Mark Ritson: Ignore all the waffle and set time aside for strategic thinking

Instead of reading articles about the latest technological trends, marketers should spend that time on strategic thinking about their brand’s goals.

strategic thinkingOver the Christmas holidays there was a fabulous article about George Shultz. The name might not be familiar to you, but if you are old enough you will recall Shultz as President Ronald Reagan’s avuncular secretary of state. If you were a child of the 1980s you can probably just recall a balding, besuited man stepping off planes into China or the Soviet Union – that was him.

He is still alive. Now 97, he continues to lobby for recreational drugs, for action on climate change and for the UK to remain within the European Union. He is that rarest of beasts in this time of Trump and terror, a liberal Republican. The article about him in The New York Times, by David Leonhardt, could have focused on a hundred different episodes in this great man’s life – from serving in the Marines to helping Mikhail Gorbachev set up a new Russia. Instead it was all about something that Shultz did not do.

Shultz told Leonhardt that each week he would scrupulously seek out solitude for one hour, and sit with a pad and paper and nothing else. It was, he explained, the only way he could find time during some of the busiest and most frenetic weeks of the 20th century. He would leave specific instructions that only the President or his wife were allowed to disturb him. And with the door closed behind him he would engage in that most unusual of activities – he would think.

READ MORE: Why strategic thinking is a marketing leader’s most important attribute

Without this precious hour of strategic thinking, Shultz would have been constantly pulled into the tactical immediacy of everyday life at the White House, missing the bigger picture and the organising principles that should pre-empt the more immediate challenges that he was expected to successfully and instantly respond to.

It’s an approach that Leonhardt, himself a noted writer and columnist, has tried to introduce into his own working week. Taking a ‘Shultz hour’ out from his busy life has not proven easy. The fact that he found it so hard was taken as further evidence of the importance of its introduction.

“I have confused the availability of new information with the importance of it,” Leonhardt admits. “If you spend all your time collecting new information, you won’t leave enough time to make any sense of it.”

Agility is useless without strategic thinking

By now you probably know where I am going with all this. We marketers are a frenetic bunch. We confuse business with success, and hours worked with impact. More importantly, we mix up the concepts of strategy (which is what Shultz was doing behind that closed door) and tactics (which is what he subsequently managed when he opened it again).

And when I say we “mix up” what I really mean is that we spend our days obsessing with tactical diaspora without first working out exactly what we are trying to achieve. The now obligatory new-year marketing predictions were brimming with the need to be more agile, to use artificial intelligence (AI) and big data to employ whatever techno-gimmickery is flavour of the week.

We marketers are a frenetic bunch. We confuse business with success, and hours worked with impact.

I am mightily suspicious of all of the above. Whenever I hear a client cry out for greater agility I wince, because invariably they are intent on jettisoning even their vaguest strategic principles for a roll-with-the-punches approach to planning. And of all the manifest attractions of AI, surely the most entrancing one for marketers is the idea you start with a random approach and let the machine winnow out the possibilities to reach the optimum approach through infinite testing and learning protocols. Who needs a strategy when you have the machine down in the basement learning as we speak?

Only the most inane marketer values big data over small data. Of course big data sounds good and fits with the current tactical zeitgeist, but it pales into quantitative insignificance against spending time in the places and spaces where your consumers exist, watching and talking with them and then – the tricky bit – thinking about what you have just seen.

I remain entirely and utterly amazed at the growing number of big brands who talk a very good game when it comes to tactical application and the latest bang-whizz approach, and yet when you challenge them on their brand strategy, meet you with the empty gaze of a child.

Strategy in three simple steps

Brand strategy is not rocket science. It’s not even the bigger, more complex stuff of corporate strategy. It simply requires that a brand can start the year with the answers to three simple questions. First, who are we targeting and – unless you are wearing the Byron Sharp commemorative underwear – who you are not.

Second, what is our position for the brand? Not the usual ‘Innovating with integrity for the people of the world’ brand-purpose balls, but rather what we actually want to stand for to that target customer we identified a question ago.

Finally, what is the objective for the brand this year? Ideally there will be just one but certainly not more than two or three of these objectives. Nothing spells doom better than a marketer with a PowerPoint deck of eight, 10 or even 12 ‘strategic priorities’ for the year ahead. None will get done.

READ MORE: Thomas Barta: Strategy means nothing without leadership

And sound objectives won’t be based on simply profit or sales or all that other macro-stuff. They will be based on a proper path to purchase and expressed in a SMART fashion (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound).

If you have that, you have a brand strategy. And suddenly you know which tactics are and are not relevant, and life gets immeasurably more focused, deliberate and successful.

But to get that strategy sorted out you have to close the Shultzian door on all the articles about VR, blogs from nutters about how marketing has totally changed and LinkedIn posts from morons about what a superstar they are. You have to close all that down and, well, think. Switch off your phone, open up your Moleskine. Take a long, deliberate breath and think.

Professor Mark Ritson will be teaching the next Marketing Week Mini MBA course from 24 April 2018. To book your place, sign up at

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Hide Comments7 Show Comments
  • Dom Tillson 9 Jan 2018 at 11:47 am

    Where can I get Byron Sharp commemorative underwear … he’s not sorted out his supply chain?

    • Mark Ritson 16 Jan 2018 at 7:07 pm

      They are fantastic. Made in New Zealand and they come emblazoned with the words “Brands Are Not The Only Thing Growing” on the front. Strongly recommended.

  • Al King 10 Jan 2018 at 7:29 am

    HNY Mark. You know I’m with you on this one all the way. It resonated particularly strongly since I’d just finished doing my Clifton Strengths assessment after seeing the book recommended in a lot of Best Business Books 2017 lists. I got “Strategic ” in my Top 5 and the notes with it recommend that one schedules daily quiet time for thinking. Essential.

  • Julian Pratt 10 Jan 2018 at 8:27 am

    Cheers. Coming up through small organisations as they grow, its easy to focus on the actions rather than the reasoning for doing them.
    Truly understanding the difference between strategy and tactics is one of the great revelations.
    Its like nurturing a seed into a tree and learning the difference between trunk, branches and twigs. I feel metaphor coming on, time to turn off the phone and open up a new blank sheet for an hour…

  • daryl Fielding 10 Jan 2018 at 4:00 pm

    Yup… much too much nonsense and not enough clarity of thought around these days.

  • Ed Smallman 12 Jan 2018 at 5:01 pm

    Great read. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Ian Gee 22 Feb 2018 at 2:13 am

    Another shot at Byron Sharp? As usual, you misrepresent what he’s saying.

    ‘Broad’ target audience definitions are based on buying behaviour (the only truly relevant factor):

    1. People who already buy your brand (Reinforce)
    2. People who buy other brands in the same category (Switch)
    3. People who don’t currently buy the category, but could potentially be persuaded to (Adopt).

    When Byron talks about targeting ‘everybody’, he means ‘everybody who is – or could be – in the category’. That’s not the same thing as ‘everybody with a pulse’.

    (Rant over).

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