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Issue One REWIRE Magazine

The case for strategy in a crisis

Author Teodora Coste
Published 22 Nov 2023

If Channel 4 made a gritty docudrama about the last five years, they would call it “Unprecedented”. Indeed, this is what Boris Johnson’s former communications director named his “blockbuster” podcast memoir about the PM’s last months in No.10. And it is the name Amazon Prime gave to the docuseries relating the last six weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, with “unprecedented” access to the former president and his adult children.

But do we really still live in “unprecedented times” when the unprecedented has become the norm? Or are we just normalising a perpetual crisis?

It seems the data is firmly on the side of crisis. Take the economy, our healthcare, our security, our environment – every day it all seems to be hanging by a thread. More than 9 in 10 UK households (92 per cent) have reported an increase in their cost of living. Inflation has remained stubbornly high after peaking at 11.1 per cent in October 2022. A record 7.4 million people in England are currently waiting for elective treatment from our much-mythologised NHS. In Europe, June was the hottest month in the 174- year history of temperature monitoring. And in the US, the only issue trumping inflation and cost of living concerns is poor government leadership.

No doubt we’re living in extraordinary times characterised by new hardships – as well as age-old ones brought to bear in modern contexts. The prohibitively high cost of living is perhaps the most all-encompassing example of this. We hear time and time again in focus groups and surveys from people who are living pay-cheque to paycheque. They say they don’t trust the Government, they say it won’t make a difference who comes in next, and they say they know the country is bankrupt. Naturally, the media has gone somewhat into overdrive and there is a dark cloud of pessimism hanging over much national and international reporting. But what can realistically be done? And what (if any) opportunities are left in this rather dire context?

  1. Take the long view

Our instinctive reaction when in crisis is to deal with that which is in front of us, with the urgent. We give in to our WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is) and it shapes our focus, as renowned psychologist and global thinker Daniel Kahneman first explained in Thinking, Fast and Slow. We build a story from a limited number of facts, and that runs our response to crisis (i.e. System 1 or ‘fast’ thinking).

Taking a minute to pause can feel deeply counter-productive. And yet pausing and taking the long view often helps to gain perspective and evaluate the extent to which we really are living through “unprecedented” times. An example I always come back to, and which was a popular meme back in that first lockdown in 2020, is that of a person who was born in the 1900s who if they made it to 60 would have lived through a much deadlier pandemic, two world wars followed by deep depressions, and ended their life with Eastern Europe under the Iron Curtain and the world on the precipice of nuclear oblivion. One could say such a person would have looked upon the last few years of sensationalist headlines with a knowing and slightly amused eye.

Another way to put this is to say that not all problems are created equal, and we need to get comfortable with exploring the various facets of problems before jumping to solutions and fixes. As Einstein famously said, “if I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Einstein believed that the quality of the solution you generate is determined by your ability to articulate the problem you hope to solve. Good strategy deals with problems, strong strategists stay with the discomfort and ask why, again, and again, and again, until they are able to reframe the issue and come up with a creative solution. This approach is true of smaller, isolated issues too and can inform the appropriate level of response or spotlight the gaps in data we need answers for. What is the broader context of your issue? Why has this happened? What data can you collect to map it, expand it, explain it?

  1. Reframe the problem to see the possible

At the same time, we must be pragmatic and accept that data in itself will not give us the answer. Since the early ascendancy of Big Data in the early 2010s, we have been chasing the next model, platform, or NLP / AI-enabled solution to trawl through the sheer volume of information available to us and guide us in how it should best be utilised.

But the reality is that data rarely speaks for itself. Data is not Human (as Star Trek fans will attest), and neither is AI. The world would have you believe AI was invented in November last year, when, in fact, ChatGPT, which sparked something of a frenzy, is more humble than a layman might realise, and of course AI has its roots in the 1940s with the birth of cybernetics.

However advanced, a “learning” algorithm is just that – and it cannot replace thinking; in particular strategic and creative thinking – the kind which many crises require, and the kind which has seen us through crises time and time again.

We need to ask smarter, tougher questions. We need to reimagine the possible. We need to rewire. In the words of the pre-eminent American inventor Charles Kettering, “our imagination is the only limit to what we can hope to have in the future."

  1. Build beyond

A strategy is only as good as the plan to deliver it. In ad land, the greatness of strategy often rests on the creative, and the same applies in communication and, in particular, any kind of campaign for change that aims to bring people on board with an idea for that fateful first time. The idea needs to stick in public (and business and political) consciousness – when this is achieved, miracles can happen and a new possible future can be enacted.

To do this well, you need to allow your imagination to come to play. And in the corporate world, in particular in times of crises, this is most often dismissed.

However, all data points towards inviting imagination to the table. In The Case for Creativity, a wonderful book written by renowned planner James Hurman, he analysed almost two decades of creative and effectiveness award-winning campaigns to prove this. The creatively awarded campaigns in the IPA Effectiveness Databank (1996 – 2014) drove 11 times the market share gains at the equivalent level of share of voice. And say what you wish about the Cannes Lions, the Cannes Lions Creative Marketer of the Year companies outperform the stock market by a factor of three.

The same is true of great reputation-building campaigns, they too have an impact on market share.

Research shows that 30% of market capitalisation is underpinned by a company’s reputation, and that by quantifying and measuring reputation, a company can improve their business performance by as much as 63%.

I will leave you to work out what that means for your business with your financial directors.

There are structured formats to do this well, NESTA and IDEO in particular have great frameworks to follow if you are new to creative thinking. Or you can get a good agency on board. Either way inviting imagination to the table is paramount to charging your growth in times of crisis and restoring a sense of balance.

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