Book Review: I Have a Strategy (No, You Don’t) by Howell J. Malham Jr.

I Have a Strategy - Book CoverStrategy…

It’s a word that is so overused in the business world that it has almost lost its meaning. Everyone has a strategy… for everything. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of the existence of a ‘Visiting the Bathroom strategy’ or  a ‘Having my lunch strategy’, such is its ubiquity. Look at my personal portfolio, even I’m at it! A digital technology strategist of all things!

It’s time to reclaim the word, to give it some real meaning, to rescue it from the mire into which it has descended. If not for its own sake, then certainly for mine; I’ll never be taken seriously otherwise.

Luckily, that’s exactly what Howard J. Malham Jr. – or simply Malham from this point on – is aiming to do in his book: I Have a Strategy (No, You Don’t) – The Illustrated Guide To Strategy. It sounds like a lofty subject and you might expect a rather dry examination of the subject, given the length of the title, but it’s anything but that. Short, simple, fun (yes, fun) and easily digested, Malham’s book is surprisingly effective.

Malham – just who is he?

Howard J. Malham Jr. is a Co-founder and Director of Insight Labs, a Chicago-based consultancy that works on some of the world’s (read United States) biggest challenges and issues, from the state of schooling to the future of healthcare. It’s this experience, born out of trying to make sense of seemingly impenetrable challenges, that is distilled down into the book.

So this tells me what a strategy is? Right?


For Malham, a strategy is simple defined as:

A planned, doable sequence of actions designed to achieve a distinct, measurable goal.

That’s it. Simple and easy.

Malham’s book comes to life through a few carefully selected examples and the ongoing commentary from Gary and Larry – two cartoon characters that explore the serious page content a little less seriously. They’re not always funny, but it’s a nice change of pace and certainly isn’t an unwelcome addition, keeping the writing light and away from the self-satisfied navel-gazing that some ‘business’ books descend into.

The examples he uses are, by and large, good ones, including Boeing versus Airbus, and even US foreign policy. If I had one criticism, there are some smaller examples, such as REDF and AGC (academy for Global Citizenship), that although being worthy, are not recognisable. It’s a small criticism, but some readers might want to see Malham’s obviously incisive mind to throw light on some more well-known brands (Nike versus Reebok, Apple versus the computer industry, Apple versus the music industry… you get the idea).

Within each example, the elements of the strategy are broken down, supporting his initial definition:

  • Purpose
  • Plan
  • Series of actions
  • Measureable goal

It’s clear and precise, which is exactly…

Why you should read it

Malham applies a light touch to the misconceptions around strategy. In a world full of weighty tomes on all matter of subjects, it’s a pleasure to pick up something that is as simple and concise as ‘I have a Strategy’. And the best thing about it is, because of its brevity, you really remember what you have read. It makes the book actionable.

And isn’t that the point?

If you’re interested in finding out more about the book you can visit, or alternatively you can follow Malham on Twitter or find out more about his work at Insight Labs.

Have you read the book? What did you think? Have you changed your behaviour or your approach to business strategy as a result? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Disclaimer: This is an independent review based on a copy of the book supplied to me. I have no business relationship with Howell J. Malham Jr., InsightLabs, or Wiley (the publishers). I have not received any monetary incentives or payments, but they did let me keep the book, which was nice. I don’t need to write this bit, but I think it’s always good to be completely transparent.


Why no analytics?

At the end of January, Forrester released their Agency Predictions for 2011. Since that day, one of the predictions that Sean Corcoran made has stuck with me. He said:

#6. Everyone continues to (pretty much) fail at analytics.

Analytics positions are hot at agencies right now. Every type of agency is trying to improve their capabilities. But the truth is that marketers themselves are still very much fragmented in their approach, and until that is sorted out, the great majority of agencies will be stuck managing the data in their corner of the world. Expect improvement, especially with real-time metrics, but agencies will continue to struggle to tell the full story through analytics in 2011.

The big question here is ‘Why?’ Why can’t agencies use analytics effectively for their clients? Why are we so fragmented?


Graph showing upward trend
Analytics should be our friend. Is it?

Before we start, let’s remember that Analytics and Reporting are different things. Reporting is the simple act of understanding what happened, usually after the fact. Analytics is the ongoing use of reporting and data investigation to improve ongoing activity. Reporting has its place; it’s good to know how many visits we had on our website this month or which were the top 5 posts on our blog, but until we put those facts into context we’re not going to learn anything. Analytics – treated the right way – takes us to that next level. In this case, maybe we would change our content strategy or look at why numbers on the site were falling; who knows, maybe they’re linked!

So why are we failing? In my experience, there are three reasons.

  1. Short-termism
    In all honesty, I’m not sure that’s even a word. But it is an issue. So many Marketing departments think in terms of quarters and half-years, focusing on delivering for that time period and not thinking beyond it. If we’re going to get the best from analytics, we need to plan much further ahead so that  our core digital assets can evolve over time. Analytics require forward planning; we must understand what the success factors will be prior to a campaign starting or a website launching. That way we can cut the data correctly and understand whether the actions we take move us closer to or further away from our goals. Short-termism is the antithesis of this, focused on execution only. Get it done, get it out, then give me the reports. This approach discards any learning and dooms us to repeat the same old mistakes.
  2. Cash
    Where there is an appetite, we do our very best to shoot ourselves in the foot. High-end analytics packages are expensive, really expensive. Unless a site is transactional in outlook and focussed on the sales funnel, the price just doesn’t weigh up with the return. And time-wise, they can take up to 4-6 weeks to integrate into a site, which is just too long for most businesses. Of course, there’s also free analytics packages, such as Google Analytics and Piwik, they’re both good but to get the best out of them you require in-house knowledge. Until client’s have the appetite to invest in using the analytics available, agencies aren’t going to skill up as much as they could; there’s simply not the incentive, just another salary on the bottom line.
  3. Technology
    We’re in a time of rapid technological change. The landscape is changing so fast that metrics are hard to define, because there isn’t the understanding out there, or the research, to make clear decisions. Take m-commerce for example, although retailers are scrambling to put themselves online, via native apps or mobile apps, there isn’t yet the historical data to understand how effective they are. They’ll understand the revenue generated, granted, but what about average conversion rates, dwell time, how does my app compare when matching against other industry players? All this will come in time, but for the moment we’re all playing catch-up.

Unless agencies and their clients can start to think long-term about their digital real-estate, we will all continue to fail at analytics – to a lesser or greater degree. As agencies we must present strong strategies with the client’s business objectives at heart (not just our own creative vanity), and clients must have the cojones to put some money and resource behind a long-term digital strategy that is supported from the top levels of the organisation, or at least the top level of Marketing. Once that’s done we might start to see a change.

Until then I won’t hold my breath, instead I’ll just wait for the 2012 report to tell me the same thing, but I’d love to be proved wrong.