What your advertising tells you about your strategy

Generally I’m very careful not to talk about advertising.  It’s dangerous – for me especially.

On a business level, I have to make sure that people don’t confuse my product with pure “ad strategy” or “branding strategy”.  Many broader strategy discussions devolve to this, for the simple reason that this is where most conscious “strategy work” is done.  It’s interesting, but not what I want to do.

And then on a personal level, I’ve found the ad world tends to be… how can I put it… a bit angry.  Big opinions, strongly held, and even more strongly expressed on social media.

And since I don’t like people shouting at me in the comments, I just try to keep my mouth shut!

However, whilst I will continue my silence, it’s a shame because advertising is extremely instructive to business strategy at large.  It may be downstream of the biggest choices a founder or CEO will have to make, but it’s the place where those choices are often brought to life, and so can act as a microcosm of the larger process.

Before getting on to that, here are some basic things that business strategy could learn from the advertising world:

  1. Communication style: as per my last newsletter, how you communicate something is as important as what you communicate, and this applies just as much to internal strategic comms as an external ad campaign. You need to “advertise” your strategy.
  2. Focus: everyone knows an ad has to be selective about what it shows if it’s going to be successful, and so the best ones have a strong sense of prioritisation and hierarchy – which strategies should too, but generally don’t.
  3. Respect for creativity: the creative departments of ad agencies are perhaps the last vestige of unstructured creative openness left in the business world, however this precise way of working should also be present in the boardroom as it’s equally necessary for strategy development.

All important stuff.

But the most important gift that advertising can give to strategy is not any of those, but this:

Acting as a barometer for strategic strength.

What does this mean?

Well, simply this: the better your strategy, the easier you will find it to create a great ad.  It’s common sense really.  With your strategy you are trying to create leverage.  Nine times out of ten this will be leverage the customer cares about.  And so chances are it will form the backbone of your ad communication.  And thus, if it’s strong, so will be the ad.

Great business strategy makes great advertising creative easy.  Or at least easier.

For a case in point, just take a look at this beauty.

So far as ads go, it has everything.

  • A story told without words
  • Just the right amount of subtlety
  • A mix of emotion and hard sell

But most important?  It has a product worth selling.

This ad is only this good because it’s selling a product – the Land Rover Defender – which is intrinsically high leverage.  The execution is breathtaking, but pitch that’s being executed is even better; the result of decades of strategic decision making.  By the time it reached the art director’s desk, they just had to nudge it over the line.

By comparison, I would suggest that if you gave the same creative team, say, the Mitsubishi Mirage, you would not be getting a similar quality of output.  They just wouldn’t have the same amount of substance to sink their teeth into.  There isn’t such a strategic scaffolding to build upon.

Of course every now and again you do get a great ad for a shit product, this is true.  But they are outliers.  For the most part companies get the ads they deserve – which is why most ads are so shockingly bad.

So how can we use this idea practically?

Well, in two ways.

I. Use adcepts in strategy

An adcept is industry jargon for an ad-concept.  A quick and dirty prototype for an ad that anyone can do to land the basic idea.  An adcept for the Land Rover ad might have been a sketch of the image, or literally just saying “imagine a wild and free looking guy with a long beard handing over his passport at a checkpoint, with him looking like a corporate drone in the photo”.

Adcepts are a great tool for higher level strategy.

They allow us to “fast-forward” to the final compelling pitch the market will see as a result of all the deeper business decisions we are making.  They take our perhaps complex and dry thinking, and distil it down to the bit that really counts.  The hook that gives us competitive advantage.

They also serve as a handy internal communication tool.  After all, we’re all people, we all respond to things the way that punters do.  And so an adcept can be a pretty good way of summarising a strategic direction in a pithy and memorable way to get buy-in.

“But I’m not an advertising creative”, you may protest.  And yet that is the point.  Because a measure of a great idea is that it can be pitched in a compelling way without creative skill.

If you can dream up a reasonably compelling ad for the business you’re creating, imagine what a pro would would do with it.

And if you can’t?  Well… don’t assume that they could either.

II. Take final responsibility for the work

Yes, of course some agencies are better than others.  And of course there are many people in the chain other than you.  Even so, when it comes to doing real advertising, you must accept that the buck stops with you, the founder.

Not the agency.

Not the creatives.

Not your marketing director.

You.  The one who is responsible for the strategy, and thus the product they are being asked to advertise.

If the work produced is poor, or ineffective, do not leap to questioning the team.  No, look in the mirror first, and ask “is the thing we are selling really worth selling?”.  Have you given them the necessary raw materials?  Have you made their lives easy?

Or are you demanding alchemy from them?  The transformation of business lead to advertising gold?

Almost every time, this will be the case.  Because great strategy builds products that sell themselves.  Ads just give them an extra nudge.


In the final analysis then, ads aren’t really “ads”.  They aren’t really sales tools.  They are more poetic expressions of what a business, at its core is.  They are portraits, reflecting what beauty there is to be found right back at the subject.

They are the greatest tool we have to look on our business as it is.

So use them accordingly.

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