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As artists and managers are aware, having a solid strategy is critical to a successful marketing campaign, but what exactly is a strategy? This article looks at how the term is often used far too lightly, and the need for strategy to have a new definition.

1 Word That You Are Probably Using Wrong

First, I’m not a linguist, or even a writer. I don’t study words or the etymology of words and their contemporary usage in general, I happen to be a professional strategist – in contemporary usage, unrelated to military. And the word means a lot to me.

As a former advertising agency strategist, current Head of Marketing, I’ve often been asked this question from clients and prospective clients, “What’s your strategy?” For other strategists out there, this question is likely be as evocative to you, as it is to me.

It hurts for me to hear that question, because a strategy is a thing, not an approach, and while there is no universal form, strategies can be formalized in 10-20 page documents in my experience, and must contain a few key elements. This is something most people don’t understand when they ask the question. To those of us that have made careers out of being able to develop strategies, hearing someone ask that question and another person “answer it” without actually having a, or articulating a “strategy,” it can be a cringe-worthy experience.

The exchange itself isn’t the cringe-worthy part, what makes it cringe-worthy is that the word has been overused and abused by reputable business, marketing, and tech outlets so much, the word has almost lost its real meaning. And it’s probably why you’re using the word incorrectly.

What Most People Mean When They Say “Strategy”

When most people ask what your strategy is, what they really mean is, “What’s your approach?” or “where do you plan to start?”— often times they are just asking for the high-level takeaway. It translates to, “What are some of the elements of your strategy that you can deliver to me succinctly so I know that you’re being thoughtful, and not relying on one action to deliver the results?”

People don’t actually want you to articulate your strategy in full, whether it’s 5 pages or 50 pages, it’d be very boring and difficult to follow. Frankly, it’d be rather surprising if you could repeat your strategy verbatim, however many pages long it actually is, as it likely contains densely constructed, sequential steps connected logically by a series of actions, over a period of time, that (should) starts with a goal, identifies hurdles or outright problems, and designed to reach your goal. You shouldn’t be expected to, or able to, articulate your strategy in full, on-demand.

What a Strategy Isn’t and How It’s Perpetuated Incorrectly

A tactic is not a strategy. An action is not a strategy. An approach is not a strategy. A goal is not a strategy. A mission statement is not a strategy. A vision statement is not a strategy. An idea is not a strategy.

These things could be described as strategic, because a strategy should encompass several of these, and can encompass all of these things. But the same way a nail is not a house, drywall is not a house, a wooden frame is not a house, a tactic alone, is not a strategy.

Articles like this one from Forbes (http://www.forbes.com/sites/glennllopis/2014/03/10/6-brand-strategies-that-most-cmos-fail-to-execute/) go on to call just about everything (except an actual strategy) “strategy,” from individual tactics to approaches, but fail to ever actually tell anybody what a strategy actually is. In fact, an actual strategy is about the only thing they don’t use this seemingly universal word for.

Unfortunately writers at many marketing, business, and tech related publications have spun the definition of strategy to such a point that it encompasses just about anything they want it to, when it fit tightly into the point they’re trying to make at that time. It’s used as a simple catchall word that seems to be a verb, a noun, and an adjective, when it so fits. “Strategy” has become an overused, misused, and abused word, and those writers have perpetuated the misunderstanding of the word.

What a Strategy Actually Is

My favorite definition of strategy is by Richard Rumelt, and reads:

“Good strategy has a simple logical structure I call the Kernel. These three elements are (1) a clear-eyed diagnosis of the challenge being faced, (2) an overall guiding policy explaining how the challenge will be met, and (3) a set of coherent actions designed to focus energy and resources.”

I haven’t memorized a succinct definition such as Rumelt’s, so I usually say something along these lines, sometimes as succinctly, sometimes with far more information than is required:

“A strategy is an overarching plan of action that follows an approach to solve a problem (or problems) in order to reach a goal (or goals) through multiple tactics and actions, all galvanized by a logical and sequential set of processes.”

These are simple, succinct definitions of a word that has so much depth and history, it has been written about extensively since its inception. I highly recommend Rumelt’s book Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters.


There is a bit of contention about where the word originated from, some believe the etymology of it goes back to Greek and others Arabic, with most scholars lean toward the word being of Greek origin. Regardless of which language uttered it first, it originated as a reference to commanders of armies. The strategoi (plural of strategos) were expected to develop strategies: high-level, cunning plans comprised of more than just a single tactic or approach, designed to outsmart opponents and lead their army to victory.

strategy (n.) Look up strategy at Dictionary.com

1810, “art of a general,” from French stratégie (18c.) and directly from Greek strategia “office or command of a general,” from strategos “general, commander of an army,” also the title of various civil officials and magistrates, from stratos “multitude, army, expedition, encamped army,” literally “that which is spread out” (see structure (n.)) + agos “leader,” from agein “to lead” (see act (n.)). In non-military use from 1887.

While I’ve been referencing its Greek origins, Sun Tzu has a beautiful definition of the word that I think is worth considering.

“A style of thinking; a conscious and deliberate process; an intensive implementation system; the art of ensuring future success.”

Sun Tzu the Art of War

Format of a Strategy

There actually isn’t a standard format, or universally agreed upon structure-beyond perhaps what’s defined above by Rumelt – I’m happy to share a bit of what I have developed over the years, refining through thousands of iterations, based on client and peer feedback, and heuristics.

It’s worth noting that many of my clients over the years have suggested my strategies are too long, many of my deliverables have become much more succinct, and often slightly higher-level PowerPoint, versions of the above instead.

A strategy doesn’t have to be any specific format, as long as it contains the fundamentals of what a strategy is, as defined above.