Strong leaders don’t mince their words. And, at the ANA Masters of Marketing Conference earlier this month, several top brand executives gave their expert – and, at times, tough – takes on the industry. 

The bottom line? The marketing and communications world is certainly moving fast – but it’s not evolving fast enough. And it isn’t because leaders don’t know how to articulate ambition – it’s because something gets lost in the handoff from vision to action. 

Indeed, a recent ANA survey found that while 66 percent of marketers understand industry disruptions and are building responses into their strategy, only 13 percent are taking action and creating measurable impact. Equally discouraging, 43 percent of marketers say they aren’t empowered or encouraged to experiment and innovate. 

Inspired by some of the key points from ANA’s annual conference, here are five ways we can start bridging the chasm between what we say and what we deliver: 

Say no to the first idea. 

In his keynote address, PepsiCo executive Brad Jakeman took the agency world to task for “polluting” pre-roll ads, antiquated agency models and a lack of diversity, among other sins. Here’s one way to prevent settling for the obvious: reject the first – usually, off-the-shelf – idea. As with job offers, real estate and other negotiations, there are always exceptions. But if the industry wants to be more disruptive, it needs to reset its defaults to be more discerning. 

Look for the characters, the conflict and the cause. 

Storytelling may be the new advertising, but too many marketers don’t seem to know the difference. Crafting a strong story means digging deep to discover – or create – compelling characters, leaning into tension and affirming a cause that matters. GE does this quite powerfully across its vast content ecosystem, but that's because they've invested the requisite time and talent. As CMO Linda Boff has said, “[We don’t] sit around and say, "How do we reach the most people?" We think about who shares our passion and our interest … and we go after that. Know who you are, drive that fairly relentlessly and be as creative as you possibly can in telling that story.” 

Put data in its place. 

Data has earned its spot at the table, but that doesn’t mean it always sits at the head. We have to remember that it’s a tool, not a strategy – it provides information, but human creativity ultimately uncovers solutions. Progressive CMO Jeff Charney put it well: “Figure out how to out-create, not out-spend… because eventually you will run out of money because no one cares if it’s not creative enough to start a conversation.” 

Piss people off. 

At a time when successful marketers behave like journalists, here's a newsroom saw worth considering: "If you're not pissing people off, you're doing something wrong." Calvin Klein unabashedly pushes the sex envelope, Arby’s is sticking with its vegetarians-be-damned, all-meat stance.  Both brands calculated the risks of alienating some consumers, but ultimately embraced the benefits of building intrigue and allegiance among their consumers.  

Prioritize attitude over age. 

Chasing youth is always tempting but smart brands recognize that millennials aren’t the only growth market. As Progressive’s Charney reminds us, tapping into the Age People Think – or APT – can make for powerful marketing. And, as Harley-Davidson continues to show, youth isn’t a number. “Products can adjust, logos can change entirely, but meaning can be ageless. Brands can grow in multiple generational directions simultaneously,” said Mark-Hans Richer, Harley-Davidson SVP, Global CMO.

By Alex Jutkowitz Chief Global Strategist, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, CEO Group SJR