Opinion: Perspective - The time is right for planners to enter the limelight

I've just spent two days closeted in Shoreditch judging the Account Planning Group Awards: a gruelling schedule of back-to-back live presentations, all analysed with the rigour you'd expect from the industry's intelligensia.

Gruelling, but invigorating and rather inspiring. Planning, I can report, is moving more centre-stage as the industry grapples with change.

And, yes, that was surprising to hear. Agencies don't talk about their planning much. In all my meetings with agencies, creatives are the heroes, the reel is the focal point, and the planning sits quietly in the corner not saying much and not being asked to say much.

Perhaps it's that way because most clients, really, don't care much about planning. At least I've never met one who praised all the planning insight that went into the beautiful ad campaign they're so proud of.

Effectiveness may be marketing's holy grail, but planning's contribution to that process remains largely obscured by an industry sometimes too obsessed with the end product. Planners are rarely very visible and rarely celebrated. But two days in the bosom of the APG tilted the lens.

As the communications industry continues to explore new routes to the consumer - digital ones, mobile ones, editorial ones - planning is often inspiring the change and driving the opportunities for newer, better work. And in doing so, planning is fostering a new body of case studies for the industry to learn from. Which is another great thing about planning: its collaborative nature. And I don't just mean planning's ability to provide a glue in an increasingly complex and multi-disciplinary creative approach. Planning's generosity in sharing ideas and learnings with competitors and the industry at large is also alive and well.

Talking of generosity, the APG judges were much more supportive and enthusiastic about the great work we saw from overseas agencies than British creatives have been about their overseas peers in recent years. In fact, there were some humbling moments, when it was clear that British planning is not the world-beater it sometimes thinks it is; there is plenty to be learnt by planners here from the APG's international entries.

It was also interesting to note that there's a growing role for planners to focus on changing behaviour rather than attitudes, finding ways of using new technology to prompt action without (necessarily) having to go through the challenge of making them feel something first.

Amidst all the good stuff, though, it was obvious that the planning function is facing some real challenges. Like what exactly is it? Now I know this is the sort of question that navel-obsessed planners love to sit around and debate. But really it's a vital question for the whole industry to address.

At the APG judging we saw examples of planners as simplifiers, as producers, as perpetual editors of strategy, as translators of global ideas into local culture, as policemen. And sometimes it was really refreshing to see examples of planners as good old-fashioned investigators, passionately and exhaustively investigating an issue to create a climate where the right approach can be unearthed or recognised.

The APG's subtle but fundamental shift away from celebrating planners to celebrating planning is evidence of the complexities around the changing nature of the role. In a collaborative process, which advertising here must now be, it's harder than ever to isolate the role of a planner, or indeed any other discipline, in the process. The best work comes from seamless collective thinking.

Which is not to just say that individual job functions are blurring, though they are. The planner's role is broader and deeper than ever. The new landscape demands more specialist approaches and the days of one planner being able to learn it all are over. How agencies afford this depth of understanding and this range of talent is unclear. But the need to find ways of affording it are obvious.

claire.beale@haymarket.com.

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