Rethinking Hired Brains

I suggest that if you have the fortunate experience of  being paid to think--which I happen to, you might consider why.  The basis for hiring someone purely because they are intelligent is fraught with potential problems. For one, strategic thinking cannot be severed from execution anymore--figuratively or literally, so high-thinking, theory-emitting fellows (like myself) will be charged with the gritty work of tactical thinking--of deciphering not only how a client should think about their problems and framing new lens, but offering the down-on-the-street activations that bring them to fruition. 

Today's agencies most need thinking people who can walk and talk their game,and figure out how to sell smart into the client too--think on their feet. The litmus test is that if you deny strategists their research databases and social listening software and MBA frameworks and they are completely unable to make basic distinctions between quality and crap—you might have a problem on your hands. You can't train instinct--but you can find the right inquisitive skills to make your planning crew better.  

Of course there is something stilted about the "hired brain" model. For every hip guy or gal at your agency with chunky glasses and bowtie whose been talking about adaptive frameworks since 2006 there are scores of account and planning staffers scouring research databases and old case studies without a clue as to how to put it together. Somewhere between quoting Hoffestede and “Systems Theory”,  I can guarantee you sits the the client, who are f-cking bewildered, and fed up. They want solutions, not philosophy. 

Want to know why?

Strategy isn’t really strategy unless you address the big enchilada of media fragmentation first.  I call it a "big enchilada" because it has tons of good stuff in it, but if you eat it too fast or too much of it—you get really sick. With media fragmented the way it is, strategy has taken on new meaning.  It isn’t enough anymore just to craft a message (no matter how awesome your creative is) you have to know who you wish to reach, how they congregate on-line and off-line and lots more.  The right message to the wrong person in the wrong place is a complete waste of time, money and effort. 

So here are some the questions you should be asking. Read them carefully because they have a twist to them.

  • Who are your core consumers and how do you expect they will drive conversation and conversion?
  • Are you open to using social data and behavioral analysis to think more deeply about generational shifts in media consumption and spending habits?
  • Have you considered developing and grouping consumers more succinctly according to common interests, econometrics, as well as the behavioral nuances between consumer experiences, and how segments cross over using social channels, and through mobile apps?

Second, how do your consumers broker the natural influence they possess? You can tell this by how do they react to custom, brand-directed forms of engagement?

  • What does each group talk about?
  • How do they share?
  • What are their offline behaviors (based on what they talk about and share?)

More often then not these questions are never asked,  and somewhere along the line the client’s expectations were not managed well-and then the account folks let the brief slide, and now the creative team is pissed, and everyone starts flinging tactics at the problem. This is now what I famously refer to as the “deadly default to tactics in place of actual strategy syndrome." No Buenos. The flinging of tactics at strategic problems is verboten.

Your average self-respecting agency staffer can't turn down "brainstorming" anymore than a four year old can turn down an orange cream soda popsicle. Let's admit it, tactics are like popsicles and everyone loves popsicles. Let’s also be more honest--agencies get into a whole shit-ton of trouble when they hire untrained tactical people and not a single person who actually understands the strategic practice. And to be fair, communications planning to date, as practiced, has focused mainly on just targeting consumers—and then provoking them to some degree. Very little time has been spent on finding the most effective modes of deriving insight, and then creating connective tissue between the consumer. message and media.  This is what's new, and it can't be done by one person.

Here’s why you should train your people instead of hiring one brain.  The transformation going on in planning means a return to the old school. Like actually thinking before “tact-ticking” or blathering obtuse theories. Strategists who understand the big picture--from macro-economics to cultural nuance are useful but only if they can bring others along with them for the ride. 

Strategy is inspiration, not theory, teamwork, not messianism. 


I think for a living. You can pay me to think with you. Email me at

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