The future of strategy is decentralized

Planners have a habit of not looking outside their bubble for insights. Cossette CSO Cat Wiles explains how new models can fix that.


By Cat Wiles

It’s been two years since I boarded a flight from London Heathrow to embark on a new adventure to become CSO at Cossette. When I first joined, I had a goal to not only strengthen the agency’s culture of effectiveness (and we’ve been on quite the journey, picking up awards at Cannes, Effies, IPA, WARC and, most recently, the APG Awards in London), but I also had vision of what the future of strategy could look like. And stepping into this role gave me the opportunity to disrupt the well-trodden path.

For years, our industry has been in the midst of an identity crisis. Media fragmentation and technology have turned everyday people into marketers, eroding the monopoly we once had over messaging. The same can be said for our clients, who have been thrown into the deep end and expected to manage the increased complexity. The result? A greater reliance on external partners and agencies to help navigate these monumental changes.

If businesses are being asked to adapt to thrive in today’s world of complexity, chaos and contradiction, then the same can be said for agencies and their disciplines. To fail to adapt and prepare for this new world is nothing short of complacent; we can’t expect things built for the old world to work in the new.

The strategy status quo

In many ways, not much has changed since I got my start in London in the mid-00s. Planners are still turning to the same Mintel reports and trend research they used decades ago, which invariably means the same insights keep being (re)surfaced.

Plus, despite our ability to digitally connect with others with relative ease, many planners still have a lone wolf mentality and do their own “quick and dirty” desk research (aka Googling) in isolation. Looking forward to a post-pandemic world, collaboration is critical if we want to generate fresh and compelling insights to help brands stay relevant.

If planners are meant to connect consumers to brands by understanding cultural nuance and unearthing universal human truths, then we as creative strategists must get better at finding new ways to hunt for those golden nuggets of insight.

It turns out that the key to unlocking interesting ideas is to leverage insights from unlikely places – places that might not traditionally be found within the walls of an ad agency. That’s why I’m evolving our strategy departments from a centralised entity into a networked hub.

Decentralising the world of strategy

It’s been 18 months since I first started transitioning our strategy department into a hub – a collective that draws on the expertise and counsel of what we like to call the “strategic brain trust.” Our brain trust is a group of cross-disciplinary experts who help our strategy team make better sense of the increasingly complex consumer, cultural and business landscape. It includes:

● A semiotician, whose insight on the signs of change and their meaning within culture makes us better equipped to understand which ideas will have the most cultural impact;

● A futurist, who helps us plot out future possibilities and turn them into meaningful action;

● An anthropologist/ethnographer, who unearths insights from actual lived experience to reveal unmet and unarticulated needs;

● A CBT psychologist, who has been instrumental in taking the principles of how we think and applying them to broader consumer behaviour;

● An expert team of people who work at the intersection of EQ and AI to help us better understand the future possibilities, limitations and impact of AI on humans.

This decentralized model leans into the power of cognitive diversity to help build competitive advantage, and I believe it’s the key to the future of strategy. Although we’re still in the early stages, we’ve already leveraged our brain trust to work on a range of complex client projects — most of which would traditionally have been given to large business consultancies.

So far, we’ve worked on everything from developing an ESG strategy to evolving an employer brand to help attract and inspire Gen Z employees. We’ve also spent time thinking about what the world could look like in 2030 for clients who are leveraging this pivotal moment in our world’s history to blaze a new trail – helping them move away from the probable future towards a more preferable one. These projects have been a true collaboration and provide positive proof that the nature of our business and how we approach
creative strategy is changing, and so should we.

Looking forward

As we usher in a new era – one that includes things like Web 3.0 the metaverse, and decentralisation – it’s more important than ever for agencies to broaden their horizons while keeping their fingers on the pulse of what consumers want.

Only time will tell whether our decentralized method of mining for insights continues to outperform compared to the traditional approach, but one thing is clear: there has never been a better time for agencies to invest in the future of strategy.

Given all the other changes the industry is experiencing, isn’t it about time we heralded in a new dawn for creative strategists?

cat_wilesCat Wiles is chief strategy officer at Cossette.