There’s an assumption, perpetuated by certain more cynical agencies, that getting to a good strategy inevitably involves a complex, months-long process with a big team. Think of the cliches. “You get what you pay for.” “Fast, good, cheap: pick two.”
Good strategy definitely does happen during long processes at larger agencies, of course. They have the budget to hire brilliant strategists, who have tons of experience working on big brand transformations and campaigns for big multinational clients.
But big breeds big. There are reasons that large agencies’ complex, in-depth processes exist that have nothing to do with getting to a good answer.
They’re a natural consequence of larger teams, both agency-side and client-side. The bigger the team, the more complicated a job it is to communicate between team members; a team of 3 people has 3 potential communication channels, but a team of 15 has 105. The bigger the team, the more “social loafing” there is; it’s easier to be a passenger. The bigger the team, the more damaging it is for people to stray off-script, and the more things get locked down into rigid processes.
But what if you’re a smaller agency, that can’t command the fees necessary to charge what you need to charge for a complex, in-depth process? What if you’re a smaller brand, that can’t afford to pay those fees?
Hell, what if you’re a larger brand, or a larger agency, and you just don’t want to have a 15-person team take 3 months and tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds to arrive at a strategy?
The iron triangle – the idea that you can only have two of “fast”, “good”, or “cheap” – tells you that you’re out of luck. But the iron triangle is insidiously wrong. Good strategy is simple and clear, which should make it faster to deliver; if it’s faster to deliver, it should be cheaper to deliver, even if you’ve got more experienced and expensive people working on it.
With small, empowered teams working on focused problems, you should be able to have all three. That’s because:
Focus is faster. Solving the most important problem is not only more effective than solving 50 of the wrong ones, it’s faster too. Staying focused keeps you nimble.
Speed confirms the need. If you don’t need the output of the project quickly, do you need it at all? If you can survive months without something, you might not ever need it. Doing nothing is the fastest and cheapest thing of all.
Constraints require creativity. If you can do everything and anything, you’ll be paralysed by choice and spend forever trying all sorts of things. Limited time, money and resources force you to be crafty.
Starting early means finishing early. Working to tight deadlines forces you to find time at the start of projects rather than at the end. Spend less time on procurement, pitching, kick-off meetings, casting, and scheduling and you’ll get to the actual work more quickly.
“Complicated” doesn’t mean “good”. 15 people working on a project for three months is about 8,000 hours. But spending 8,000 hours on something doesn’t mean you did good work, it just means you did a lot of work. Good work is only as complex as it needs to be – no more and no less.
Delay breeds delay. Brands respond to a world that’s always changing. The actions of competitors, the habits of consumers, the vagaries of culture: they all add up to a moving target that’s moving quite quickly. Every month you delay is an extra month for your target to drift, which causes more delays.
Too much talent is a bad thing. Everyone’s experienced it, from group projects at school through to the workplace: it’s easier to be a passenger in a big group. Small teams have no room for loafers. Everyone is given something to take responsibility for, and everyone gets a chance to – and is expected to! – contribute.
Brands and agencies, and the people within them, deserve better. They deserve the right answer, quickly, without a song-and-dance and without delay. But they’re their own worst enemies. The dynamic between brand and agency is what’s given birth to the complexity of processes. You can’t just wish yourself into a simpler place. You actually have to remove some of the complexity, without taking away what’s valuable. That requires both sides to be brave, focused, and willing to do things a little differently. “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”, as the saying goes; it’s the safe choice. But the safe choice rarely leads to the best outcome.