A Crisis in Strategic Thinking

By Laura Marella, Overflow CEO

As we emerge from the pandemic crisis into a whole new business paradigm, brands are more in need of the insights experienced strategists bring to the table than ever. However, even before COVID, companies consistently undervalued strategists’ efforts, misunderstood their purpose, and starved teams of the resources needed to do their jobs, leading to an exodus of talented strategists. 

Today we find ourselves at a bit of a crossroads when it comes to strategic thinking. Traditional agencies are moving from AOR to project-based work, placing greater emphasis on efficiency and cost-cutting and struggling to attract and retain top talent as a result. Strategizing around branding or marketing is supposed to be creative by nature. It attracts outside-the-box thinkers, which is an ideal trait for companies looking to break out of stale mindsets. But many brands strive for same-ness within their organization, which stifles the strategists who were hired specifically for their ability to think creatively. This has pushed many strategists to seek greener pastures on their own.

This narrow focus on short-term goals limits organizations’ strategic vision, particularly when strategists are hamstrung by a lack of resources or forced to navigate a complex web of internal obstacles.

“Strategists are master architects in an era of tiny homes. And while that might sound like a profession that isn’t keeping up with the times, it’s the realization that temporary solutions can’t ultimately survive an approach to problem solving. It’s believing a discipline is the same thing as an execution”, says Eduardo Ibarra, Founder of Cawa and Founding Member at Overflow and with both agency and in-house strategic experience. 

Blueprint’s recent reportThe Truth About Talent, sums up this problem nicely for agencies:

“Because of the pressure on money, and short termism, the conversation becomes more about money than creative work. So there’s a dilution of the work. What frustrates me is there seems to be a lack of belief in the power of creativity as one of the core tenets for growth.”

Of course, strategists can only do so much if the organizations they work for don’t support them, or in some cases, don’t even know exactly what it is they’re doing. The status quo limits the efficacy of strategic teams and robs the companies they work for the benefit of their expertise, particularly in creative and media agencies.

“Strategy has never been more needed by clients, but many agencies have depleted their resources and find themselves with limited resources with which to help their clients,” says Ed Cotton, independent strategist and host of the podcast Inspiring Futures.

“Businesses need strategic solutions to cope with many of the challenges that face them. There is no shortage of consultancies that can help businesses identify opportunities within markets or ways to cut costs. But strategists with agency experience bring something unique to the table, the ability to shape, make, and build ideas, that's something very different from a solution embedded into a spreadsheet,” he says.

According to a recent In-House Agency Forum (IHAF) report, more than 72% of corporations have an in-house agency, but many internal creative teams are not given the autonomy needed for their companies to benefit from their knowledge and skills. Even though by definition in-house strategists are close to the companies they work for, there’s a consistent disconnect as to where they fit into the organization.

"While in-house agencies may be enabled by institutional knowledge, proximity and creative prowess, they are simultaneously stymied by operating practices and decision-making hierarchies that limit their ability to contribute more fully," Marta Stiglin, an in-house organizational consultant, told Marketing Dive.

Further research by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) cited by Marketing Dive, a report entitled “Managing In-House Agency Creative,” revealed many in-house agencies struggle to attract and retain top talent.

Better Strategic Thinking Will Come From Independent Thinkers

With their efforts undervalued, a lack of resources and support from their agencies, and consistent downward pressure on salaries for in-house strategic talent, experienced strategy practitioners have begun leaving their companies in favor of freelancing, starting their own strategy-focused consultancies in marketing, branding, design and innovation.

“I help leaders create lightning-speed marketing strategies that make an immediate impact on company growth, not just in the silo of communications. The attention I can give to my clients who are all seeking transformational shifts cannot match a strategist at an agency who is forced to work with five clients at one time,” says Micki Boas, an independent strategist and founding member of Overflow who left the agency side to work directly with brands six years ago.

“I can see the bigger picture and put all the pieces together to simplify, differentiate and scale. When counter-culture influence meets mainstream power, anything is possible.”

The sudden influx of talented independent strategy practitioners plying their trade outside of traditional agencies’ walls has helped brands broaden their perspective with the help of experts who bring experience and knowledge to bear without the baggage that comes with in-house agencies’ ways of thinking.

“In-house strategy inherently lacks an outside voice (think Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner spot). In-house strategists often struggle, through no fault of their own, with the need to work through organizational silos before they can really understand how the idea will perform with those outside the walls,” says Overflow founding member Michael Reeder, an independent strategist with a client-side background including Amazon and Starbucks.

“In-house strategists are asked to start with an internal view of reality and work backwards. At times this can lead to smaller ideas focused on the near-state or even chaos,” he says

Once strategists get a taste of unencumbered freedom, and the high fees their services can command as independents, it will be harder for agencies to do an about-face and hire them back.

In a recent post on Medium, Overflow founding member Eric Pakurar points to a coming drought of global talent, particularly for “knowledge-intensive” jobs like most marketing roles. He cites a Korn Ferry report that predicts by 2030, the demand for workers with such skills will outstrip supply, resulting in a global talent shortage of more than 85.2 million people.

“This means that those of us responsible for hiring people to work at our agencies will have a harder time finding top talent. Those who have the right skills—not something to take for granted, as current skill sets aren’t necessarily going to match jobs that are available in the future—will be in higher demand. Their stronger negotiating positions enable them to command higher salaries,” Pakurar writes. 

Agencies will continue to struggle attracting and retaining top strategic talent as long as it continues treating creatives as expendable commodities. This mindset only serves to push more skilled strategists away from the agency model, which only deepens the problem as finding suitable replacements becomes more difficult, and more expensive.

One way companies can find the creative talent they’re looking for is through emerging solutions like Overflow, which can help brands fine-tune their strategic vision by finding a diverse collective of seasoned, independent thinkers. Doing so will help them be more innovative and creative in their marketing efforts, grow their business, and grow their impact with more thoughtful and transformative strategies.

About the author: Laura Marella is an advertising industry leader with a history of success in multicultural markets, spanning multinational corporate agencies, a start-up independent agency and as an independent consultant. She co-founded Overflow, a platform that empowers independent strategists to maximize their business impact, after becoming disenchanted with the constrictive departmental silos and colorless corporate world.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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