Planning

In the long run, we’re all dead

Image: Genista

That’s how John Maynard Keynes put it and although he wasn’t talking about marketing, his words certainly ring true to all of us working with marketing or advertising strategy. This became apparent to me after reading a post on Micco Grönholm’s “The Brand-Man” blog (Swedish only), where he discusses an experiment from behavioral economics dealing with the role of emotions in decision-making and why we don’t learn from our mistakes. Micco’s post was great in itself, but it also made me think of this clip where Daniel Kahneman makes a distgustingly excellent observation: “For a firm, in principle, there is a long horizon. People have a much shorter time-scale. They have to have three meals a day, a salary every month, a bonus every year…”

Bam! Right there, just like that, he blew strategy work right out of the water. Since strategy, in essence, deals with long-term planning and people concern themselves with the here and now, there isn’t much hope for the former. Sure, most marketing people like talking about strategy, workshopping their way through strategy processes and producing strategy documents. Maybe because it makes them (or should I say “us”) feel important. Maybe because it’s fun (it is).

But does it matter?

I’m thinking maybe not, because not only does adhering to strategy require people to be able to reason in abstract concepts, it also often means sacrificing small but concrete short-term gains for larger but long-term, and thereby more vague, ones. And as the Allais paradox shows, when faced with a situation of certainty vs uncertainty, people maximize utility over value, i.e. prefer the more certain outcome even if its value is smaller. Also, focusing on the long-term doesn’t seem to be very conducive to most marketing people’s careers.

However, I’m not prepared to throw my hands in the air and open a coffee shop on a small Greek island just yet. I haven’t given up on strategy, I have merely reached a couple of conclusions. For a strategy to even have the slightest chance of making a difference it has to be:

1. Dead simple (pun intended). If it doesn’t stick the first time, it never will. And nobody’s going to read the documentation.

2. Expressed as an idea. An idea that can actually inspire people. Not something that makes you nod your head going “yeah, that makes sense” but the kind of thing that makes you feel two inches taller.

I guess what I’m talking about is what is normally not labeled as strategy but as “vision”. Like Disney’s “We shall make people happy” or Nike’s “If you have a body, you’re an athlete”. The Romans called it casus belli, something to go into battle for. And possibly to die for. Perhaps that is the most realistic way forward for most companies – good tactics and good people combined with a clear casus belli that can energize them in the same direction.

Enough of this talk of death. To summarize, and to end on a somewhat more cheerful note, I’ll let Robin Williams express the essence of what I think any good strategy should be able to answer:

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