By Antti Kangaslahti, Senior Experience Planner - Customer Lab Lead, Ogilvy UK


“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
Benjamin Franklin


We live in a post-digital world where what's ‘digital’ and what's ‘physical’ have become blurred and intertwined. To compete in this brave new world, corporations need new principles and operating systems in place to design and deliver truly customer-first experiences. Many are adopting lean start up practices and design thinking in the process. 

The race is on to put the customer at the heart of the solution. 

Agencies too must rise to the occasion. At Ogilvy we’ve been recalibrating our planning process to thrive in this post-digital world in a way that breaks down the conventional boundaries between planning, creative, social, UX and data fostering a new kind of creative problem-solving.

This is a manifesto for a new planning paradigm that brings you closer to your customer through bolder, more pointed creativity – and does it in a nimbler and an accelerated way. It’s customer first, digital second.

So what’s broken with the existing planning process

How many a time have you worked on a strategy where you’ve sweated over every detail: you work hard to find insights to forms the basis of the strategy, you craft the personas, the journeys and the experience maps. When you look back after six months at all that hard craft you find that there is not a single tangible output that came out of it. The client didn’t invest. Never committed to making it happen. The money wasn’t there, so you’re told.

Above all, you never had the opportunity to observe how the customer interacted with your strategic solution – because the only concrete output was an internal presentation. The closest you got to the customer were the numbers on a TGI or GWI spreadsheet. Planning was just an academic exercise. It’s a story I’ve heard countless of times. And one I’ve lived through too many a times in my career.

Here’s another story highlighting a different problem.

The agency planning team drives through a rigorous five-month planning process that finally ends up with a signed off creative brief. Only little thing – the creative solution must be delivered, produced, tested and launched in four weeks. Work gets delivered, albeit to a huge stress. An overwhelming sensation lingers in the minds of the agency creative team that the creative output could have been better had there been more time to immerse, explore and experiment with different ideas.

Here is how we overlay experts in one room at one time, we shrink strategy time, and we create more space for bolder creative thinking.

Strategic Making to the rescue

The good news is that there is another way. At Ogilvy we call it Strategic Making. It’s a time-bound planning process that consists of iterative cycles of observations, hypothesis, and experimentations. It’s a customer-centric way of developing strategy, where the emphasis is on getting the customer as involved as possible.

Still probably not so different, you might think. Here’s where it gets more interesting. Strategic Making crucially sets the expectation already up front that something concrete will come from the planning process. It gets the agency and client teams alike to set the ambition to go through an iterative process that creates a Proof of Concept of the strategy. Not just a strategy, but a real thing. You actually make it.

No longer is strategy reliant just on hypothesis formed based on your TGI or GWI spreadsheets (which can easily be misleading), but strategy is designed based on real-life experimentation of those hypothesis. You make it to experiment with it. You experiment with it to iterate it.

In Strategic Making, a team of multi-disciplinary experts is constantly there to interpret the findings and iterate every step of the way making the strategy, the creative and the customer experience better as you go.

The Proof of Concept is the customer facing tangible expression of the strategy, which has been built by input from real members of the target audience. At Ogilvy we do this in our Customer Lab where we use a range of different techniques from co-creation to rapid iterative user testing.

With the customer tested Proof of Concept as the tangible output from the planning process, the strategy is now there for everyone to see together with actual concrete results how real people, real end users, reacted to it.

Expressing the strategy in this manner is much easier to present, share, understand and sell than that 90-page strategy deck. It’s much more inspiring too – and harder to disregard. It’s grounded on reality, not just on hypothesis. It releases the full potential of the bright minds in the agency bringing key expertise into the process from the get go.

Strategic Making is planning made scientific. It applies the age old scientific method first deployed by Ibn al-Haytham, considered as the first scientist and father of modern optics. Ibn al-Haytham believed that hypothesis must be proved through evidence from practical experimentation.

Through his experimentations in the camera obscura in the turn of the first millennia, Ibn al-Haytham mathematically proved the emission theories by the ancient Greek thinkers to be wrong. Ptolemy believed that our sight was possible by the eye emitting rays of light. Ibn al-Haytham was the first to explain that vision occurs when light bounces on an object and then is directed to our eyes. The practical experimentation he carried out in his version of the ‘Customer Lab’ was at the heart of his scientific breakthrough that forever revolutionised the world of optics.


“Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”
– David Ogilvy


Operating principles

Strategic Making takes everyone involved in the process, agency teams and clients alike, on a far more fluid and fast-paced journey than your conventional planning processes. The way it does this is through a series of intensive sprints: discovering and defining the problem, sprinting from the problem to a potential solution, from the solution to a prototype, and finally from the prototype to a Proof of Concept.

The intensity of this sprint way of working requires that there is a dedicated physical space that serves to bring the Strategic Makers together. The space becomes the place where you quickly put the insights, hypothesis and learnings on the walls as you go. It serves as the canvas that brings the process to life. At times this canvas can be used to give updates and make recommendations for next steps to broader stakeholders.

While the physical space is key, on its own it’s not enough. People involved need to come together in the right frame of mind bringing in their expertise into the process – all dedicated to the same mission, all having a can-do attitude.

Along the way you wear different hats most suited for the sprint. You’re an anthropologist uncovering the insights. Then the artist imagining the art of the possible. And finally you become the architect whose job is to craft a fit for purpose solution.

At every stage of the process you deploy different techniques to discover, ideate, validate, test and iterate. You pivot from something that didn’t quite work, to another idea that could work. With each cycle – or sprint – the work keeps on improving. 


The team make up

As ever, the process is only as good as its people. Strategic Making relies on having right blend of people involved who bring in a diversity of expertise into the process. Roles and responsibilities for the Strategic Makers should be clearly defined as part of the set up.

The key person throughout is the Sprint Lead who acts as the facilitator and cross-pollinator drawing in experience, insights and ideas whenever and from wherever required. The job of the Sprint Lead is to keep the team energised and optimistic, despite what the Strategic Making process might throw their way. The Sprint Lead is there to make sure you keep on track with every sprint. He/she brings people along, acting as a coach and mentor at times. The Sprint Lead should be supported by an equally fluid account team that is empowered to facilitate the sprint way of working required by Strategic Making.

Strategic Making also requires an equally aligned client team who has bought into the process and what it entails. Ideally, there should be a small dedicated team from the client side who is empowered to make decisions and who bring in different types of expertise into the process. Using language from agile methodologies, a ‘Product Owner’ is required from the client side.

The agency and client teams should be equally committed to the process. In fact, the teams should feel like one team instead of the usual ‘us and them’ set up. Co-creation and collaboration should be the name of the game throughout. Admittedly keeping involvement throughout a sprint process can be tricky, but at the very least the core sprint team should remain committed to the Strategic Making mission. Key people should be involved in daily scrums to see the progress and help facilitate the process along as necessary.

Broader stakeholders from both sides can and should be drawn in at key checkpoints when bigger decisions are taken. These usually take place towards the end of a sprint. But these meetings shouldn’t be seen as your usual ‘pitch presentations’. In Strategic Making it doesn’t matter how the hypothesis, insights, ideas or results are shared – as long as they get shared. Work should instead only be packaged into decks at the end of sprints, when relevant decisions have already been taken. Work is driven based on insights and ideas generated instead of the usual pressure to deliver a presentation deck for a deadline.

Last but not least, the Strategic Making process needs also a process champion who is there to empower the team to do its job and to clear out any political obstacles on their way. The process champion (there should be ideally one both at the client and agency side) is there to make sure the team can stay true to the process, for in Strategic Making the journey is as important as is the destination. Sometimes, in fact, the journey matters even more than the output.

Sisu – a key ingredient of Strategic Making

When the set up in many businesses, arguably both client and agency side, is a linear convey belt filled with tight controls and driven by process perfectionism, Strategic Making can be uncomfortably circular, fluid and uncertain in nature. In tightly controlled organisations it can require courage to allocate resource without always a clear idea of what will happen as a result.

That’s why Strategic Making requires a new mindset from everyone involved. It represents a change in the usual Modus Operandi. Having gone through a few of these processes over the last couple years on a range of clients from finance to health technology to FMCG, I can testify it isn’t for the faint hearted especially if everyone involved isn’t used to this way of working. It isn’t for the perfectionist. It isn’t for those who are not comfortable talking to creative without a polished brief, nor for creatives refusing to talk to you without one. A brief becomes a brainstorm instead. The brainstorm becomes the brief in Strategic Making.

The creative can spot an insight that inspires a new approach to the strategy. The planner could come up with the name and the strapline to summarise what your proposition is all about. Your UX can bring in category expertise. The Sprint Lead could end up writing that script for a film you need.

It doesn’t matter the ideas or insights come from – as long as they keep on coming. If you can’t check out your conventional old professional agency ego on the side, then Strategic Making isn’t for you.

It isn’t for people either who need to know every single minute what the next steps look like in detail – because you’re in the middle of working it all out. But it is for those who are prepared to roll up their sleeves and make things happen.

Strategic Making calls for sprint teams who can pivot from tricky feedback or new insight to an even better idea. They keep their eyes on the Holy Grail of arriving at the Proof of Concept. That’s what motivates them to get out of bed in the morning.

At times this requires pitch like tenacity. As a Finn I call this ‘sisu’, a Finnish term made internationally popular through the spirit of the famous Winter War in 1939-1940, where my grandfather served as a paramedic.

Applied and experimental planning fit for a post-digital world

Strategic Making requires the ability to commit. It requires making quick progress and being comfortable with a degree of uncertainty. Having the scope for uncertainty is crucial in order to leave the scope for also unexpected ideas. Ideas that might otherwise not be explored at all.

Although Strategic Making can be quick – I recently acted as the Sprint Lead to turn around a global Masterbrand loyalty programme from brief to Proof of Concept in just three weeks – it isn’t superficial. I call it applied and experimental planning, where the focal point becomes getting to that shiny prototype which is there to crystallise all the thinking into something inspirational that makes sense to the customer.

It is about practical customer-centric strategic experimentation, rather than another planning exercise where the closest thing you get to the customer is the numbers on the GWI spreadsheet you’re looking at.

Strategic Making is a statement: enough with theory, let’s roll up our sleeves and do it in practice and see what happens. It is strategic learning by doing. It is the space where theory meets reality. The Proof of Concept becomes the manifestation of the strategic idea. And the way it performs, either confirms or improves the theory. You create hypothesis, make a concrete thing, put it to test. Learn from practice. Make it even better in the process. Failure is a good thing in Strategic Making.

Tackling a diverse range of challenges

I’ve seen this way of working take old strategic legacy headaches that have been making the rounds from one team to the next and finally given it the missing focus and new lease of life. It’s led everyone down a road that resulted into a concrete prototype.

I’ve seen it used as the means to drive digital transformation to helping establish a brand’s sustainability mission. Strategic Making can tackle many types of challenges – as long as people involved are committed to going on the journey.

This is not to say that the days of conventional planning are numbered. With this way of working the deeper rigour of things such as persona development or journey planning are just introduced at a stage when the strategic idea and direction has already been established through Strategic Making. The hypothesis has been proven right through experimentation - and you’ve built on the learnings to make it even better.

When you think about it, that makes perfect sense. Strategic Making helps marketers to invest their budgets in simply more effective planning. Planning that actually gets applied in practice and involves the customer. How about that for a change?

So next time when you give us a brief, why not consider Strategic Making – and using the Customer Lab to get closer to your customer.


Antti Kangaslahti is a Senior Experience Planner who has been the Sprint Lead on several Strategic Making processes at Ogilvy. He also leads the Ogilvy Customer Lab, a research unit and philosophy intended to put the customer at the heart of the client solution.