Media-neutral planning. The current "Holy Grail" of our industry.
We want it. We aspire to it. No other sort of planning can touch it. MNP is communications ecstasy.
Minor problem: none of us is capable of it. At least not credibly. At least not on our own. Some agencies, some clients, come close, some may even achieve it from time to time. We salute it when we see it, but we seem - thus far, anyway - incapable of bottling it, of institutionalising it.
At last Friday's Campaign and Marketing Media-Neutral Planning Conference, a reasonable stab at a definition was made. The conference was a grown-up gathering of senior agency people of all disciplines, a smattering of major clients, although, curiously, no media owner other than Royal Mail.
Philip Reddaway, the head of communications planning at Carat, opened proceedings with the assertion that "interruption advertising" is eroding fast. He said MNP is about "a broader canvas" that covers "all consumer touch points". Proper MNP also demands "the insightful allocation of resource to solve business problems". He was the first of several speakers during the day to feel uncomfortable with the very term media-neutral planning. "Planning" was OK, but "neutral" came in for some pasting - not least in several unfavourable references to Switzerland. "Media" fared not much better: too limiting.
Laura Jones of Leo Burnett stretched the definition further. MNP is about finding a driving "idea", something that governs the detailed execution across the whole palette of marketing communications techniques. It was definitively not, she said, about a brand "look" or making an advertising campaign "work" across other disciplines.
Gwen Raillard, an account planner at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, told the story of the Lynx Pulse launch, explaining that what the agency had tried to do for the brand was "create a phenomenon".
With all this defining going on, I was still unsure that we really had a firm fix on MNP. It is certainly easier to point to what it isn't rather than what it is. Much of the conference had passed before significant mention was made of the consumer. And yet here, it seemed to me, lay some fundamental truths about MNP. Kate Watts, the head of knowledge management at Chime Communications, providing a fresh insight from a public relations angle, made the point that consumer "trust" is changing. We have moved from a "deference to a reference" society and from commercial messages based on "influence rather than awareness". She criticised the assumption that most marketing problems were problems of awareness and stressed the need for measurement techniques to be addressed across the totality of brand activity or what she called the "alchemy of effects".
The consumer case for MNP was strongly echoed by Jones. She reminded us that today, consumers are bombarded with information, that while they are media-rich they are time-poor, and that to be attractive brands need consistency of message. Moreover, consumers' marketing savvy means that they instinctively know when a brand gets it wrong, when its behaviour is out of keeping with its personality.
So, MNP is about planning unfettered by preconceptions and executional bias, and it is about providing consumers with an all-round brand experience. This seems to accord with much current thinking about what is variously called integrated communications planning or total communications.
Perhaps the main issue then is more to do with how to achieve MNP than what it is. This is where theory and practicality come unstuck. There is a tension between the growing numbers of specialist agencies clamouring for a seat at the strategic top table. They each, after all, have commercial turf to defend. And on this point, the conference contributors were as one.
Don Cowley, of Langham Works and the co-author of a forthcoming book on MNP (The Communication Challenge), said the key was for agencies to work together and abandon their silos. We all have to be media-neutral - not just the media people. Reddaway stressed the need for collaboration with media owners, and the need for planning to be fee-based rather than commission-based. Jones, presenting a case history on Philips, described the creation of a multi-disciplined team charged with responsibility for the big idea. Team members need to be senior, confident, respectful and capable of taking the brief without prejudice. Raillard expressed the need for "soft skills" such as generosity and flexibility, of being connected and networked, of mutual respect.
Above all, the client needs to be involved. No, not involved - committed.
Jones described how Philips had told its agencies to "stop bickering, work together and sort out my problem". This she called "co-creation" rather than MNP.
I came to feel during the course of the conference that collaboration was at the heart of the MNP conundrum. Ironically, we now live in a marketing world that demands greater and greater accountability and effectiveness and has spawned more and more specialists to help achieve them, but which seems to have fewer and fewer certainties. Advertising or PR or direct marketing alone cannot be the whole answer. We need to strive harmoniously together for the best solutions.
Rory Sutherland, OgilvyOne's executive creative director, made, to my mind, the most compelling articulation of the debate. He said MNP was a creative thing, a brave and lateral leap taken jointly by all key partners (including the client) - and very early in the process. Leave it any later and you will have unwittingly biased the answer and undermined that precious and Grail-like neutrality.