I spend a lot of time with people at different levels in various marketing organizations. I run a sales organization that sells to them, so it makes sense. This puts me in a pretty good position to compare the people that I meet and form some general opinions about how they do their jobs. I’m often impressed. Many of these people are dedicated, driven and creative. Most would like to be viewed as strategic and a number of them come right out and claim that they are. Many are strategic or tactical and the best are both.
But how many are truly strategic? How can you tell? What characteristics do strategic markers share? How do you become more strategic?
First, answer this question: what is strategy?
OK, fair is fair; I’m a technical guy, and a sales guy, and a startup guy. I’m not a marketing guy. However, I’ve occasionally had the marketing department report to me and I typically work closely with marketing.
The key point is that my view is from the outside. My view is that of an interested spectator and is offered only because we’re friends and I want you to succeed.
The problem is that very few people who want to be, or claim to be, strategic, stop and consider what strategy means. I know this because I’ve consulted with businesses and usually start by asking the individual or group to define strategy. This starts a long discussion of Sun Tzu, markets, vaping, and who is dressed like a hipster-poser. As a rule, I stop the discussion at the first mention of a football metaphor.
A strategy is a plan to win.
That’s all. It isn’t complicated and doesn’t require a genius to develop or understand. It does require focus, a questioning mind, a bit of bravery and more focus.
Since we are here, I’ll throw in the definition of a tactic:
A tactic is an action you take to advance a strategy.
So, strategy is smart and tactics are dumb, right? Wrong. Tactics can be brilliant and complex, even in the service of a simple strategy. Just take the entire emotional load out of the words and see them for what they are, ways of labeling thoughts and actions. Pretty simple.
Do you know strategy when you see it?
If you want to be a success in marketing you need to be strategic. This is true even though a strategy isn’t necessarily hard or complex and, sometimes, the tactics can be more sophisticated than the strategy. There are three primary reasons for this:
1) Strategy takes guts: While the strategy may not be hard or complex, the focus to develop it and the bravery to withstand attacks from the haters that always turn up is hard. (Let’s stop for a moment and hate the haters. Better yet, let’s love the haters – they hate that!)
2) Strategy is primary: Even the best tactics aren’t tactics until there is a strategy. They are just random crap you do. Why do random crap?
3) Strategy is subjective: Whether something is a strategy or a tactic is often a subject of debate. Some of that debate is legitimate and can force you to reexamine and improve. Some of that debate is just the haters giving it another try. I love them.
The Strategy Test
Do you have a plan to win?
Here is a test, answer this question fast. Don’t pause, don’t breathe, just answer:
What is your plan to win?
Did you do it? Honestly? If you had an answer, congratulations, you might be strategic.
So far, I’ve been a little abstract. A lot of strategy discussion goes that way. Many people need to connect with examples to really get hold of the idea. Here are a few examples of strong strategy:
- One retailer says that their strategy is to tie their online presence to the physical stores rather than run them as separate operations. This will keep the customers in their sphere of influence and improve the likelihood that they will buy from that retailer.
- A financial services firm thinks they can win by being the most responsive and empowering field representatives to deliver product and lifestyle information to clients while they are still in the initial conversation. They believe this will increase client engagement and the likelihood of becoming a partner in their financial life. They are constructing the systems get it done.
- Several beauty and fashion vendors believe that they can win by having dedicated customers sell to each other and to casual customers. They are building social networks to make that happen.
It is a little harder for me to give you examples of the many marketers I’ve dealt with who are not really strategic. The reason is that they drop into detail really quickly and often leave those of us that are working with them thinking “Huh? I don’t get it.”
Signs that you might not be strategic
Here a few signs that you might not be strategic:
- When you meet with execs, vendors, and consultants you find yourself talking a lot about pixels and they suddenly have an emergency and need to leave
- There is more talk about company standards than market share
- The last off-site meeting you were invited to involved splitting a value meal with Eugene from accounting
- You can’t easily explain why your projects matter
That last point is pretty big. Not everybody gets to define strategy. In fact, the marketing strategy is probably the work of a small number of people in each company. You can go a long way towards being a strategic marketer by knowing what your marketing strategy is and how your activities advance that strategy.
Tips for becoming more strategic
Assuming that you don’t have the responsibility for setting strategy in your organization, what specific steps can you take to be more of a strategic thinker and get recognized for it?
- Read your annual report. OK, not the numbery part. The CEO puts a lot of effort into explaining strategy in the letter portion of the annual report. It isn’t super detailed or trade secrets, but if she bothered to write it for shareholders, shouldn’t you read it?
- Ask an accessible executive or manager what the organization’s strategy is and how your department fits into it. (Yes, you could provoke a nasty surprise, but if the answer is “you don’t” you already have big troubles!)
- Take three projects you are working on and figure out how they relate to your organization’s strategy
- If you deal with outside companies, read their annual report
Everyone does stuff that isn’t strategic…a lot of it. Still, it is important for marketers to be seen as strategic in order to move up through the ranks. If you want be seen as more strategic, take specific steps and continually ask yourself: Do I have a plan to win? Remember, tactics aren’t tactics until there is a strategy and the question is not whether you should be strategic or tactical – a great marketer knows they need to be great at both.