Ideas Are Not Strategy

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I’ve noticed over the years that a lot of advertisers, and even advertising professionals, don’t know what strategy is. So often “strategy” is defined as a list of tactics, like this:

•    Increase our Facebook followers
•    Start using PPC
•    Run ads with “X” creative message

Folks, these aren’t strategies. At best, they’re tactics. Lee Odden wrote a great essay on strategies vs. tactics. He says, “I think part of the problem is that a lot of marketers are spread thin because of chasing shiny objects. They’re distracted from core marketing.  They’re tourists in the digital and social world without taking the time to understand what the locals do and care about.”

So true. I’ve worked in marketing departments that loved to follow shiny objects: “PPC is the next best thing – let’s do it!” or “We’re going to focus on social media because everyone’s talking about it!”

As I tell my kids, just because “everyone’s doing it” doesn’t mean it’s a good thing to do. And it’s definitely not a strategy.

I work at a traditional agency, so we do a lot of creative work for clients. We PPC pros often don’t have much insight into the creative development process, so it’s been interesting to me to learn how it works. But the trap I’ve seen clients fall into is to become enamored with a particular creative theme, or even an individual print or video ad. All of a sudden, that becomes their “strategy.”

As marketers, it’s our job to remind clients (and bosses) that ideas aren’t strategy. Avis’s marketing strategy back in the ‘60s and ‘70s wasn’t “We try harder.” Avis’s strategy was to beat Hertz.

Nowhere is the folly behind turning creative ideas into strategy more apparent than in PPC. In PPC, we don’t have a full-page print ad to tell our story, nor do we have a 60-second radio or TV spot. We have 95 characters in which to get the searcher’s attention. And yet, so often I have clients who want to put their catchy tagline into a PPC ad.

Can you imagine putting this Coke tagline in a PPC ad?

iconic coke ad

It’d look like this:

coke ad

Not terrible, but not very convincing, is it? It looks like a crummy eBay ad.

Or what about this fine tagline?

iconic lucky ad

Translated to PPC, it’s:

lucky ad

You wouldn’t even be sure what Luckys were from this ad! I’d think it was some kind of diet food.

Now, I know these are vintage ads – you can’t really run cigarette ads in PPC as they’re against the TOS. (And cigarettes are not a great way to get slender, folks.) But they’re not just vintage ads – they’re iconic. These are brands that are well-known, and yet their taglines don’t make good PPC ad copy. And they’re certainly not a strategy. “Get people to buy cigarettes by telling them they’ll make them skinny” might have been a strategy, but the taglines themselves aren’t.

Ideas are not strategy. Taglines are not strategy. Creative concepts are not strategy. They’re all tools in the arsenal of a good marketing strategy, which might be “sell more Coca-Cola” or “drive leads via our website.” Don’t confuse the two – and don’t let your clients confuse them either.

Have you ever run into this kind of “creative wagging the strategy dog” scenario? What did you do to convince your client or boss that their creative ideas aren’t strategy? How do you explain PPC strategy vs. tactics to clients? Share in the comments!

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  1. Great post. We run into this all the time, and have to go about re-educating clients on what works best for PPC isn’t always (or often) the same as what works best in traditional media.

    Yes, we will put some brand messaging in our PPC ads, if it is relevant, concise, and appropriate. But any fluff or unclear jargon, I will fight based on my years of experience in this channel. But we can always run a limited test, using conversions as a KPI, and see what wins. 🙂

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Exactly, Lisa! I always tell clients they can put the fluff on the landing page, but not in the ad. And the fluff needs to go at the bottom after the form/buy button and the benefits statements. Or like you said, test a fluffy LP against a conversion-optimized LP. The results speak for themselves. 🙂

  2. Great post, but I’ll go ahead and be that guy – ‘beating Hertz’ isn’t a strategy either. That’s a goal. Strategy is about activity selection (and resource allocation) that results in a competitive advantage. Important distinctions that, as you say, are not well understand by many people who should know better.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Interesting. We define goals as something measurable, e.g. “increase sales by 10%” or “drive 50,000 leads in 2015.” Strategy is a broader statement. But we’re splitting hairs – the point is that ad creative and taglines aren’t strategy. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Is ROI a strategy? Is figuring out when going after something other than direct ROI, because it will ultimately improve profitability / lead to profitable growth, a strategy?

    I hope so.

    There are puzzles to be solved in digital, to be sure, but much of it can be reduced to tactics. And chasing shiny objects can be simply vanity — chasing around looking for cool things to do so you can put it on your resume. Good post!

  4. You mean having a Facebook page or a Twitter account isn’t a strategy?! 😉

    The one gap I always see (even in companies that have a proper strategy) is they have not taken into account what their competitors are doing and their strategy ends up being pretty much the same as everyone else’s. Much of the problem is that the creative ideas aren’t digital/social by design, so they’re not easy to translate into a digital strategy in the first place.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Agreed Mel – a strategy should include differentiators to set you apart from the competition. Good point also on the difficulty of translating creative to digital. I deal with that a lot and there’s not always an easy answer.

  5. Thanks for this post Melissa. I have struggled to figure out the difference between tactics, goals and strategy for years. I still don’t have it totally figured out, but these examples and the insightful comments have been very helpful.

    As I assemble my own definition of strategy based on the combined wisdom of many others, the latest version I have been following is: An action plan to be unique with measurable objectives, sufficient means, and specific scope.

    Make success specific, take time to plan, and know when to say no based on the priorities in that specific plan.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      I like this, Chris – very similar to my own philosophy on strategy. So many great comments on this post!

  6. Heavy-duty corporate strategy often has more to do with areas that are completely beyond the grasp and control of the marketing and advertising dept. anyway. The C-Suite minus the CMO control issues like supply chain management, M&A, and the “big heavy duty vision” stuff, some of which has been served up to the corporate world by various schools of thought in corporate strategy coming from business schools.

    Old school advertising agencies were indeed pretty well aligned with one of the most powerful corporate strategies of all: monopoly power, brand recall, ubiquity. But importantly, those values were easier to pursue when we had what Seth Godin called the “TV-industrial complex” — powerful research departments, economies of scale in production, and a limited set of channels through which to propagate the messages of the largest makers of household products, cars, and lifestyle products. It’s a little different today, but that hasn’t entirely gone away. Making digital & the imperatives of being judged by customer acquisition metrics somehow fit in with that legacy world remains a puzzle, but I’m pretty sure that most practitioners are delusional if they believe they’re sitting in a Fortune 500 Board of Directors meeting, or communing with the ghost of Steve Jobs, planning world takeover.

    There are people who do strategy in their sleep. If I had to guess, precisely 27 people worldwide.

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