What is strategy? Using art to explain marketing’s most misunderstood word

Cans of “Business Success” soup in the pop art style of Andy Warhol

In marketing, there is no word more misunderstood than strategy. Like art (another complex but thoroughly debased conceptual term), strategy is something most people seem dismissive of and threatened by in equal parts, without even being able to agree on what it is in the first place.

The word is so overused in business and marketing it has become the Kleenex of “thinking” work — a kind of generic trademark for anything that precedes the execution phase of a project, from analyzing a competitor’s advertising to making a to-do list.

Job boards are littered with strategist roles that can’t seem to agree on a topic, never mind a function. There are brand strategists and digital strategists, creative strategists and channel strategists, content strategists, media strategists, and more types of planners (as if anyone could come up with a more misleading term) than you can shake a stick at. I once listened to a product manager who had just presented a $3 million annual “strategy” that consisted of a bullet point list of copy ideas, one of which was three question marks, tell me with a straight face that we’re all strategists.

Picasso’s Guernica being hung in Amsterdam’s Municipal Museum, 1956
Picasso’s Guernica being hung in Amsterdam’s Municipal Museum, 1956
Picasso’s Guernica being hung in Amsterdam’s Municipal Museum, 1956 (Keystone/Getty)

What is and isn’t art

This is nobody’s fault, it’s just that strategy is complex, and how we talk about it makes it difficult to pin down. This is why art is such a perfect metaphor. It’s been 40,000 years since someone first scratched the figure of a bull on the wall of a cave in Indonesia and we still can’t agree on what art is, never mind how to do it. Picasso’s Guernica is certainly art, but so are the crayon scribbles your child brings home from school. The Mona Lisa is art, but so is graffiti. Some of us might be reluctant, but at this point we can probably accept that Martina Abramovich is making art when she’s being leered-at by passers-by at the MOMA, but really, what we’re willing to call art is endless. A blank canvas is art if it’s hung in a gallery. We talk about the art of seduction and the art of the deal. Hell, even the guy assembling your 6” Subway club is a “Sandwich Artist.”

Art and strategy are both about choices

“Of course strategy is hard — it’s about making tough choices,” scoffs Keith H. Hammonds in a Fast Company article from 2001 about the return of Michael Porter, the Harvard Business School professor who basically founded the field of business strategy in the 1980s. (Michael Porter’s Big Ideas, March 2001)

Related: Keith H. Hammonds, Michael Porter’s Big Ideas (Fast Company)

At the time, strategy was in a bad way, having crashed in popularity in the face of ultra-competitive Japanese operational efficiency and crotch-thrusting, tech-bro ideas like “get big fast.” The return, in this case, refers to Porter’s attempt to save business leaders from being “tricked and misled by other ideas”, what he calls “intellectual potholes”, or from the bong-headed notion that in the fast-paced business world of today, the best strategy is no strategy.

It’s fresh as a daisy.

Gallery patrons take in Lana Newstrom’s invisible art hoax
Gallery patrons take in Lana Newstrom’s invisible art hoax
Lana Newstrom’s invisible art hoax (CBC/This is That)

It’s also a bit Warholian, this idea that the most clever version of a thing might omit the thing itself. Very Lana Newstrom, the fake persona whose gallery show of “invisible art” hoaxed mainstream news media all over the world. It’s like the corner office version of Warhol’s assertion that “art is anything you can get away with.”

Why strategy is so hard to understand

Just like art, it’s strategy’s sublime impenetrability, as a concept anyway, that makes it seem so flexible; so applicable to so many diverse situations. A good strategy, like a work of art, is simply something that worked.

Unlike art, however, it’s easier to identify the outcome of a strategy than the actual work of strategy. We certainly recognize when someone is painting, but what does someone engaged in strategy work even look like? Could we pick a strategist out of a group of random people?

We talk about choosing or defining a strategy, or my favourite, aligning on strategy, as if strategies are ready-made things, and choosing the right one is no more complicated than deciding where your family is going on vacation this summer. I can see the travel blog post now, chock-full of tips like make a day of it! And use a globe! These might be good approaches, and there could be sound strategic thinking behind them that coincidentally addresses your particular family’s dynamic, but they’re not strategy. At best they’re ideas, and at worst, they’re “best practices,” strategy’s most convincing low-budget celebrity impersonator.

Tactics aren’t strategy

It’s not better in business and marketing. The Internet is lousy with listicles disguised as strategy.

Top 5 Digital Marketing Strategies to Try This Year! The Hottest Strategies to Win Customers and Crush the Competition! The 3 Strategies That Will Take Your Business to the Next Level!

This is strategy as Paint-By-Number, and sadly it’s not just the approach of clickbait YouTubers and business bloggers. I’ve been in a ton of planning meetings that are just people sitting around a table throwing out ideas. Ideas aren’t worth much if you never understand the problem you’re trying to solve, or what the critical limitations are.

The fact is you can’t put a bunch of people in a room and expect them to work out a strategy any more than you could expect them to produce Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. It’s far more complex than everyone grabbing a brush and figuring out which dab of paint goes where.

Why strategic planning templates suck

In most companies, strategy, if it’s done at all, is usually an exercise in form-filling; formulaic frameworks outlining a series of steps that, while often distantly grounded in strategic thinking, mistake vision and values for the real active work of strategy.

“Scan through such documents and you will find pious statements of the obvious presented as if they were decisive insights,” is how UCLA management professor Richard Rumelt described it a decade ago. (The Perils of Bad Strategy, McKinsey Quarterly June 2011)

Related: Richard Rumelt, The Perils of Bad Strategy (McKinsey)

Vision-and-values statements give CEOs the warm fuzzies, but workers are often cynical about them because it’s not clear how they help navigate the day to day challenge of making practical business decisions. We get the point, but what’s the path?

It reminds me a bit of that Internet meme about vintage art tutorials. How to draw an owl: Step 1) Draw an oval. Step 2) Draw a circle on top of the oval. Step 3) Draw the rest of the fucking owl.

An exaggeratedly simplified 2 step process for drawing an owl
An exaggeratedly simplified 2 step process for drawing an owl

The best definition of strategy

So, if strategy is neither a list of steps nor a vision, what is it? Rumelt’s answer is my favourite:

“The core of the strategist’s work is always the same: Discover the crucial factors in a situation and design a way to coordinate and focus actions to deal with them.”

This is strategy not as an output, but as an active process in which discovery and design are the main tasks. A strategist might produce a list of action steps, but the map, in this case, is not the territory.

Tactics are to strategy as techniques are to art

Artists make a distinction between an artwork and art itself. The former is the particular painting, sculpture, or performance. The latter is the application and expression of human creative skill and imagination that made that particular work possible.

To state this more plainly; a screen print of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can is an artwork, but the art itself is the process not only of choosing the technique and making the print, but of exploring and understanding the cultural and historical factors that make screen prints of Campbell’s Soup cans impactful in the first place.

Related: Why Is This Art? (Khan Academy)

This is why, even if we had access to Warhol’s original ink, screens, and printing equipment, reproducing his actual artwork wouldn’t make us the artist. (That would still be Warhol.)

The takeaway here is that the artwork isn’t the art. The art is the process of how, where, when, and especially why the artwork was made. It’s a powerful lesson for strategy because it separates the output of strategy (a list of coherent actions many people could perform) and the actual work of strategy (the diagnosis of a complex challenge, and the designing of a plan for how to solve it impactfully).

The magic of strategy (and of art)

Picasso said that art is “a lie that reveals the truth.” Maybe that’s a bit poetic for the business world, but it gets at the function and purpose of both art and strategy in real life.

Picasso isn’t taking about the ability of art to deceive or manipulate, but to simultaneously represent both physical objects (like a banana duct taped to a wall) and complex concepts (like contemporary art is just pretentious consumerism gone mad).

Good art functions like good strategy. It takes a complex ecosystem of ideas, forces, effects, and relationships and expresses it in a way that is intuitive, understandable, and actionable.

You see a painting of a crumpled fast food wrapper in a gallery and leave resolving to take care of your body and teach your kids to respect the environment more.

That’s a remarkable leap. How does that work?

The fast food wrapper isn’t real — it might never have been real. But maybe the truth it represents is that we care as little about our health as we do the environment. And that in both cases we expect other people — personal trainers, policy makers, sanitation workers — to clean up the mess.

Similarly, it’s strategy that allows us to understand and distill competitive opportunities, economic realities, and deep human truths into business and marketing behaviours.

Whether in advertising, product development, content, pricing, or distribution, strategy is always the magic behind business and marketing decisions that ignite consumer interest and engagement, whether we realize it or not.

Sometimes that magic is complex and deliberate, attempting to shift the values of an entire market in a way that benefits a firm. Think Tesla supporting legislation, social projects, and infrastructure that decentralize the role of fossil fuels.

Sometimes it’s the result of a learning process or challenging failure. YouTube, for example, realized its video dating service wasn’t working but that it was in a unique position to solve the need for online video on the emerging World Wide Web.

And sometimes it’s intuitive, like Dan Wieden coming up with “Just Do It”, a catchy tagline that instantly repositioned Nike’s competitors and pricked consumer aspirations and self-doubt just enough to sell a billion shoes.

Strategy, like art, is a creative process

Warhol was a former commercial illustrator, and although he was in the right place at the right time to capitalize on new art-making techniques and growing public interest in accessible, commercial imagery, his success had arguably little to do with virtuosic technical skill or artistic talent.

It was Warhol’s insights into culture, art, advertising, and history, and his ability to synthesize those insights into guiding principles, that allowed him to change not only the art world of the 1960s, but how we think of celebrity, authenticity, and the value of art itself.

Andy Warhol’s memorial stone in central park
Andy Warhol’s memorial stone in central park
Warhol’s memorial stone in central park — Great art, or great marketing strategy?

Warhol understood that strategy and art share both a form and a function. Each, when done well, is a fundamentally creative act, capable of profound influence. From Andy’s perspective, creativity isn’t just about artistic expression, but any process in which we make connections between disconnected elements to create some new work. This is the very core of strategy.

Summing it up

Art provides a lens through which we can better understand the world around us, and strategy is no different. Both are less an outcome than an approach — a fundamental perspective on the world that assumes things are simultaneously impenetrable and understandable. Both produce things we can identify (artworks or strategies, respectively), but can take their input data from a limitless variety of sources. The goal of both, at their best, is to reduce complexity and promote understanding and growth.

Like artists, strategists use techniques and tools, but also wrestle with deeper, more fundamentally creative materials. In art those materials can be shape, colour, sound, or light, but in strategy they’re people, ideas, markets, and firms.

“Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art,” Warhol said. It would be easy to read that cynically. After all, Warhol was worth over $220 million at the time of his death in 1987, and had not only created the most recognizable “art” brand the world had ever seen (or has seen since), but managed to extend that brand’s commercial reach to television, publishing, merchandise, and film.

But like most artists who achieve remarkable, sustained success in their lifetime — Picasso, Damien Hirst, Dali — his creative output doesn’t tell the whole story.

At the highest level, art, like strategy, is merely diagnosis, ideation, and communication. It seeks a complex understanding of forces, needs, and conditions, and filters that understanding through a process of creative connection, culminating in compelling expression.

Art is far from the opposite of strategy. Despite intuitively belonging to different worlds, they’re both fundamentally creative acts with common objectives and purpose. No doubt artists and strategists can learn a lot from each other.

Toronto-based brand, design, and marketing strategist.