A Planner's Manifesto
"The restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men"
A manifesto of sorts, at least. This isn't rocket surgery. It's light on philosophy, being something altogether more pragmatic. More How than What. It just felt good to pause for a moment and consider what really matters in what we do...
STIMULATE WORK THAT WORKS. Planning’s only task is work that works. Lose sight of this, and we will fail. Creativity, originality, disruption, innovation, engagement... Whatever other measure of success we might choose to work by, ultimately the point of it all is that it has an effect in the real world. We are not merely standard-bearers for originality. Planning is a standard-bearer for the economic value that creativity can create.
GIVE A SHIT ABOUT THE WORK. It is still as extraordinary as it is depressing how few planners actually care deeply about the work they are helping shape. Do not brief and run. ‘Fire and forget’ is the laziest form of planning there is. The most successful planners - the ones who make the biggest contribution to the work - do not let go of the work until it actually sees the light of day. Love the work or get out of the way.
CREATE THE CONDITIONS FOR GREAT WORK. Your strategies, briefs and insights should all be pregnant with creative possibilities. Planning must develop strategy whilst wearing its creative cap. At every stage we must ask - will this help stimulate great work that works? The point of strategy, after all, is to get to the work.
BE BRAVE. We talk a lot about clients needing to be brave. But so should planners. When planners see it as their duty to put the first brave thought on the table things get interesting quicker. It shows creatives that there's fun to be had. And if the client buys an interesting starting point, they've already put a deposit down on an interesting end.
GO BEYOND THE BRIEF. Service your creative teams. You will be a poor friend to creatives if you don’t help them get their work to great. Don’t suck up or pander to them. They’ll see that coming a mile off and dismiss it. But feed them with a constant supply of nuggets of insight and inspiration. The planner’s brief will never contain everything that could possibly be useful to a creative team. Planning’s contribution does not stop at the brief. Indeed it only just begins with the brief. And that demands having conversations with more than just an art director and copywriter. It means conversations with those responsible for production, for media planning, for digital interactions, for activation in the real world, and so on.
SPEAK WITH AUTHORITY. The world doesn’t need yet another opinion. Opinion is cheap. Like assholes, we’ve all got one. And it isn’t enough. As the painter Francisco Goya once said: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.” Planning’s role is to be the most informed opinion in the room. Being informed about how the world works is planning’s source of authority.
MAKE RESEARCH YOUR FRIEND. Planning cannot afford to sneer at research. Most research is indeed done for the wrong reasons. Much of it displays a hopeless grasp of human psychology. Too much of it still places too great a value on asking people what they want and what they do. Too much takes what people say at face value. Many researchers would do well to recall the words of Hugh Laurie’s character Dr. Gregory House: “Everybody lies. They just lie about different things.” But those who sneer loudest at research tend to be those with the shakiest grasp of methodologies. And there are other ways of understanding people beyond just asking them directly. And of course thanks to technology, we now have more accurate and more varied behavioural data than ever before. Above all, there is in principle, nothing wrong with seeking to better understand people - their relationships with brands, and the role of creativity in fostering these. Quite the opposite. As Bill Bernbach famously said: “At the heart of an effective creative philosophy is the belief that nothing is so powerful as an insight into human nature, what compulsions drive a man, what instincts dominate his action, even though his language so often camouflages what really motivates him.” Done well, imaginatively, rigorously, carefully and sensitively, research is planning’s friend.
BE MULTI-FACETED. Planning works at the busy intersection of psychology, culture, business, brands, communication and technology. It must at all times seek to be an expert in all of them. We reject the trite, narrow, and outmoded handle of ‘voice of the consumer.’ We are strategists, not ventriloquists’ dummies.
BE A SOURCE OF CLARITY. Planning must always seek to clarify and simplify. Not pontificate and complicate. We are all oversupplied with information and options. Planning must seek to reduce, organise, synthesise and simplify this so that the way forwards becomes easier to see. This demands that we don’t speak or write in planner-ese. Or worse, marketing-ese. It doesn’t make planning look smart. Just desperate. Stephen King - the father of account planning - wrote prose that avoided any trace of industry-speak. Planning will bring more people along when it cuts through the verbiage, obfuscation and buzzword nonsense of our industry. Planning’s task is to bring clarity. Not make things more complicated.
SPEAK THE TRUTH. Planning must always speak the truth. It may not always find a welcoming audience. It may be deeply inconvenient from time to time. It may even well be ignored. But planning isn’t meant to be easy. And we’re not in this business with the main objective of making friends (that's a happy by-product). And in the long run, planning will garner more trust if it consistently speaks the truth than if it panders to people’s whims and desires. Like a lawyer or doctor, planning is there to provide high-value advice.
DEFINE THE PROBLEM. The most valuable thing planning can do is to define the problem accurately and imaginatively. Adrian Holmes, the former chairman of Lowe said it best: “Great solutions need great problems”. Defining the real problem - beyond the platitudes (‘awareness’, anyone?) - is the ultimate test of a planner's skills. It requires a real and deep understanding of the nature of the business issue, of the dynamics of both the category and brand, insight into the expressed and unexpressed needs and wants of consumers, and of the specific contribution of creativity in achieving the business goals. Planners are problem definers before they are anything else.
EMBRACE ITERATION. Planning is not precious about the brief. It IS precious about the precise nature of the task and objectives it defines. “Does this work achieve these objectives?” is the one question we must be able to answer each and every time. A clearly defined problem gives everyone a benchmark to evaluate work against. Without that there is chaos. But when it comes to the potential solutions to that task, the brief is a living, malleable thing. The creative process is not ordered, linear, or predictable. It’s a rollercoaster of iteration. Anything else leads to bland and indifferent work.
OFFER SOLUTIONS NOT JUST STRATEGIES. Have and share your own creative solutions. The chances are they’ll be pretty rubbish. But doing so tests out whether your strategy has executional potential. It forces you to think in practical terms, not just theoretical. And once in a blue moon, it might, just might be a pretty good one.
SHAPE BEHAVIOUR. Planners are experts in changing people’s behaviour, not just ‘attitudes.’ Never forget that it is behaviour we are trying to influence, not just attitudes. While the advertising industry has insisted on building linear models of persuasion (AIDA, for example), the notion that we change behaviour by first changing attitudes is not one subscribed to by any serious student of human psychology and behaviour. One of the refreshing characteristics of the digital space is that it is forcing strategists to refocus on asking what exactly it is we want people to do, rather than just obsess about what we want people to think or feel.
DEAL IN THE SPECIFIC. Whatever so-called experts might tell us, there is no one model of how communication works. We must treat with extreme caution anybody who tells us otherwise. Particularly if they are trying to sell us a research methodology on the back of it. Or force creative work to conform to some universal model. There is no universal model of how communications works just as there is no Universal Model for How Literature Works. Planning deals with the specific. How does communications need to work for this specific brand, its specific audience and solve its specific needs and requirements in these specific circumstances? Talk about communications only makes sense and is only ever useful when it deals with the concrete and the specific.
CULTIVATE MANY RELATIONSHIPS. If planning cannot influence creative teams, it will fail. If planning cannot influence clients, it will fail. Cultivate an interest in both the cultures of creativity and of business. Planning must always seek to be persuasive amongst both audiences for our thinking to make a difference.
WORK THROUGH CONVERSATION. Recognise it’s a messy business. The best planning happens through conversation. And the best conversations tend to take place not in meetings or on conference calls but informally, on the hoof, when we least expect them. Be prepared for them. Planning must make itself available. Accessible. Visible. Conduct more conversations than you give powerpoint presentations.
BEWARE OF CASE STUDIES. Do not be over-reliant on marketing case studies to make your argument. Case studies by their very nature tend to be outliers. In many instances they are nothing more than acts of massive post-rationalisation. Or even revisionist history. Be inspired by them, learn from them (if only about how to package up your thinking and work), but do not treat them as gospel.
SEE PEOPLE NOT ‘CONSUMERS’. We are ‘consumers’ for the fleeting seconds we make choices or consume brands. And even then our behaviours are frequently habitual and largely unconscious. Seeing people rather than 'consumers' encourages us to see their broader lives beyond their fleeting interactions with our brand. In many ways the ‘consumer’ is a figment of the marketing imagination. There is no such thing, for example, as a ‘Budweiser consumer’. In repertoire markets our ‘consumer’ is in truth somebody else’s consumer who happens to sometimes consume our brand.
BALANCE THE NEW AND THE OLD. Embrace the new. Investigate the emerging. Delight in what’s transitory and fashionable. Don't be mired in the past. But be careful not to be swept up by bandwagons. We cannot afford to suspend our critical faculties. Ours is an industry constantly in the grip of change. Perhaps now more than ever. Yet people will continue to want to be loved, to feel safe, to feel more successful than their neighbours, to belong to communities, to feel attractive, to rear happy children, to seek pleasure and excitement… and brands will continue to act as social currency, symbols of self-expression, totems of self-identification, and guarantors and magnifiers of benefits and satisfactions. DNA and the fundamentals of human psychology have not changed. Remember that for all the ‘Everything 2.0’ we’re surrounded by, planning’s starting point will be still an understanding of people - what fundamental and timeless motivations and instincts shape their behaviours, how people make decisions, what encourages their preferences, and how people construct brands in their minds - and applying that to solving business problems.
BE INTERESTING. Be able to have conversations about things other than what we do for a living. Read beyond the largely self-styled marketing and planning gurus. In the long run it will make you more useful.
MAKE SOMETHING. Planners should endeavour to bring into the world at least one creative product of their own. Learn an instrument, write haiku, take up drawing. Whatever it is, learn what it’s like to make, rather than just talk about making. Learn what the terror of the blank canvass truly feels like. Learn what criticism and rejection feel like. It strengthens our empathy muscles.
WORK COMFORTABLY IN PUBLIC. Twenty-first century creativity demands a broader than ever array of talent and expertise be brought to bear on client issues. The ability to work in large teams is becoming ever more essential. As problems and their solutions become more diverse, more complex, so will the teams we will work with and in. It’s no longer just you and a creative team and a suit. It will be like making a movie. ‘Creativity’ becomes an output of those teams. Not a department. Certainly the reclusive planner is a thing of the past. Of course planning will need - like everyone - to step aside from time to time to contemplate and work in quiet. But we will also need to be able to lead groups of people. To be comfortable in the role of ringmaster or coach. Planning must be comfortable working in public with other people, not just working in private. And we must recognise that this requires humility and generosity. The planner will not necessarily be the smartest person in the room. Share, be expansive. Don’t hide.
HAVE FUN. Few of us will become wealthy in this line of work. But it is an absurdly fun business to be in. And the variety of people you will meet and work with is your greatest compensation. Relish it. Some of them will become the most interesting, dearest, and craziest friends we have in the world.
And there you have it. As I say, it isn't rocket surgery. But it might just help keep our eyes on the prize.
What would you add?