Reclaiming planning's radicalism
I was recently invited by the APG of Sweden to talk about 'the future of planning'. This is the text of that talk - a personal perspective on whether account planning indeed has a future at all. My thanks to all at the APG for the opportunity of catharsis.
The political activist Marcus Garvey once said:
A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture, is like a tree without roots.”
Now ours is not an industry much given to contemplating the past. And it is easy to take the existence of account planning for granted. After all, it has functioned now as a distinct agency discipline for almost half a century. In that time been exported, institutionalized, taught, iterated, segmented, and even celebrated. The story of account planning is a success story.
But if we are to shape the next fifty years, then we must rediscover our radicalism. For we are in danger of being that tree without roots, and it is only by rediscovering our past that can we hope to play a part in shaping the future.
The story of account planning story begins in 1968. While the streets of Paris were convulsing with the idealism and missiles of the student riots, in Swinging London, Stanley Pollitt and Stephen King began reengineering their agencies to accommodate what came to be known as ‘account planning’.
This much we all know. But it is easy to forget that at its inception, account planning offered the industry a truly radical philosophy. For the impetus for the creation of planning was an over-dependence on copy-testing persuasion scores, the abuse of rigid qualitative research methodologies, and a shortage of decent market data.
Account planning in other words, was borne of a frustration at the way research was being used in agencies. King and Pollitt were driven by the desire to create a way of working where the primary use of research was consumer understanding in the service, as Paul Feldwick has put it, of “intelligent strategy and creative communication”.
It aimed to expose and dismantle stifling and unhelpful research methodologies.
It devoted itself to developing a real and rounded understanding of the consumer, rather than simply selecting and polishing selling propositions.
It sought to place thinking about the response of the consumer at the heart of strategic and creative thinking.
It shifted the focus of advertising development from finding ways of selling people stuff, to finding ways of making stuff buyable.
And it placed the quest for effectiveness above all other agendas, both internal and external.
So where, forty-six years later, does account planning find itself today?
In parts of our industry it is in rude health, with sharp, brilliant, imaginative minds helping shape innovative and effective solutions to clients’ business issues. The APG’s Creative Strategy Awards and the IPA’s Effectiveness Awards both provide invaluable evidence of how intelligent, creative thinking can yield fresh ideas that move businesses.
Yet planning in many other quarters feels like a photocopy of a photocopy - reproduced, but with much of the original clarity lost.
In fact there is a palpable sense of confusion, uncertainty and anxiety within the planning community. We speculate whether planning is merely a subset of UX, whether marketing has been replaced by growth hacking, whether (God help us) the creative brief format should change, whether the big idea has been rendered obsolete by the small idea, and we entertain advice on what planning ‘should’ be by people with the flimsiest of strategic credentials.
Moreover, there is no sense that planners share a common philosophy, let alone a common body of accumulated marketing knowledge. So to confusion, uncertainty and anxiety, we can also add ignorance.
Turning to survey the role of planning within agencies we have the planner as creative apologist and ‘strategic setup’ writer. As translator of client briefs into something coherent and workable for creatives. As articulator of other people’s ideas. As powerpoint jockey. As trend spotter. As bad creative with a big vocabulary. As cheerleader for ‘innovation’. As conference speaker and panelist. As politician and manager of client relationships. As speculator about what the future holds. As salesperson for agency capabilities.
However valuable these contributions might be, none of them represent the core purpose of account planning. Alone they are planning distracted, and domesticated.
Now I am not suggesting that everybody in this room is guilty of all of this. The fact that you here are all members of the APG is a pretty good indication that your hearts and priorities are in the right place. Nonetheless, there are bad habits and behaviours, and there are plenty of planners outside this room that are guilty of indulging in them. They discredit the discipline, make it weaker, and jeopardize the possibility of great work.
And that is (to indulge in understatement) a pity, for the world brims with opportunity. New consumers are beginning to find the fruits of the marketplace within their reach and means for the first time. Technology is turbocharging, amplifying, and accelerating our Stone Age instincts, It is rewiring how businesses do business, and how they connect with consumers. New industries are emerging, entirely new business models are being created, and new players are disrupting and even obliterating old businesses. As it has always done, the world teems and swirls with the complexity and opportunity that always attends creative destruction.
If planning is to help businesses adapt, survive, and prosper in this world, it must regain its sense of purpose, and go back to its future as a radical movement.
Now by ‘radical’ I do not mean mean wayward, destructive, or self-consciously hip - coming from the Latin radicalis, meaning root, the original use of ‘radical’ meant going to the root, or essence. Planning in other words, was (and at its best continues to be) about going to the root of the matter. It was about asking questions - the obvious yet unasked, the awkward, the penetrating, the fresh and unexpected. It appreciated the fundamental truth that creativity begins with questioning.
Without radicalism - without the desire and tenacity to ask the smart, challenging, hard, good, fundamental and penetrating questions, without the interest, ability and fearlessness to get to the root of things - we cannot hope to produce intelligent strategy and effective creative communication. No amount of lateral thinking, digital savviness, powerpoint, eloquent brief writing, and hanging out with creatives can make up for that.
So some thoughts with on what radical planning takes seriously.
In a world characterized by constant change and innovation, planning will be knowledgeable about the fundamental principles of marketing and communications.
It is breathtaking how little planning knows about how businesses actually make money, and how brands grow and are sustained. It is equally depressing how uninterested many planners appear to be in any of this today. Planners who find this stuff too tedious, or beneath them, would probably be better off advising production companies, than advising clients on how to address their business issues.
In contrast, radical planning will take a keen interest in how our clients actually make money - in the business behind our clients’ brands.
It will know about the relative profitability of increasing volume or price, the difference between short- and long-term effects, and the economics of promotions.
It will understand the fundamental patterns of buying behaviour so that it can translate business objectives into realistic marketing objectives.
And it will understand the relative contribution of penetration and loyalty to brand growth.
It will understand how people really make decisions, and it will understand how people influence each others’ decisions.
It will understand the different ways that people process communications, from low to high attention processing, and the strengths and weaknesses of each.
It will understand how people respond to the same communications in different contexts (and on different devices), and why they will screen them out in some contexts and pay close attention in others.
And while the body of knowledge so far is not extensive, it will try and understand how communications affect people in ways that are not explicit.
Engagement, participation, loyalty, segmentation, differentiation… Marketing is full of myths, received wisdom, old wives’ tales, superstition, and zombie ideas (ideas that should have been killed by evidence, but which refuse to die). Too much of this is simply being accepted uncritically and unexamined, swallowed wholesale, and mindlessly regurgitated. So while enthusiasm for the new is one of the things that makes our industry such an endlessly stimulating one to work in, radical planning will understand that thoughtful examination is the necessary partner of enthusiasm, not its enemy.
Of course people don’t really need communications. They need brands and products that contribute to their lives. And so planning will seek to understand how people actually use and experience products and services - both the physical and the digital, how that makes them feel, and how this helps form habits that shape future behaviour. Indeed it will spend more time trying to understand how habits are formed than thinking about 'loyalty' or some other form of deep 'engagement'.
We work at the 'show-business' end of business, not the business end of show-business. If we want a future in which we add value and are valued, we’d better start being interested in and knowledgeable about what keeps the wheels of business turning.
Secondly - though surely it should be unnecessary to demand - planning will be knowledgeable about how ordinary people live.
95% of all that’s awful about the output of our industry stems I’d argue, from the fact that it operates as ‘Adland’. Because to operate in the tiny world of ‘Adland’ is to live and work in splendid isolation from all that surrounds us. It is to see ‘consumers’ not people; to worry more about the accolade of one’s peers than people in the real world; to be out of step with culture, both fast and slow; to create work according to ‘rules’ that have no foundation other than corporate solipsism; to breathe in an environment filled with the exhaust fumes of our own rhetoric; to find inspiration only in the output of ‘Adland’; and to judge our work against other advertising, rather than all other things that interest and excite people.
Now the notion of the planner as “voice of the consumer” has fallen for good reason into disrepute. It had come to legitimize marketing’s slavish following of consumer research. But we are in danger of replacing it with ‘the voice of adland’, which is just as terrifying.
Radical planning will not have forgotten that its role is to bring a knowledge of the outside world into creative process.
In providing that window onto the world outside adland, it will know the basic stuff about demographics, lifestyles, incomes, etc. But it will go beyond this, and occupy itself as much to understanding societal and cultural change, as it currently does to understanding the shifting technological landscape.
And it will understand that the real world can be very different from the cloistered confines of adland.
Now I’m old enough to remember when when planners moderated their own focus groups. If this did nothing else it confronted us with the fact that most people lived very different lives from ours. Today, for all our glut of data and for all our ‘listening tools’, a great many planners are spectacularly and completely out of touch with ordinary people.
Radical planning will recognize that the lives of the people it seeks to influence can often be very different from our own. In reconnecting itself with reality, it will seek to dismantle the insulating assumptions, rhetoric, borders and behaviours that isolate ‘adland’ from the real world.
And in doing so, it will finally accommodate itself to the fact that for most of the time, most people are not terribly interested in brands, and that our primary task is not the nurturing enthusiasm of the few, but overcoming the indifference of the many.
The landscape is evolving and changing rapidly, but planning will have a good working knowledge of people’s media behaviours.
When I started in advertising, the media choices would be between TV, outdoor, print, and maybe if you were feeling adventurous, a bit of radio. Communications planning since then has of course changed dramatically. Marketers today are faced with a truly dizzying array of options, choices, and potential media combinations. Indeed almost anything can be a medium.
This complexity is compounded by thethe explosion in the number of brands vying for consumers’ attention, and the endless tsunami of compelling, distracting, useful, or entertaining content that now surrounds us.
In this environment, gaining and sustaining competitive edge demands that imagination be married with a new degree of rigour and objectivity. As Kate Cox has observed, once upon a time media recommendations invariably began with the objective of “build rapid reach and frequency to raise awareness”. Today, the endless flexibility of digital interactions demands that we think through what each point of consumer contact does for a client’s brand and business.
However, there is in some parts of the planning community an almost wholesale ignorance as to the media diets and behaviours of different consumer segments. To some degree we can blame separation of the media function from the creative one. But it is not an excuse.
While it will not know more than the specialists, radical planning will have an understanding of the relationship people have with different media (in the broadest sense of the world) so that it can have useful and intelligent conversations with those experts.
It know the basics of what different channels, platforms, and devices can deliver - in terms of experience, audience, scale - as well as value to a brand and business.
For example, we talk about ‘second screening’, but exactly how many people do it, how much time do they spend doing it, when do they do it, and what are they doing on that second screen? Radical planning will know the answers because it will have got over the collective allergy or lack of interest in data that bedevils us today.
It will be able to distinguish intelligently between ‘wide’ channels that deliver reach and frequency and ‘deep’ channels that offer a more immersed consumer experience. And it will have the breadth of vision to appreciate that both can play a role.
And in contrast to our frequently naive response to media data and factoids, radical planning will be able to exercise a sense of proportion. It will be able to distinguish between apples and pears, and not fall for example, for comparing the audience delivered by a one-off broadcast with a video that has taken months and months to aggregate its views.
And it will be able to critique the sales patter of salespeople from, for example, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, etc. Certainly it would not have gushed quite so much at the 100m+ views that a certain three minute film garnered online. It would have known that this is tiny for a global phenomenon, and equates to about a 200 TVR campaign just in the UK. There’s really not much point us banging on about ‘big data’ if we cannot cope with this much smaller data.
And finally, radical planning will know the relationship between media investment and market share growth, and be able to have an informed voice in the setting of task-appropriate budgets.
Our ideas are nothing if they are not experienced by consumers, and mediating technology is increasingly part of the idea, rather than merely a delivery system for it. Planning must climb out of its pit of ignorance and begin to ask all the questions that communications and media planners have been asking for decades.
Andfinally, planning will be able to actually evaluate the effectiveness of the ideas it helps develop.
Our purpose is to help in the creation of work that works. And yet investigating how it worked in the marketplace is neglected by too many planners. How can we hope to have clients take creativity seriously - to encourage it, invest in it, and pay us for it - if we ourselves have absolutely no idea what its contribution to their business was?
Radical planning will take seriously evaluating the business impact of creativity.
Now evaluating communications responses - whether people saw it, remember it, liked it, etc. - is relatively easy. And of course people’s digital interactions give us even more things we can measure – searches, downloads, uploads, clicks, views, tweets, shares, likes, visits - the list goes on and on. All these things are easy to monitor and easy to count. They tend to move quickly, and they’re relatively easy to link to marketing activity. But despite our industry’s collective and frequently naive fixation with mindlessly counting these numbers, communications effects and media efficiencies are not evidence of effectiveness. Even if others do not, radical planning will grasp this distinction and understand that the end goal for clients is money and profit.
Properly radical planning will have a working knowledge of how to evaluate the effectiveness of our ideas.
It will know that short-and long-term effects are different kinds of communications responses, and it will know that they must be measured differently, over different time periods.
It will be aware that creativity is in all cases only one of the many factors, external and intrinsic, which may have driven sales or created a change in behaviour. So it will have an appreciation of how (I borrow here from the advice for entrants submitting cases to the Cannes Effectiveness Lions) distribution, pricing, competitive failure, share of voice, superior product performance, market monopoly, seasonality, price promotion, macro-economic pressure, cultural bias, legislation, average temperature, rainfall, force majeure, popular culture, fashion, politics are all potential factors in the fortunes of companies and the performance of brands, and that the influences on buying behaviour of consumers is almost infinite.
In working to identify the specific contribution of communications, it will know how to manually discount these factors.
It will have at least a working knowledge of the principles of econometrics.
And of course it will know that creativity makes money in different ways, whether that’s driving top-line sales, securing new distribution, supporting a price premium, reversing reputational damage, reducing the cost of sale, and so on.
If we really want to demonstrate to our clients that investing in creativity is good business (rather than just talk about it), then we must all take seriously the task of evaluating its business impact.
So, the fundamental principles of marketing and communications… how ordinary people live… media behaviours… and effectiveness. None of this is merely ‘nice-to-have’ theoretical knowledge - it has a direct bearing on what we choose to create. It shapes objectives, targeting, timing, channel and platform choices, investment levels, creative solution, and performance metrics. The fundamentals of what makes for good, effective planning have not changed.
Indeed the need for properly radical planning, for planning that has the intelligence, conviction, determination, and skills to involve itself in, ask, and address the fundamental questions is arguably more urgent than ever.
For while planning has long been obsessed with simplicity and reductionism, as Tracey Follows has noted, what clients really want is not so much help in coping with complexity, but certainty. Uncertainty can paralyze a business (think about all those corporations that have been amassing vast cash reserves) and surprise can jeopardize it.
Uncertainty is of course, a perennial challenge in business planning. But it’s probably fair to say that our world is volatile, complex and interconnected like never before.
Uncertainty of course cannot be eliminated. Risk is always the inescapable partner of return. But if planning is to help clients manage risk, then it must be radical.
So rather than be content with breezy confidence, a dollop of marketing buzzwords, some observations about the Zeitgeist, some references to Nike+, Zappos or other case study du jour, and some pretty powerpoint,it must commit itself getting to the very heart of things.
Now this is not to insist that the development of ideas is a linear and entirely rational process in which each step logically leads to the next. Nor is this to argue that rigour and radicalism are the only requirements for effective planning.
As Stephen King himself noted:
The whole process of advertising is not a safe, cautious, step-by-step build-up, because that would inevitably lead to me-too advertising for me-too brands.”
Hunch, gut, improvisation, lateral thinking, guess work, hypothesis, prejudice, intuition, even naiveté … they all have an essential and vital role to play in the development of strategy and ideas. Planners who fail to bring these elements to to the table are just as handicapped as planners who fail to bring to bear rigour and a desire to get to the root of the matter. Planners after all work with research, but in communications. As such their business is the same as everybody else’s - the application of imagination to clients’ business issues, helping create entirely new futures for our clients’ businesses and brands.
Planning then, is an essential part of the messy process, and is not just an upstream, conceptual discipline that does not get its hands dirty with the work. It is practical, pragmatic, and focused on execution, not mere abstraction.
However, without the skills and interest to get to the heart of the matter, planning is a body without a skeleton, and without this necessary infrastructure of knowledge and ability - without radical planning - we do ourselves, the work, and our clients a disservice.
Without planning that gets to the root of things, planning simply has no foundation. It speaks without authority, reduced to just another opinion - one everybody else is perfectly entitled to ignore. We are, after all, already over-supplied opinions.
Without radical planning, we also do creativity a disservice. We risk creativity being tasked with unreasonable, unrealistic, or inappropriate objectives, we deny the creative process the fuel of that old fashioned word, insight, and devoid of deep understanding, we render the development of successful ideas a roll of the dice.
And of course without radical planning we also do our clients a disservice.
At this point we should pause and shudder as we contemplate the fact that the average tenure of a CMO is now a paltry forty-three months.
The implications for the organisation are clear. Results (sometimes any results) must be delivered, and delivered quickly. Inevitably then, short-termism has become the scourge of the marketing world. And it is a scourge because real, significant, sustainable business results are felt in the longer term.
Only by getting to the root of things do we have any hope of helping clients set the right objectives, select the best tools, and marshal the appropriate level of resources. For as Laurence Green has observed:
Too often, our business has sliced and diced its tasks in the style of a sub-prime mortgage bundler. A corporate task set by the chief executive, reframed as a comms task by the marketing director, refined by the brand consultancy, and reduced by the ad agency to the stuff advertising can do: Grow awareness, nurture engagement. Too many links, too indirect and weak a connection between commercial possibilities and creative resolution.”
Without properly radical planning we - along with our clients - we will remain hostage to this kind of thinking and operating.
So if we want to take proper advantage of the ever-expanding canvas of creative opportunities, if we desire a broader application of creativity to clients’ business needs and issues, and if we are to go beyond only ever seeing and solving ad-shaped problems, then we must go beyond the merely superficial and apply ourselves more seriously to asking more, better, and different questions.
We should never forget that the emergence of planning as a discipline was driven by anger and indignation.
Anger at stifling and bogus research techniques.
Anger at spurious assumptions about how communications worked.
Anger at poor quality data that yielded no insight.
Anger at a research and marketing infrastructure that got in the way of work that worked.
The work and our clients today deserve this same degree of energy and fearless intelligence.
This same independence of thought.
This same commitment to cut through the self-serving rhetoric and rigour-free bullshit.
This same determination to look beyond the easy platitudes and lazy thinking.
This same relentlessly questioning spirit.
Planning is radical, or it is nothing.