high school when the cool kids were all flash and no substance and the dorky kids had no flash but all substance. It’s also everything from marketing people being housed in a different part of the building to marketing not making concessions on things as simple as meeting places.

Also tech people seem to be cynical about how marketing talks about and sells the product they created. The source of the pain seems to be that we don’t really understand what we’re selling, which leads to awkward slogans like: “Are you people ready?” 

Marketing people don’t seem to be aware that there’s a problem. Whenever there’s tension, we just assume that the engineering team has sand in their panties and it’ll go away. But at the same time marketing has goals and objectives that are extremely time sensitive that engineering might not care to work on right away.

Lastly, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding between how each department works. I would say that marketing is task oriented (because that’s how the marketing plan is laid out) for all the mid to entry level people and engineering is much more creative because they’re building things. This means that one half of the building is typing furiously away on their keyboards and the other half is playing Mario Kart on the DS’ waiting for ‘inspiration’. Imagine walking over to that side of the building after a grueling work day. You’d be pretty pissed too.

conversation from work

we turned our office into a mini golf course. i was on the 11th hole, waiting for the only black guy in the company to play through.

me: hey reggie.

reggie: hey nien.

me: wanna make this interesting?

reggie: what’s the wager?

me: let’s play for tiger woods.

epilogue: tiger woods is black.