“Planning is the voice of the consumer.”
The stock, clichéd, answer to the question “what do agency planners do?”
Well, in addition to being stock and clichéd, it also remains true. It is accurate but not wholly so. The truth but not the whole truth.
An effective planner these days speaks with many voices, representing many valuable agendas. I can think of six, which I have outlined below. These are roles that, in my view, sit most comfortably with Planning. Not uniquely maybe, but definitely most comfortably.
The voice of the consumer.
I can’t add to this. It’s where planning came in. Martin puts it well in his post;
It [planning] 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.
The fundamental job of planning was to care about the people on the receiving end. It still is. In fact this role has become more important rather than less. At my agency the User Experience (UX) discipline sits across the Design and Planning departments. UX and service design are defined by caring about the human beings on the receiving end. UX planners are the voice of the user.
And God knows the consumer needs a voice when brands stubbornly, stupidly (still!) take their broadcast, message-based, advertiser mindset into social media. Good social media planners are the voice of the otherwise occupied and the not easily impressed.
The voice of the consumer set the agenda for planning. We care about things that matter, but which often get overlooked. And people, whether you call them consumers, users or followers are the prime example.
The voice of commercial purpose. (The voice of “Why?”)
Planners are strategic thinkers. Planners “do” strategy.
And strategy is just a plan for how to achieve a set of goals.
Unfortunately it is all too common for planners to dive straight into the plan without thinking hard enough about the goals.
Our industry has a dangerous habit of confusing means with ends. Advertising is treated as an end in its own right, rather than a means to achieve some higher commercial purpose. So we jump straight in and start planning advertising without thinking long or hard enough about defining the problem.
There is an insidious assumption that advertising, PR, direct marketing, social media or whatever means the agency is set up to peddle is always the solution. The answer’s advertising, now what’s the question?
But how a problem is framed has a huge influence on the quality of the solution. This is obvious, simple, but far from easy to do well. Our industry is so obsessed with its output that we don’t pay enough attention to the quality of input. Namely defining problems that deserve and lend themselves to great solutions.
Don’t be a planner of pointless campaigns.
Don’t be the hapless strategist caught holding the mouse when the client CEO oh-so-innocently asks, “Just remind me why we’re doing this.”
Front load your thinking to ensure that your means lead to valuable ends.
Be the voice of commercial purpose.
The voice of how it works. (The voice from under the bonnet.)
I used to play ping pong every week with a computer science professor. He was a very smart, no-nonsense guy. I told him about my tendency to ask a lot of questions, and how it was sometimes a bit much. What he told me has stuck with me till today: some of the smartest people I know ask some of the dumbest questions I’ve heard. Because they want to be absolutely, 100 percent sure that they get it.
I studied chemical engineering at university. I am hard-wired to insist on knowing how things work. To the point that not knowing is stressful. I need to know how things work at a mechanical level, but also in terms of the fundamental physics. And I brought this under-the-bonnet curiosity with me to advertising.
I have never been satisfied with the trite “if they like the ad they’ll like the brand” school of how advertising works. I want to know the fundamentals, the psychology and the neuroscience.
Back in the 90’s Allan Leighton, CEO of Asda, was vilified by the creative community for proclaiming his love of “wallpaper” advertising. But if you read what he said he was just an intuitive proponent of low involvement processing. Low Involvement Processing is a model of advertising planning based on theories about how the subconscious effects of advertising can be more powerful than the conscious. It is most associated with Robert Heath, with whom I had the pleasure of working on a Standard Life campaign back in the day. Leighton understood that unwavering adherence to the catchy Asda Price jingle alongside the pocket-patting visual mnemonic would indelibly associate his brand with value in the eyes of the shopping public. As CEO he cared passionately about Why and had strong (well informed) opinions about How.
Sadly, scientific rigour is not as common as you’d expect in an industry that, in the eyes of a cynical public, is all about the manipulation of minds.
There is the same apathy around the question of “How will it work?” as there is around “Why are we doing this?”
Maybe there is less of this assumptiveness latterly, now that the fields of neuroscience and behavioural economics have become more mainstream topics in client and planning circles. But if planning doesn’t concern itself with these things, no-one else in the agency will. It should be an important part of the job.
The voice of precision
It drives me nuts how sloppy and imprecise the language of strategy has become.
Planners should say what they mean and mean what they say. Unfortunately this is another thing that sounds simple in theory but which is not easy in practice. Some very bad habits have set in and infected the whole industry.
Here are but three examples.
Most brands do not come anywhere close to having a “community” as I would define it. Talking at people who have foolishly liked your Facebook page is not a conversation with your community. You need genuine fans to have a community. Pop stars and sports teams, entities that people genuinely care about, have communities. The fans talk to each other about the entity, away from the entity’s spaces, when the entity is not present. The vast majority of brands, with notable exceptions like Harley Davidson, just don’t have communities. So don’t kid yourself that they do or can.
Return On Investment (ROI) is a percentage figure based on money earned in relation to money spent to earn it. There is no other acceptable definition. It is perfectly acceptable to define alternative currencies in which to measure success. But don’t talk ROI unless you’re talking money.
And don’t even get me started on engagement. I presented a chart to a client marketing department recently that had a non-exhaustive list of verbs, each of which is a form of “engaging”. There were thirty words on that chart. There is always a more precise, less ambiguous way to explain your desired outcome than “engagement”. All forms of the word are banned in my department. The casual use of engage, engaging, engagement remind me of the infuriating use of “like” by my teenage daughters. We like say engagement like all the time but because it like means like everything it like therefore means like nothing.
Being the voice of precision can make you appear pedantic at times but rare is the strategy that wouldn’t benefit from a heavy dose of constructive pedantry. Your strategy will be much more effective and your evaluation frameworks much more useful if you dedicate yourself to precisely defining your terms.
The voice of creative opportunity.
This is why I’d rather be a planner than a strategist. This is where the rubber hits the road. I don’t think I could work in an environment where the strategy didn’t get turned into something. Something elegant and effective, something the agency can point at and say “we did that”. A fully rounded agency planner needs to know how strategy begets creativity. She or he needs to know how to come up with a plan that both solves the commercial problem and provides a solid, liberating platform for the ideas people to work from.
That is not the same as making your strategies “creative”.
There is a lot of pressure within agencies to “own the thinking”. That is how people, particularly planners, impress and progress. This, in turn, creates its own pressure, a pressure to make the thinking “clever”. Which is fine as long as it doesn’t get too clever for its own good; up itself in other words. And this happens a lot. Intellectual onanism is the enemy of effective creative strategy.
I enjoy working with creative teams but I’ve never wanted to be “a creative”. I have a reasonable understanding after 25 years of what makes them tick, the really good ones that is. The really good ones have a strong intuitive sense of whether a strategy is sensible and sound or over-intellectual, wishful thinking bullshit. I try to provide the former.
At the creative end of the process I see the planner’s role as that of Sherpa. You do the heavy strategic lifting. You have a sense of mission. And you have enough creative nouse to guide the ascent. But at some point you’ve got to leave the guys to it and hope that they are good enough to make a spectacular push to the summit – on strategy but delightful and surprising.
The voice of context
Last and probably least is the voice of context. Least? How so? Context is a big deal in marketing communications right now. It has certainly been a hot topic at every conference or seminar I’ve attended recently.
And context is obviously important. The cultural context, the media context, the technology context in which our work lives should all have an influence on how the work is conceived and executed.
Context is also very interesting. Big numbers for technology adoption. “Insightful” cultural trends. Apparently seismic shifts in media consumption. Context provides colour to strategy and Powerpoint presentations.
The trouble is that context is easy. It’s easy to Google and it’s easy to “Magpie” from Twitter or a speaker’s conference slides. And it’s easy to agree with because it doesn’t mean anything until it is applied to the job in hand. So there is a very human temptation to place too much emphasis on it.
For my money, context is about nuance and fine tuning. Really powerful strategy, strategy with longevity, is based on more fundamental things. As Martin said in a brief Twitter exchange, “Context without something fundamental in the middle is just… waffle.”
So by all means by the voice of context, but keep context in perspective.
Done well, planning is highly valuable. A planner who consistently masters these voices will tend to be the most important voice of all in the eyes of the client – The voice of “Getting It”. Clients occasionally say things like, “So and so just gets it”. And that’s the kind of language a client uses when they would move their business to follow you.