Mastering the Red Thread

By Matthew

· 9 min

How do you build a winning story?

The Problem

There are few skills in the media industry as important as building a winning case for why you should be chosen.

The sell you are working on could be huge, and encompass budgets of billions across hundreds of countries. Or it can be something financially tiny – but culturally or strategically essential.

But the pattern remains remarkably similar.

You attempt to diagnose the challenge, and then Marshall your best attributes to look like the perfect solution.

It’s a skill on which careers are built, and fortunes are made and lost. It absorbs vast amounts of the waking (and sleeping) hours of salespeople, CEOs and strategists alike.

And yet, so, so often this case-building goes awry. You can find yourself close to the finish line with a ragtag jumble of assorted features, incentives and catchphrases – from which the end buyer, on whom everything demands, has to somehow assemble the spine of a coherent business case.

It’s a problem that I’ve found everywhere I’ve been in and beyond the industry.

It’s a problem that tends to be bigger, not smaller, when the stakes are higher and the resources available are more plentiful.

And it’s a problem that seems to be getting worse, as solution sets become more complex, and leader struggle to find the thinking space to develop coherent storytelling.

Why the Red Thread matters

The difference between clarity and chaos, between a winning story and a fumbled loss, is often a clear Red Thread.

There are various sources on the origin of this concept. My favourite is perhaps the Chinese mythology, in which the lunar god of matchmaking connects people with their pre-destined partners through an entanglement of red string.

The more grounded description is simply that it is a line of argument that ties together your case, and helps your audience to hold it coherently in their mind. Something that organises thoughts while you are in the room, helping your team to align and you audience to sense-make as you assault them with facts and figures, argument and ideas. And just as crucially, something that ensures when you’re not there, and they have to explain their decision-making to colleagues and bosses.

It is a crucial element in ANY new business process. You need to start weaving your Red Thread early, and continually rethread it throughout the process.

It’s a thread of sanity around which vast numbers of people can collaborate in highly specialised ways, without fragmenting. It provides common language, a filter, and a framework.

And consequently, it’s an enduring line on which you audience can hang their impressions of your arguments, in roughly the way you intended.

Making it at least possible that the endless hours of perspiration involved in building the case land in the desired effect.

What a Red Thread is, and what it isn’t

Fundamentally, a Red Thread is the line of a business case, in its most essential form. It’s frequently confused with other closely related items.

It is, at its best, a coherent assemblage of:

  • insightful problem diagnosis
  • a useful and compelling guiding policy for action
  • a framework of attributes that resolve specific barriers
  • a tangible manifestation of the solution
  • a clear benefit and cost equation
  • a roadmap to success

It is not the same as a strategy – strategists are often capable developers and tellers of red thread stories, but a good Thread should be just as much commercial, relational and operational as it is an expression of a communications strategy.

It is not the same as an idea, or a platform – that may often be a crucial lynchpin in manifesting the solution or demonstrating attributes, but unless the idea is the only product, it sits as part of a broader Thread.

And it’s not the same as a ‘pitch theme’. It’s not just there to inform the opening slide of a presentation, or the look and feel. It’s the thread running through every single thing.

It is, like most important things, much more easily described, or criticised, than created.

Mastering the Red Thread

I’ve probably spent longer building Red Threads for pitch stories than I’ve spent on any other professional task. The number of variables, based on problem, context and positioning is almost infinite.

It’s a skill that’s a fusion of craft, instinct and experience. I’d strongly recommend that any marketing and media business continuously develop the ability of their senior team to do it.

(In fact, in January I am going to launch a short-course training programme that equips their teams to do it better – pulling on my own experiences, and those of my brilliant network of commercial storytellers.)

In the meantime, here are four provocations linked to the harder parts of the craft that you might want to think about…

1. What’s the question behind the questions?

Not everyone would agree, but I feel that the quality of RFP briefing has improved quite a bit (though unevenly) over the years. Whilst processes are often burdensome, they generally don’t come with a shortage of documentation and data. And they tend to come with plenty of questions.

But I’m still not sure that I’ve ever seen one that fully distils what the business is really looking for. 

Sometimes it’s because the truth is so obvious to the client that they forget to write it. 

Sometimes it’s because it’s shrouded in the secrecy of a hidden weakness or failure.

Sometimes it’s because they see the real problem as too big for you to solve.

But the question behind the question is always out there somewhere. Sometimes it requires real detective work – digging into your intelligence networks (which are always bigger than you think) to get the scoop.

But much more often, it’s sitting right out there in the open. Often in the first couple of pages of the company report, or in the most obvious qualitative consumer feedback.

To create the best Red Thread, you’ve got to start by elevating the question.

2. Empathy, empathy, empathy

The reason the ‘question behind the question’ is not always clear is that it contains a difficult or inconvenient truth.

The people carrying the burden of that inconvenient truth are the people briefing you.

They are almost invariably conscientious, skilful, smart people who are in a situation of pressure. And the process you are in is a symptom or consequence of that pressure

Perhaps they are labouring under a situation of entirely adequate time and resources.

Perhaps they are in the middle of a brutal cultural or structural change.

Perhaps the spotlight has turned onto them, and they are expected to deliver miracles.

All of these factors, and many more, will create a landscape against which the question behind the question is much harder to solve – or they may throw up a very specific flavour of solution which is destined for success.

In any case, as well as answering the question, your Red Thread needs to help solve the professional, and sometimes personal, problems of the people in the room.

And that can’t only start with analysis. It needs deep empathy.

3. What role can you uniquely play?

The physician struggles to heal him or herself…and the communications business often struggles to communicate its own brands.

Every business needs to be really clear-eyed about where they can actually add value, and what is distinctive about the way that they do it. That is the core of the case.

If you over-reach for a problem you can’t credibly help to solve, you lose credibility.

If you simply deliver what you are proud of, and it doesn’t solve a real problem, you lose relevance.

You need to find the biting point between these two – and then when you’ve found it, you have to zoom in even further to find exactly the right positioning for you. How is your way of solving this problem distinctive?

Then, a further zoom in – what are the 2 or 3 or 4 key barriers or opportunities implicit in this solution? What are the unique goodies that you have in your arsenal that make you ideally placed to unlock them.

This is where businesses get to talk about the things they are really proud of: their scale, product, ingenuity, people, capabilities – but in the terms of meaningful benefits, not features.

The assets of your brand and your product can win you the day – but only if framed in a view on the problem that is credible, relevant, distinctive and focused.

4. Weave the Thread everywhere

As we covered in the introduction, the Red Thread is NOT an introduction, an idea or a strategy.

It’s something which needs to unify every part of your solution. Because everything communicates – and it can ether be a chorus, or a cacophony.

Your Red Thread needs to be present in numbers – in the commitments you make, the costs you charge, the commercial frameworks you build.

It needs to be embodied in people – who is present or involved, and why, and what do they bring.

It needs to be operationalised – so you can see it’s not something designed for pitch day, but something designed to survive contact with the real world.

It needs to be expressed in words, in images, in video, in spreadsheets, in actions. It needs to be reinforced from every angle with every touch of body language.

This is what makes it memorable. This is what makes it true.

This is what can make the difference between colossal effort…and winning.

Hook Strategy works with multiple media and technology owners, agencies and not-for-profit bodies in the communications space on their case to buyers and other external stakeholders.

If you need help with your Red Thread – or want to help your team get better at this crucial skill – please get in touch at

Hook Strategy helps organisations to move forwards with shared strategic clarity. If you are an organisation seeking unified thinking, get in touch at or by calling +44 (0)7780 481717.

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