by Rohan Tambyrajah
Group Strategy Director, PHD Global Business


In the T.S. Eliot poem ‘Burnt Norton’, his ode to the nature of time, he uses the phrase “the still point of the turning world” to describe the relativity of the individual to the passage of time.

This always resonated with me, to the extent that it became my personal definition of what strategy should be – a choice to stop in a particular place and accept that some things will change around you.

Today, I would argue that the Still Point has never been more important and to find a place in the market and consumers’ minds from which you can shift the balance of power in your favour will be an enduring tenet of good strategy. But it is the Turning World that presents us with the most challenge, yet the most opportunity. We are entering an era of great change and great uncertainty as an industry and as a society. The rate at which the world turns is increasing exponentially, as factors such as the price-performance and capacity of information technology doubles every 12–18 months. And likewise, the political status-quo continues to be disrupted as people in every corner of the world ask new questions of their leaders and governments.

Our industry has always taken great pride in looking to the future with open mindedness and enthusiasm. Most likely, this is because our sensitivity to change is rooted in how that change affects people. When technology disrupts markets, economic policy impacts buying power or the pace of the cultural change accelerates – it is people who adapt their attitudes and behaviours accordingly. Our continued prosperity as an industry will exist by our ability to maximise the value created at the intersection of the needs of the people and the needs of businesses we serve. But, as the world continues to turn faster and impacts our ability to realise this, the means by which we do this must evolve.

With a view to the year ahead, I will therefore argue that this definition of strategy as “the still point of the turning world” is no longer valid. The rates of change and uncertainty dictate that perhaps it would better read “the still point and the turning world”. Communication strategy needs to embrace the paradoxes of being fixed and agile, consistent and varied, long and short term. Great strategy prospers in the dynamic created by this paradox, and in the complex and fragmented media and marketing landscape, what we choose as Still and what we choose as Turning is most critical. Using this metaphor to look at the year ahead, how should we then think about communication strategy?

Even in a fast turning world there are aspects of our discipline that don’t change. Here are three things that we should choose to keep Still in the coming year:

The role marketing and communications play for organisations

Our job will continue to base itself around the art and science of exploring, creating and delivering offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large. In spite of the frequent calls from the media that in a digital world, marketing is dead or a tax on the unoriginal. For every success story without marketing, there are 1,000 more that succeeded with it.

The fundamentals of how marketing and communication work 

Decades of effectiveness research tell us that marketing and communications follow law-like patterns in the way they work. Chiefly the work of Andrew Ehrenberg, later built on and popularised by Byron Sharp tells us that brands grow by maximising their mental availability (ease of recall) and physical availability (ease of purchase), and also that brands exist as sets of memory structures (mental associations) in people’s minds that are refreshed upon each interaction with that brand. This sets up robust parameters within which communication strategy should operate.

The core set of needs people seek to meet 

People are still seeking to meet the same basic needs that they always have, whether that is being entertained, educated or approved. Core human needs have shifted very little over time. It is certainly true that these needs are fragmenting (think sustenance to healthy sustenance) and that the behaviours by which they meet them are changing (think looking in a recipe book vs using Google), but our starting point for strategy should always be an assessment of the core, high volume need states in a category.

There will be growing need for the strategic functions in agencies to help brands navigate the increasingly complex environment. Of the many things that make for a faster Turning World, here are three that will be important in the year ahead:

How we view communication

Brand communication was once thought of as solely advertising, today we realise that brands are built from a multitude of interactions from call centres to customer service to supermarket shelving. Building from the notion that ‘everything communicates’ and the explosive growth in the number of channels available to communication strategists, we now need to think about how every brand related connection a consumer experiences can be brought to bear in a single, consistent, unified communication strategy.

How communication is delivered

Media will continue to fragment and with it consumer attention and the ability for the traditional push based advertising model to cut through. Soon the gap between people and technology (and therefore the systems of communication delivery) will close. This was the core theme of our most recent book, ‘Merge – The closing gap between technology and us’. As opportunities emerge within AI, AR, VR and the like, communication strategists need to embrace these as opportunities to test for new routes to communication effectiveness – making many small choices as complements to big evidenced ones.

The macro-environment in which we operate

Uncertainty will continue to exist on many levels in 2018 – socially, politically and economically – as legacy structures and institutions continue to be upheaved. The tide of populism will continue to flow, consumer confidence will stay low and markets will act cautiously and conservatively. I see a unique role for brands as pillars of support and reassurance in these uncertain times, and as communication strategists we will need to work hard to ensure the focus is on the creation of long term value over the ease and safety of reverting to short termism and sales driving tactics.

The year ahead will also see this uncertainty continue to carry through in to our industry, as new questions are being asked of our practices and competitors take new forms – like those of big tech companies, management consultancies and clients in-sourcing our services. There has been much hyperbole surrounding our future prospects and many sounding the death knell. I am not one of those people. Our industry has shown itself to be remarkably adaptable and in a complex and uncertain world, our strategic services have never been of more potential utility. I believe we will continue to grow brands and businesses if we use the decades of wisdom we have acquired to define our Still Points, and embrace the opportunity in change presented by the Turning World to develop compelling communication strategies that create value for consumers and businesses alike.

This article formed part of ‘PHD Perspectives’, click this link to read the full publication http://bit.ly/phdperspectives