E pluribus unum

In the summer of 2009 when the Coalition’s War in Afghanistan was at its height, after months of tiresome work, a group of United States military strategists finally clicked save and print on their document; what they had created was a chart, one which synopsised the Coalition’s strategy in the nation of Afghanistan. Here it is…

AFGAN

Around one year later when the document surfaced in the media, it was picked up by the New York Times who wrote a story about the “chart’s” negative reception. The issue being; it is too complicated for the most senior of military Generals to understand, let alone anyone “on the ground” having to roll it out.

This is an easy mistake to make; when working in strategy and analytics, one can move from simplistic concept to information paralysis very quickly.
Some may question me likening the military occupation of a country to the advertising industry but I do so because they share the same undeniable focus on strategy.

In recent years, the proliferation of technology, coupled with the availability of fearsome amounts of data has armed the ad industry with very sophisticated capabilities in the field of strategy and measurement. The number of “moving parts” in a contemporary ad campaign can sometimes feel like that of a space shuttle.

Gone are the old days where a big budget + stylish artwork = campaign success, today’s advertisers have the science of Behavioural Economics and Psychology to apply to their work.
There are models to use and methodologies to apply. There are phases to plan and tiers to define. There are channels to layer, customers to segment, behaviour to research, culture to analyse, performance to forecast, tools to select and returns to calculate.
It is a vast puzzle which has one sweet-spot, one combination for genuine success.  The hardest act is to distill all this intelligence into one, short, meaningful solution, one entity which represents the informed direction of everything… the strategy.

A common side effect from this wealth of opportunity is utter confusion; the desire to inform overrides the ability to curtail and even the strongest strategic direction is lost in an ocean of charts, shapes and words all neatly arranged over 3,000 PowerPoint slides.

I am yet to be a “client” in my career, I have spent my time thus far in agencies, but one thought I frequently have is that if I were a client, I would be militant in my demand for simplicity especially with strategy.
Strategy and analytics is often viewed as the intimidating part of a campaign, the grand, theoretical ideas are deemed too “intangible” and the reams of data are “incomprehensible”, and this is true – but only if we as Planners and Analysts allow them to become this.

There’s an analogy which likens strategy to an iceberg because the majority of its mass is not immediately visible – but is still substantial in size and influence over its visible part.

The key here is ensuring only the necessary parts are made visible. If we over egg a strategy, it just becomes a commentary on ideas and our client disconnects.
In my short five year career so far I have watched immensely intelligent people, armed with iron-clad, compelling insight completely blur a client’s view by over complicating things.

The solution to this problem is empathy; all we need to do is remember one emotion which we all experience; insecurity. Every human being whether a CEO, Data Scientist or Runner holds the insecurity of not knowing the answer. Richard Branson once discussed the “fear of being found out”, that someone would arrive and take it all away because he had been “masquerading” as someone who understood.

If we scare a client with things which look clever and technical – they’re not likely to enjoy the work.
If we empower a client with things that are simple and solid they’re more likely to extend that monthly retainer.

Keeping it simple can quash insecurity and promote bravery and willingness in our teams, because we remove that fear of the secret language that “you don’t speak!”.

If we view it as an opportunity cost, the power of everyone in a meeting understanding your strategy far outweighs the admiration you may receive for delivering a super-clever, intellectual ball of rubber bands.

It’s the hardest part to distill intelligence into a singular strategic direction, but it is crucial.

As I began this article on United States politics, it feels fitting to end on it too. Senator Barrack Obama used a Latin phrase in his famous Hope Speech prior to taking office which holds relevance in this discussion…

…“E pluribus unum” meaning “out of many, one”.

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