Siddhant Lahiri
May 22, 2024

How Stephen King changed advertising forever

Not quite as scary but equally gripping, Forsman & Bodenfors' Siddhant Lahiri unpacks the impact of the famed author on the role of strategists in the industry—and why, 50 years on, his work is still a thriller.

Stephen King. Photo: Campaign UK
Stephen King. Photo: Campaign UK

Fifty years ago, Stephen King wrote something that would change lives.

But it’s not the Stephen King you might be thinking of. While the famed author of ‘It’ and ‘The Shining’ has captivated millions with his horror novels (like me), there is another Stephen King whose impact resonates deeply within a different crowd.

This Stephen King is the author of the 'JWT Planning Guide,' published in March 1974. Celebrated by hundreds of advertising strategy enthusiasts worldwide (also like me), this book effectively created the discipline of advertising strategy. It introduced systematic thinking into the inherently chaotic creative process, revolutionising the field and paving the way for countless PowerPoint-lovers to build careers. 

Personally, I am indebted to King—he helped create a unique craft that stands out at the intersection of creativity and structure—allowing people like me to find their feet, alongside dozens of daily coffees, black rimmed glasses, and Statista accounts. King's foresight was remarkable. Today, fifty years later, it's intriguing to consider his views on the current state of planning—undoubtedly, it would be unrecognisable to him.

Since its inception, strategy has evolved tremendously—growing in professional numbers, recognition, and talent. New measurement methods and closer collaborations with creative teams have enhanced its stature. However, some shifts are concerning, as they potentially diminish the opportunity for outstanding work and erode the value and role of strategy.

Now, as we mark the 50th year of this discipline, it's time to reflect on the role of strategy, not by looking back, but forward. This is a love letter to a discipline I have dedicated my life to, with hopes for a brighter future. Here are five things I wish for:

  1. Less frameworks, more reframing: One of the main functions of our role is the ability to reframe complex business problems by understanding the human challenge behind the brand challenge ('the problem behind the problem') and interpreting this with a solution as comprehensively as possible using communications. That's why we've typically been valuable in the creative process. Our understanding of the consumer and the ability to distill clarity from complexity means we have something to offer our creative counterparts. Today, increasingly, what we offer are frameworks: Circles and boxes that put a plan on a slide. There's nothing wrong with frameworks—they can help provide clarity and crystallise thinking—but there is a problem with over-reliance, where we let the framework do the work. We have to be bigger than boxes.

  2. Putting data in its place: In my mind, being a strategist is a bit like being a detective. "Planner Poirot" needs to look at all the clues available and know that the answer lies within them to figure out the mystery—the brand whodunnit, or in our case, the 'how-to-do-it.' Data can be very useful in this process, and always has been, however, we must recognise data as a clue—not the answer to the mystery itself. Increasingly, and dangerously, we are becoming content with just sharing clues with creatives and clients—because the thinking is either too hard or too subjective. In a world where everyone has access to infinite data, our discoveries are not enough. Our job is not to find data—our job is to find answers.

  3. Less Facetime, more face time: I had a boss who detested what he called "paper planning": Strategy on notebooks, in the comfort of air-conditioned offices, hiding behind models and books without real-world interaction with consumers or understanding the mechanics of the business world. This trend has only grown over time. We have an abundance of tools—audience definition tools, measurement tools, planning models, and now, with AI, our prosthetic brains. They all serve a purpose—they have helped us get to more concrete proposals and better invest our clients' money. The downside is that they remove us even further from the people we are talking to. When was the last time any of us met our consumers in person? With all our tools today, we have a heightened ability to target a specific person in a remote village on a remote island. However, we also have an increasingly diminished idea of (and interest in) how to create behavioral change. Returning to becoming behaviour change agents means attempting something seemingly old-fashioned: Human interaction.

  4. Less strategy, more 'creategy': There have been countless times before an agency presentation when someone has said, "Before the fun stuff, here’s the strategy." I can’t help but take this a little personally—but us strategists have only ourselves to blame! Creativity isn’t exclusive to creatives. And I think many creatives would prefer it that way! A little bit of creative thinking not only helps the strategy reach exciting new places (which, let’s face it, is the task) but also makes it much more useful as a creative springboard. What I love about the way we work at Forsman & Bodenfors is the fusion of the process—there is no linearity, no silos, no lanes to stick to. Creative and strategy are one unified process. And the biggest benefit of this 'creategy' is that strategy cannot get away with being boring or uninspiring. Every strategist is pushed to be more creative, and every creative pushed to be more strategic, resulting in not only wildly imaginative ideas but also effective ones. In the business of ideas, being creative is a superpower—and a job requirement.

  5. Fewer victims of 'death by prefixes': A friend once asked me, "What is creative strategy?" I had a better question: "We are in the creative industry; what isn’t?" Increasingly, I see a mincing of the function through prefixes—creative strategy, content strategy, brand strategy, comms strategy, channel strategy...this is, and will be, the ad (nauseam) equivalent of 'death by salami.' While specialisation is a perfectly understandable trend, the trouble is when strategists use the prefix as an excuse to deliver strategy-lite. No amount of prefixes is going to change our role: Identify the problem, define a solution, find an informed way to win, and help the creatives communicate that solution. Let's stop hiding behind prefixes and start getting the job done.

So, here we are. These are not a collection of trends, or forecasts or crystal-ball predictions about the future of strategy. These are just the hopes I have for a discipline I truly believe in; one that I wish will go from strength to strength in the years to come.

Here’s to the next fifty.

Siddhant Lahiri is the head of strategy for Forsman & Bodenfors in Singapore.

Campaign Asia

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