04th May 2016

Real World Thinking

By Tim Lewis

What’s the point of a strategy if it can’t live in the real world? 

We were completing a tender recently and one of the questions asked us to: ‘define our agency approach to creating brand and creative strategies’. My initial reaction was to go to the Health and Safety Section and return to this later, it was late and my mind’s eye saw 500 big words and some interesting diagrams to prove our strategic mastery. But then I stopped. I forgot about impressing procurement and asked myself how we really did it. We ended up with this:

“Understand where we need to get to, the stuff we have to help us, what’s in the way and what we need to do to get there”. 

Unfortunately we were about 475 words short, but felt that this would be easy to pad out. And therein lies a rather annoying truth of how brand design and creative strategy is often valued. It is padded out in how it is explained and delivered. I am not advocating that arriving at a great strategy isn’t hard, or the issues complex, the art of getting it right is about making the process and the answer as simple as possible.

In this thought is the 1st principle of our approach:

Do everything possible to 'under complicate' things

The military have some really great wisdom when it comes to this - I like Murphy’s Laws of Combat: The important things are simple. The simple things are very hard.

The reality of uncomplication is that it’s hard and it isn’t a process. It’s a commitment to a way of thinking about problem solving. It is, more than anything else, a state of mind.

You have to ‘collectively’ believe in the strength of uncomplicated to achieve it. As an agency it’s something we make part of our culture. Our greatest successes are when the client shares the attitude. So it’s how we talk about projects and outcomes, by doing so we create a common language and expectation. But importantly, you have to agree that it doesn’t mean less work, often it means more. There are no shortcuts to simple!

We do however believe there are three things an uncomplicated strategy or process should be built and judged on:

1. Relevance - built on real world insight and understanding.
2. Intelligence - simple, workable ideas with adaptability.
3. Clarity – easy to understand and implement.


We call these the big 3. Sure, we have to add the ability for things to be measureable and flexible (no plan survives the 1st contact intact – more wisdom from Murphy). But these are attributes of the strategy rather than a way of thinking. Starting with the big three framework means we give a strategy a fighting chance of leaving the meeting room and project team and travelling through the businesses, people and our customers and markets.  

Example: Our work branding the County of Herefordshire - three principle stakeholders (The Council, the Business Board and the Tourism Authority) with diverse objectives and needs and equally diverse audiences. Common agreement was complicated. Our answer was a simple four point brand agenda. The journey to it was hard, but making decisions on the brand identity afterwards were made easier. A control was in place which uncomplicated things and came to life.

So uncomplication, is a principle, a way of thinking and approaching things. But, alone it won’t create success. So, over the coming weeks and months we’d like to share more of our ways of working and the things we have learned in many different projects and markets in our Blog: Real World Thinking.

Our first two discuss the differences between territories and maps and the value of finding insights hidden beneath the surface; we hope they’re useful learning and thoughts. 

The territory is not the map

A strategy is created from a number of different components and only one thing is for certain - no two will be exactly the same. Each is created in response to a situation or need. This means that previous experience is not a reason for just doing what we did before. We should learn from the things we have done, but not to rely on them totally. 

It’s a bit like a ship's pilot, you bring them onboard because they know the waters, but equally, because they have experience which means they can react to changes in a situation. 

What typifies our thinking is an understanding that there is a difference between knowing the territory and creating the map. In the real world, MAP = STRATEGY.

I have tried hard not to stray into the world of charts and diagrams. But, an equation at this point helps understand our way of working.

EXPERIENCE + KNOWLEDGE + SITUATIONAL UNDERSTANDING = STRATEGY.

STRATEGY MUST BE:
- Relevant
- Intelligent
- Clear  

The simple truth is that experience and knowledge of a territory must be used proactively. Our first question is always “where have we encountered something like this before? what did we learn"? By thinking like this we create value at the earliest point. But, this must be underpinned by total commitment in understanding the situation. 

You can never understand too much

Naturally, understanding where we need to get to, what we have to help us and the things that are in our way are the planks of understanding the situation. We take developing these as a given. You simply shouldn’t set off without them – it would be like going camping without a tent! This is the basic information and kit. What elevates a strategy is finding out things which are below the surface or around the corner. Finding what you can’t easily see requires effort, but this effort makes the difference.

I can illustrate this with a story. We were commissioned to create a tourism brand for Northumberland. You simply can’t do this at a distance so we made the effort to do a 5 day workshop road trip as part of our immersion. We were in the back room of a pub, running a session called “true stories’. A B&B owner called Margaret stood up from the back, and said; “This might not be a story, but it is a truth, we want the buggers to come - just not too many of them”. On one hand this is a bit counter intuitive for destination branding, on the other it typifies the character of Northumberland. They stay true to who they are. No compromises or selling out for tourism, they’re lovely people who guard their culture, heritage and place fiercely.


From that one statement was an insight which informed the targeting of independent travellers, the brand's personality, position, tone of voice, messaging and positioning: An Independent Spirit.

We weren’t expecting it, it was under the surface, but it added richness to our research. That’s what insights can do; provide a layer around quantitative research which shapes the thinking, richness and emotions are just as important as numbers. Thanks Margaret!

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The team at Small Back Room work on a range of strategic projects in the brand world both internally and externally.

These include:

- Brand audit and evaluation
- Creating, shifting and changing brand positioning
- Proposition evaluation and development
- Internal communication, culture and engagement
- Narrative, voice and messaging
- Naming and identity development
- Customer acquisition campaigns