Mark Pollard: Irreplaceable – the mindset agency people need for future survival

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“It feels like strategy inside agencies could easily be replaced by free strategy, or no strategy at all”

By Mark Pollard, Founder and CEO of global strategy training company Sweathead

“Strategists will be extinct,” say the strategists in Tasmania, Turkey and Brazil. It’s universally felt, and it hurts. In today’s climate, it feels like strategy inside agencies could easily be replaced by free strategy, or no strategy at all.

So strategists, it’s no surprise, are feeling the squeeze.

The draw of agency life is far less magnetic than it once was and right now, more and more people feel replaceable in an industry where agency margins are under pressure and holding companies are folding sub-brands into sub-brands. These feelings are driven too because of ageism, changing skill sets, and the rapid onset of AI and technology.

And among the suite of disciplines in the agency arsenal, strategy is ripe for disposability. Companies are exploring how to replace people with artificial intelligence and strategy is an area that AI can, and is, stepping into and overtaking elements already, albeit basic ones.

There is an almost desperate need to be irreplaceable, in a period when many strategists are struggling to find stable employment and freelance opportunities, and are wondering what life would be like in start-ups or consulting.

Young talent also sees other industries as sexier. According to a recent 4As survey, 20% of the industry is in its first year. Research shows that AI has the capability to carry out entry level tasks, so can take on the roles carried out by young people, so they’re pretty replaceable too. But it’s yet to significantly impact the workloads of experts. Of course, as the functions of AI improve, older, senior staff will be at greater risk of replacement. And ageism is already an issue in advertising. After 40, many aggressively age out of the industry, and many leave earlier, as younger cheaper people  step in.

The challenge is, it’s all so hard to predict, what lies ahead looks pretty opaque and the extinction of strategy isn’t written in stone. So how do strategists and planners skill-up with the tools and techniques they need to survive, when it means preparing for a future unknown.  It’s possible to tool ourselves up, rather than just passively resign, and while the skills might be harder to pin down,  it can start with shifting mindsets.

Make a mindset shift from replaceable to irreplaceable

Alongside the certainty that it’s crucial to skill-up, even if the skills needed aren’t lucidly clear, the right mindset can be adopted and nurtured, to meet upcoming challenges head on. So how do strategists shift to a place of feeling  irreplaceable?

Focus on the unique abilities of the strategists mind

The most important element of the strategist’s mind is the desire to see something that others can’t, now and in the future. Sure, a strategist can use AI to see patterns but it’s worth remembering that strategists are the ones that will take the capabilities of the technology further. So if strategists continue to exist and don’t become extinct, they will use AI to see similar patterns and then they’ll use their imagination to go even further.  So every strategist can hold onto the uniqueness of their mind as an irreplaceable function that will push the capabilities of AI forward.


Yes, AI can see patterns but, for the next few years at least, a seasoned strategist will be able to zap their historical domain of knowledge, their familiarity with their clients and their brands’ histories, as well as the zeitgeist to see patterns but to also time the use of those patterns.

Absurdist thinking

I know serious brand thinkers will reject this notion but I believe that each brand needs to find its own version of absurdism: if you’re going to deliver something straight then make sure something odd is happening in the background, for example, and vice versa. Otherwise people won’t pay attention and they certainly won’t remember something they don’t even see.

According to Kantar’s Link database, 2023 saw a reverse in the decline of the use of humour in advertising. It found that humorous ads were more expressive, more involving and more distinct than unfunny ads. And AI definitely can’t do humour like a human can. So strategists could even think about enrolling on a stand up comedy course to tool up.

Leading other people through the mess

There’s a type of strategist that is able to bring out the best in other people. They understand how this wacky advertising thing works and can help navigate all the big personalities to somewhere worth going. This isn’t every strategist, but it’s an important type and it’s worthwhile holding onto the very human emotional importance of personality and team-play that keeps every creative company ticking by.

In the upcoming Sweathead Do-Together conference this November, we’ll be exploring all of this, underpinned by the theme: Irreplaceable. It’s just far too important to  hold on to our capabilities, skill-up, trend-up and max-up our mindset to ensure we are future-fit.

Mark Pollard is the founder and CEO of Sweathead, a global strategy training company with a community of over 18,000 strategists worldwide and a podcast with over 1.3 million listens.

Pollard’s media career has seen him go from hip-hop journalist to radio host and now, a strategist. His career in strategy started in his native Australia before moving stateside, working for companies including Leo Burnett, Big Spaceship, and McCann. Pollard’s work with the global strategy training company has seen him consult for and train companies like Wall Street Journal, Twitter, The Economist, and agencies around the globe.

Top image: Mark Pollard

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