Culture is eating our strategies for breakfast
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” George Orwell

Peter Drucker was talking about organisational culture when he coined ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. But, from where I’m sitting, I’m seeing culture-at-large eating many brand and communications strategies for breakfast.

First, a bit of a rewind <<

Sitting in the audience at SXSW Interactive 2016, Frank Cooper (ex CMO of BuzzFeed) gave me an a-ha moment.

Frank said that brands needed to move on from the ‘Perfection Model’.

We’re all familiar with the Perfection Model.

A big brand does a whole lot of research. Then a whole lot of strategising. Then the back and forth of creative development. Then some market testing on the concepts. Only then would all the creative be made with rounds and rounds of changes and then, finally, released out into the market.

Most would be lucky to pull all that off in 6 months.

The problem with this model in today’s media environment is that by the time it has been released, culture has moved on.

That’s why only a few ever hit the bull’s eye.

Then there’s the Buzzfeed approach that Frank spoke of. Release 600 pieces of content, run data on it all (both qual and quant), generate new ideas, rinse, repeat.

Always testing, always in beta. Always current and always getting better.

This isn’t new. Nor is it news. Buzzfeed essentially took the much hyped Lean model, that was so successful for start-ups, and applied it to content.

But what strikes me was how most brands and agencies are still using processes that are nothing like this to communicate with their audience.

Buzzfeed is a publisher, not an FMCG brand that has to shift product. But in an attention economy, where we are all vying for attention, Buzzfeed is the competition. And we would do well to learn from them.

After I had returned from SXSW, this all niggled at me. I worked at a fast paced PR agency, but it still wasn’t fast enough. You could pull Donald Draper out of Mad Men, drop him into most agencies and (after he wrapped that handsome head around social media), would get along fine as a senior creative.

The industry standard is a sausage factory process:


Linear processes set in concrete are no longer best fit for a networked world in constant flux. So I lateralised.

Which industry had shifted to this fast moving paradigm the most effectively? It would be hard to argue against a better example than design and design thinking.

Google Ventures were the standard bearers in this. Fortunately, Jake Knapp had written about GV’s Design Sprint processes. I studied these processes. I took GV’s Sprint process and combined them with other mental models and tools. The outcome was a set of one-day communications and strategy sprints.

I dispensed with the brief and started with the business challenge or problem we need to solve. From there, we curate the experts and client stakeholders required to attend the sprint.

With the right people in the room, we can (together) frame the challenge, find the opportunity, develop an elegant solution and have the strategy ready to test in days rather months.

It’s fast, it’s effective, and most importantly, it works.

We’re not the only ones. Progressive agencies around the world starting to experiment with this approach.

I’ve run this by friends in the design world. They all tend to respond with “Yeah cool, but what is your MVP? How do you proto-test?”

My answer?

Social media.

With social media, you have a low-cost, low-risk proto-test option. Facebook, in particular, allows you test different messages targeted against small and specific audiences.

Jonathan Courtney has also taken inspiration from GV’s Sprint. He says that Design Sprints have revealed an expensive waste of time in the modern design process.

Jonathan’s own a-ha moment was that:

“The useful data came from the first user tests, not the research.”

Apply this to brand comms, and the implications are enormous.

Whether you use the traditional creative process or a sprint process, we are all making assumptions with our strategies. It’s just that with the traditional model (in typical ad land hubris), they are framed as an ‘insight’.

With the traditional method, brands are often betting their whole budget on that assumption being a genuine ‘insight’. Most insights are assumptions pulled from very vague data sets, often where people say one thing and do another (see the polls pre-Trump and Brexit for reference).

By all means research, but test your assumptions in a way that is low risk / low cost before you commit the big bucks. And with the Sprint method you get to test people’s actions and reactions in the real world, while they’re waiting for a bus or bored at work. Not what people say in a group research session.

The whole time, right under our noses, social media was providing us with real data on the assumptions that resonate. A means to find genuine audience insights before you commit your entire budget.

Yet still, social is at the tail end of the sausage factory.

This has to change.

Instead of:

Research>Strategy>Insight>TVC led Brand Campaign>Amplify on Social

You hold a sprint, then go out there and test assumptions with your target audience on social. See what resonates, analyse, iterate and then, when you’re cooking with gas, you take those insights upstream and have them inform your mass comms. Sure, Facebook posts and TVCs are very different animals. But we’re talking about testing the market response to whatever you’re cooking up.

The gold is in the qualitative data. The commentary. Did it go gangbusters? Check the commentary and share statements and find out why. Was it a flop? Check the comments to see why not.

This is another Buzzfeed hack. No other channel provides you with this level of real-time insight.

You’ll never reach perfection. No-one ever has. But instead of taking pot shots at moving bright lights in the dark, you’ll keep getting better. With every cycle.

Once this sinks in, you realise that most brands have their strategic processes flowing the wrong way. And that the old top-down processes are full of filler, risk and waste.

Now that we know better, we should be shooting for fast iteration instead of the follies of the perfection model.

As Jonathan says:

“It’s not that we were trying to milk our clients of as much money as possible, we just didn’t know better, this was the design process!”

And so goes the traditional strategic process.

If you would like to try out the Sprint method for your brand, contact us at Fromm and we can talk you through it over an excellent coffee.

Matt Kendall