Applied Strategy: A New Model for the Next Normal


With cycles speeding up as the world changes on a monthly, weekly, and even daily basis, there’s no time to overthink. Previously, coming up with a full-fledged campaign strategy meant you took the time to plan out every aspect—and then implement it. Today, you’ve got to find ways to stay strategic while executing your marketing campaigns and simultaneously keeping your team agile as you scale. 

But you’re working remotely, which means it’s tougher to keep the team tight, communicating clearly, motivated, and satisfied. And you no longer control your brand—your audience does. Rather than you crafting a message and working to make it iconic, they choose what goes viral.

So, how do you continue to produce high-quality work and achieve better results—in less time?

Applied strategy: Test as you execute

Applied strategy is a new way to create content and use data to make decisions fast and effectively while adhering to overall strategy. Rather than planning out a comprehensive, monolithic campaign strategy before executing, you allow yourself multiple options to reach your goal, using analysis to quickly filter down those options to the most effective ones and an agile approach to reduce barriers to getting things done. 

Start with a customer-decision journey, amplified by data and content, to create, adapt, activate, and optimize on a continuous, never-ending loop—always on—that keeps you rolling and testing great content. 

  • Go to market quicker
  • Stay flexible and adapt to whatever the world throws at you next
  • Empower teams with clear direction so they can execute on their own 
  • Don’t choose between speed and scale—get both  
5 tips for rolling an applied strategy campaign

1. Be Flexible

In the “old” normal, marketing teams would work tirelessly for months to come up with one big idea, and then hope that it would work. And if it didn’t, they’d have to start all over again. Today, teams should design options that allow flexibility in achieving goals. Focus on the what—your ultimate goal (e.g., to build brand equity or market share)—but be flexible on the how. How you achieve that goal should be open-ended for your team to interpret. If the brand (your values, your voice, etc.) is properly and thoroughly defined and all team members know it like the back of their hands, then you can focus on the various ways you can get to the goal.

A great example of being flexible and responding quickly to a changing environment is Uber. The rideshare business was immediately and completely disrupted when the pandemic hit. How do you keep drivers on the road and their business going when everyone is at home? Uber very quickly pivoted to its food delivery side of the business, Uber Eats. Campaigns were quickly transformed to focus on contactless delivery and “helping move what matters”—a focus on community support of restaurants, health care workers, first responders, and communities. This focus gave the brand a new, more aggressive voice in the market, clearly separating them from the competition.

2. Shift from talking to conversing

Change your mindset from dictating a brand’s content to going outside of yourself and thinking in terms of a conversation with your audience—what do other people think of your brand and what is the conversation right now? Then evaluate options and their possible outcomes, stretching to anticipate outcomes you wouldn’t normally expect. Marketing today is heavily organic, so you have to think of messaging as a two-way street and be willing to adapt based on your audience’s reaction. 

A great example of joining the conversation is when Burger King picked up on a viral trend about a McDonald’s cheeseburger that had been kept as a keepsake for over 20 years. It looked the same as the day it had been purchased. Burger King created a very controversial ad showing a moldy Whopper decomposing in just a few days, driving the message home that their burgers are fresh, with no artificial ingredients or preservatives. This generated a lot of traction online, where people amplified the message—some applauding the effort and others expressing disgust for the ad. This generated a lot of traction online, where people amplified the message—some applauding the effort and others expressing disgust for the ad.

3. Create quality of quantity

With your ultimate goal in mind, make lots of fit-for-format content and use your data as trial and error to determine what works best. We call this principle “quality of quantity,” as opposed to “quality over quantity.” When looking at a creative idea or concept, think about how the sets of images, video, or animation can have legs in various ways across different formats to create hundreds or potentially thousands of assets. So when storyboarding, think about how a story can have multiple outcomes and what that can look like in different formats—as a conversation on Facebook or a display ad, for example.

A great example comes from Netflix. For the Narcos season when the story shifted from the Cali cartel to the Mexican cartel, we were sitting on a bunch of assets across different mediums and started thinking about the many different ways to create stories. We ended up with around 1.5 million different possibilities for content, giving us plenty of traction in promoting the new season.

4. Marry data and content

Testing, testing, testing is the name of the game. Applied strategy works best when your data and content are in sync and you’re continually testing, publishing your options to see what works and what doesn’t, and then quickly acting to pare down to only what works. And you have to brief yourselves. Some of the most creative opportunities come from briefs created in-house that were not driven by a specific market need. I heard this from a client recently: “The in-house team can’t be with hands open waiting for a brief—they’re sitting on it.” 

Who could forget Spotify’s holiday 2018 campaign? It was a great use of data—one of many campaigns they’ve run to create compelling and exciting messages based on playlists created by their users.

5. Build agile teams

Build small teams, like special forces, applying an agile methodology of constant collaboration and responding to changes on the fly by using Kanban boards, scrums, or whatever works best for your teams. And, above all else, eliminate unnecessary approval processes and other barriers that will slow the team down. Your top leaders should only have to tell you the ultimate goal, so you can allow your small teams the power to create assets and then let your audience determine which they prefer. 

An interesting example comes from my time at Verizon, a huge sponsor of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Our team wanted to leverage the sponsorship, so using 5G technology we built a platform with a 360-degree view of the parade, so it could be seen as if you were actually there. The campaign was developed without a brief and was quickly approved by leadership. 

The time to be bold is now

The world has changed (and will continue to do so), so stop planning as if we were still in the “old” normal. This is the time to embrace uncertainty, not the time to be static. Be bold. Try new things. When testing many combinations of creative and giving up control over what will work to your audience, you must embrace this outcome: It’s OK to fail. Many creative combos you test will fail. But by allowing yourself to fail, you’re also allowing yourself to be wildly innovative. And by giving your small teams the power to make decisions and the flexibility to adapt quickly without seeking approval from an overwhelming number of stakeholders, you’ll be able to pivot quickly and run with what you know will succeed.

About Warren Marenco Chase

Warren Marenco Chase is chief operating officer at Firewood. Chase has deep experience running agency operations in all areas of creative, digital, and media communications. Before joining Firewood, he served as chief operating officer at Verizon's in-house creative agency, 140. He previously served as EVP, global director at Wunderman San Francisco. Chase also served as global director at BBDO Worldwide and held CEO positions at various BBDO/OMD offices in Latin America.