An introduction to Alex Smith

Alex Smith was in a small and entrepreneurial ad agency environment wherein ideas could be freely shared. Many agencies did have a strategy function, but his ad agency did not.  Over time, Alex got wind of the fact that larger agencies did strategy – A rationalization of the campaign work that they were doing.

Alex suggested to the boss that they should create a strategy department and that he could run it. He accepted the idea, and soon, Alex was running the strategy department and made it up as he went along, as he had no prior experience or education in strategy.

It, however, became clear that what he was doing was working, considering the metric of the ‘win ratio’ for their pitches was improving vastly.

He noticed that sometimes a ‘great client’ came along where very little ‘trickery’ or creative input was required to sell their products because they were already excellent at what they were doing.

Alex pondered that it would be cool to help the more ‘flawed businesses to be more like those businesses that knew precisely what they were doing. He developed his theories on what great companies were doing to differentiate themselves.

The Pain Point

As you sell strategy work, you learn that most businesses do not have a strategy. They do not have a plan because it does not even cross their mind – they do not know what they do not know. That means it is complicated when you sell strategy work because no one is shopping for it. You are generally selling something nobody wants because no one knows it is missing from their business.

Alex’s marketing for his business, Basic Arts, is therefore highly educational, as very few companies understand what strategy is. His simple yet entertaining and enlightening LinkedIn posts exemplify his efforts to demystify strategy and how companies can stop competing and create their unique path.

What is strategy?

As a thought leader, according to Alex, you do not invent what strategy is, nor how to do it. He agrees with the Harvard Business Review definition of strategy: ‘ Meaningful differences from the competition that you can preserve.’ It is a static and unchanging thing. However, it is all about how you understand and engage with it.

For some reason, companies below, say, $500 million turnover, do not have a strategy as they interpret huge organizations’ approach to strategy as purely management theory with little to no practical implication.

If you cannot afford to hire companies such as McKinsey, which follows a particular way of thinking around strategy, the alternative to that thinking is no thinking at all.

Alex used the following example to illustrate the concept: ‘You are either Shell doing some formal strategy work, or you are another business doing absolutely nothing at all.’

His work answers the question: How can we talk about it and do it so that you do not have to be in the ‘Harvard or Mckinsey universe’ to play the game?

Firstly, it is down to how you articulate it – Talking about it in a way that is easy to understand and enjoyable. The way Alex talks to people about strategy is to say that:

You have to find a way to sell something to people they want. It must also be something they cannot get anywhere else, and that is the riddle to solve. If you solve that riddle, you will make money automatically and have won the game. Articulating it this way makes it more accessible, and now you have something tangible to work on.

When you open up that democratic possibility of articulating it simply and secondly opening up the possibility that you can handle strategy in an informal and low resource-intensive manner, smaller companies have an immediate and actionable approach.


Alex calls strategy an ‘amateur sport’ as the greatest strategists in history had no formal qualification in strategy. He sees the first responsibility of strategy to be a motivational tool.

Irrespective of how clever a strategy is, it is useless if not executed; therefore, a plan must pave its way towards being executed by being inspirational, understood, exciting, and used as a motivational tool. A lot of resistance to strategy comes from strategy being boring. The fact that a particular strategy is exciting provides a clue that there is an insight within it that might be highly effective.

In addition to strategy being a motivational tool, it is also a leadership tool. Therefore, you must be mindful of how you present the approach to the audience receiving it.

Alex advises that you should not view strategy as a statement but rather as an argument. A strategy document should present the argument for why we will do this thing. This way, it is not presented as an executive order. Instead, you are making a case for a particular strategy and demystifying it.

You can just arm your people with the argument for the strategy instead of telling them what it is and what to do. Arming your people with an argument for a strategy allows them to make it their own. They can own the narrative of the strategy.

Alex ended the interview with some good news – a strategy is not something that you need to create. Instead, it is a discovery process always latent within the business. You find the thing already giving you leverage and then double down on it and start doing it aggressively.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What inspired Alex Smith to create a strategy department in his ad agency?

Alex Smith was inspired to create a strategy department after observing that larger agencies had strategy functions that rationalized their campaign work. He believed that implementing a similar function in his agency would improve their win ratio for pitches and overall effectiveness.

How does Alex Smith define strategy, and why is it important for smaller businesses?

Alex Smith aligns with the Harvard Business Review’s definition of strategy: “Meaningful differences from the competition that you can preserve.” He emphasizes that strategy is crucial for smaller businesses as it helps them differentiate themselves and create a unique path, making them more competitive and successful in their markets.

Why do many businesses lack a formal strategy, according to Alex Smith?

Many businesses, especially those with turnovers below $500 million, lack a formal strategy because they perceive strategy as a complex management theory with little practical application. They either cannot afford to hire big consulting firms like McKinsey or misunderstand the concept’s importance and applicability to their operations.

How can smaller businesses develop and implement effective strategies without extensive resources?

Alex Smith suggests that smaller businesses can develop and implement effective strategies by articulating them in a simple, understandable, and enjoyable manner. By making strategy accessible and less resource-intensive, businesses can create actionable and motivational plans that drive success without needing extensive resources or formal qualifications.

What role does strategy play as a motivational and leadership tool in a business?

Strategy serves as both a motivational and leadership tool. According to Alex, a strategy must be inspirational, exciting, and understood to be effective. Presenting strategy as an argument rather than a statement allows employees to own the narrative and become more engaged in executing the plan. This approach helps demystify strategy and makes it a powerful tool for driving business success.

Talent Development Director of the OKR Institute