It’s the fall of 2011 and we’re about to start our annual strategic planning meeting. Our client is a large, regional bank with branches all over the western United States. In addition to a few bank executives, a handful of ad agency people find their seats around a large conference room table. We close the doors. Turn off our phones. And prepare for an all-day “strategic” planning session.

After a few hours looking at what went well in 2010 and new challenges for 2011, we arrive at the big moment, the whole reason for this retreat.

“So, what’s our strategy for next year?” someone finally asked.

As I looked around at the people in the room, waiting for everyone to answer, I realized that I already knew the type of responses certain people would give.

Dave Thomas, the CEO of our ad agency, will always have a new big idea or direction to consider. He is bold and creative. His answer to strategy is always visionary.

Ann Wood, our VP of account management, will have a plan to turn Dave’s vision into action. She is calculating and logical. Her answer to strategy is always a tactical plan.

And finally, Rob Brough, the bank’s CMO, will know how to take that vision and plan and make sure the right people approve and finance it. He is a master at relationships and motivating people. His answer to strategy is always based on political acumen.

That’s when it hit me. Yes, we’re all talking about strategy. But we all think it means completely different things. When we all say the word strategy, we’re not talking about the same thing.


Deep down, we don’t agree on the term strategy.

The word strategy is thrown constantly around the marketing table. But what does being strategic really mean? I would suggest we all look introspectively and think about what that term means to us personally.

Does it mean thinking through every step of a plan methodically? Does it mean discovering a new vision for the company? Does it mean putting the right pieces and people in play to succeed? Or does it mean all of the above?

Certainly we can continue to slog through vague descriptions and individual context on the same word. But I would suggest that it’s time we start using different terms for the different meanings. The result will be better communication and action.

So here is my attempt to categorize the different terms for the idea of strategy. Think of these as the three personae of strategy.


Visionary strategy.

The visionary strategist is always seeking for a new approach. They find new ways to see the world. They discover a completely new method to marketing a product or brand. This type of strategy is all about coming up with a new path or vision for a company. Or creating a new product category. Or a revolutionary new way to build a business.

Terms such as a company’s north star fall into this bucket. The guiding light or principle that will lead us into the future. Another common term is understanding the 30,000-foot view of a project or campaign. It’s the umbrella perspective. But it also applies to new strategies that design-led startups are using to disrupt a business category.

The history of marketing is full of big ideas that are expressed as classic marketing strategies. Think of the revolutionary idea of positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout. Or the idea of a Unique Selling Proposition by Rosser Reeves. Or the strategy of disruption by Jean-Marie Dru. All of these strategic ideas were bold new ways to market your products and services. They offered a new path to success by applying a new set of marketing principles.

This type of strategy has deep creative roots. Having a visionary strategy requires an insight that is created from scratch. The whole point of it is to try a completely new direction in uncharted territory. It’s an exercise in discovery and intuition.


Tactical strategy.

The tactical strategist is skilled at building a meticulous and insightful plan. They use all the lessons they have learned and apply them in thoughtful ways. Like a military general, they know what all the different types of troops can accomplish and they place everything in a tactical way in order to succeed. They are masters of delegation. They spot holes in a marketing plan and know how to rearrange the resources in order to maximize the ROI.

In 1645, a famous swordsman named Miyamoto Musashi wrote The Book of Five Rings, a no-nonsense guide on strategy for martial arts. The concept of strategy that he introduced fits perfectly into this category. He described strategy with the concept of a foreman carpenter. The foreman knows his tools and men so well that he is able to guide them, delegating jobs based on their abilities and being conscious of their morale. The strategy of the foreman is to get the best end result by maximizing his resources.

In marketing, the tactician is strategic by planning everything out in advance and optimizing that plan. They are typically driven by metrics and a deep understanding of best practices. They are calculating and methodical. These types of strategies are based more on logic and reason to achieve the desired outcome.


Political strategy.

The political strategist is a people person. They are a master of motivation and cooperation. They know how to navigate organizations and make the right strategic moves and connections to make projects happen. Or to simply further their careers.

They are skilled at recognizing good strategic ideas from visionaries and tacticians and helping to implement the plan. In fact, they often surround themselves with these other types of strategists. They are rain makers and great at getting approvals.

This type of strategy is less about ideas and more about action. Without political strategy, the wheels of business or government can rust. Political strategy assists with implementation, acquiring budget, and broadcasting the results. If you want your plan to progress, this type of strategic insight and influence is critical.


Executional strategy.

I used to say there are four types of strategy. Executional strategy was always the fourth. But really, it isn’t strategic at all.

Executional strategy is getting the work done. It’s all about taking action. And that’s why I don’t think it’s strategic. It’s about following the plan or big idea. It doesn’t add any insight, guidance, or influence.

You probably have several of these roles in your company. They are really just glorified project managers. They may create a plan, but it is basic and executional. No insight. No interesting tactics. Just creating a project and pushing it through the system. Often times this approach is considered checkbox marketing—where you are simply checking off all the items on the marketing to-do list.

This is often confused with tactical strategy. But the difference is that a tactician can see new opportunities and knows how to rearrange the resources for a new approach. An executional strategist is just finding a list of best practices and checking them off one by one as they manage the project. This may be harsh, but many in marketing think they are strategic. Really, they are just going through the motions. Checking boxes. If you are not adding any new insights, new directions, or new connections, you are a project manager.

Project management is essential. There are many talented people who drive results by action, follow up, and attention to detail. But we need to be realistic and recognize that it isn’t a strategic role.

Even after reading this some may feel offended and still think they are strategic. It’s challenging to be self-aware, but necessary. Stop and ask yourself if you are honestly coming up with new ideas, plans, or directions, or if you are basing your plan on guidance from some other person, book, website, or checklist.

True strategy doesn’t follow a formula. It’s not an equation that you simply learn. It’s abstract and requires your brain to make new connections and discover new ideas. If you are putting a marketing plan together, that’s planning. If you are following best practices, that’s execution. Strategy is thinking about everything and being able to find the insights, new directions, and knowing where to influence. Too often, we label all the executional and operational aspects of marketing as strategy. That needs to change. We need to use the right definitions.


Strategy by name will never be the same.

In marketing, we need to recognize the fact that not all strategists are good at all three types of strategy. It’s similar to temperaments, we are usually really good in one area, and weak in others.

You may be brilliant at vision, but lack the discipline or attention to detail required for a tactical approach or have the people skills to get acceptance of your idea. Or perhaps you may be a master at political strategy, but will never come up with the big idea or tactics.

At this point, we should each do some soul searching and find out what type of strategy we are really good at, rather than believe we are great at all three. In my experience of more than 22 years in marketing, most are barely good at one. And the rock stars are self-aware enough to know they should stick with the type of strategy that comes easy.

In addition to defining the three types of strategy, we need to understand the types of jobs that require certain strategic skills. For example, the CMO position of a startup is better served by a visionary strategist, as they need to find the north star of the new company and inspire the team to go after it. Whereas an established enterprise would do better with a CMO with more political or tactical skills to keep progress moving throughout a large organization.

These aren’t rules but more guidelines to consider as you hire a strategist. Think about the actual role of the position. Are you looking for someone who can craft the strategic messaging of the company? I suggest a visionary. Are you looking for a demand strategist who needs to balance multiple channels and campaigns? Perhaps a tactical strategist is the right fit.

How do you know what type of strategist a person really is? In my experience it comes down to clues in the interview. If you are interviewing a candidate and they are constantly talking about big ideas and insights they discovered, chances are they are a visionary. If they focus on the details of their plans and talk about the metrics and how it all increased ROI, I would suggest they are a tactician. And if they are always talking about who they know, how they brought teams together to reach goals, or big milestones they achieved, I would bet they are a political strategist. Certainly these are rough examples, but at least it gives you an idea of what to look for when you ask them about their strategic experience.

I know that my descriptions of the three types of strategy aren’t going to change the world of marketing. But at least it may start a dialogue in your company or make you consider how you organize and empower your team. Or when you are having a discussion on strategy, you can at least understand the values of each type in the big picture and use terms that clarify the conversation. It starts with recognizing the difference and then using that knowledge to better match the skills with the role and create a more robust marketing plan.

When considering your marketing plan, here are simple terms that help me keep the three types of strategy distinct. The visionary strategy helps figure out the big objectives. The tactical strategy helps us organize the individual tactics. And the political strategy helps grease the wheels of approvals, budget, and PR.

All types of strategy are important. One is not more valuable than the other. But at the end of the day, they are certainly different things and we should stop calling them all by the same name. Or at least stop confusing them. Be clear on what you mean by being strategic.

So the next time someone at an annual planning meeting asks, “What’s our strategy for next year?” you can follow up with the real question, “What type of strategy do we need?”