The Future of Strategy


Future of Strategy 2020: opportunities in a post-pandemic world

Strategists are in more demand than ever as a result of the pandemic, WARC’s 2020 Future of Strategy survey finds, though amid a looming recession, the purpose of the strategist is changing.

WARC’s annual Future of Strategy report is based on a global survey of strategists that was fielded in May and June 2020. Subscribers can read the full report here.

This year’s report focuses on the impact of COVID-19 on strategy, across headcounts, budgets, and the role of strategists during the crisis. It also addresses what long term changes might result.

There’s a deep strangeness to the situation as the pandemic demolishes old certainties. As a result, strategic expertise has never been more important as brands seek creative responses to challenges and opportunities. Yet the pressure it exerts has asked difficult financial questions of brands and agencies alike: short-term reactions to that pressure in the form of budget cuts has put both jobs and strategies under threat.

Meanwhile, some strategists continue to feel that their work is undervalued, especially when aggressive staff cuts loom. The danger here is that those cuts fall on junior practitioners at a key moment in their careers and slashes opportunities at a time in which agencies and brands had been under pressure to make their workforces more representative of the population.

Four key themes stood out from the report:

A time to prove strategy’s value

Strategists are busier than ever, and throughout the pandemic clients have relied on them more than usual. In 2020, 59% of respondents feel that the strategy department is exerting more influence over the agency than this time last year.

A continued theme from last year: 84% of respondents feel their hours should be billable. “It’s times like this that attaching thinking to revenue comes into sharp focus, so it’s vital that the work we do is accountable: billable. The services we offer provide a tangible return”, said one strategist. However, many are also keenly aware that in the current environment, it’s unlikely that agencies will start to charge separately.

Headcounts and the next generation

There’s precedent for recession hitting the next generation. During the last recession in 2008/09, the major impact was on younger employees with a significant decline in the number of employees aged 25 or under. IPA Census data suggests agency personnel under-35 dropped by 23% in the 12 months that followed the crash.

Already, that pattern is emerging with 26% of respondents noting that headcount has decreased as a result of COVID-19. What’s more, a further 18% were expecting staff cuts in the next few months.

The risk here, say strategists, is that despite offering a quick source of cost reductions, stretching a team employed precisely in order to do deep thinking. As a result, some anticipate a hollowing out of the middle, with either very junior or very senior staff members.

Yet 41% of respondents say the skillsets being lost are those of junior strategists, followed by generalists (37%), both of which reflect a pressure on those in the early parts of their careers. Writing for the report, Ally Owen, Founder of Brixton Finishing School points out that the window of opportunity in the creative industries is already narrow and gets narrower when you come from an under-represented background.

“For strategy teams to really resonate, they need to include a collection of individuals who together offer a forensic understanding of people and culture.”

Budget cuts and the hit to freelancers

Media budgets are being cut, according to 87% of respondents, and the skills of strategy are increasingly taking demand from the field of planning. “It feels like we are closer to the client’s financial decisions, more visibility into internal processes and understanding of the weak spots”, said one Strategy partner based in Europe.

“The feeling is that we are working harder to put less work out,” said a strategist in LATAM.

Though strategists are in demand, freelancers are the first area to be cut in tough times with 48% of respondents saying that their agency has reduced its use of freelancers.

Strategy in the age of short-termism

Brands have acted in the face of the pandemic, but most of that has taken the form of budget cuts, and a renewed pressure for communications work to drive sales quickly.

Yet there is opportunity: 62% or respondents see the biggest opportunity for the discipline in adapting clients’ strategies to the post-pandemic world.

Read the full report here: Future of Strategy 2020

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