Feature

Planning ahead

Campaign invited five prominent planners to engage in a blog debate about the future of the discipline and where its practitioners and agencies are currently going wrong.

23 September 2007

Lucy Jameson wrote:

I'm in Shanghai at the moment, having just finished running DDB's global creative and planning conference. Apart from feeling as if I have permanent kidney damage and worrying about skyscraper e-mails, all of which need to have their windows cleaned, I can't help feeling a little excited.

I'm looking down (yes down) on the Oriental Pearl TV Tower from a room high up in the Hyatt. It feels like every cliche from Lost In Translation to Blade Runner. When you look at a view like this, you can't help but feel the future lies outside of London.

Here, there are digital billboard ships ploughing their way up and down the river, and last night everything was ablaze with lights. Environmental issues aside, it's phenomenal. I would love to be able to get my hands on those boats and do something truly spectacular with them, rather than let them just gently meander around. And you get the feeling that here, you could.

So far, the planners I've met out here are picking up things incredibly fast, with a voracity I've never seen in London. Here they want to try everything out - whether that's law, advertising or banking. The downside is that the talent often has paper-thin experience, but the upside is that they don't have the baggage or the same sense of silo and departmental working as we do.

They may just be the ones who help us leapfrog this boring stage of arguing about whether digital planners, creative agency planners or channel planners are the most important.

They don't care about the distinctions. They are just trying it all.

24 September 2007

Nikki Crumpton wrote:

Lucy is right about one thing: the future of planning is not going to be about monikers. That's a non-issue. The future of planning lies in its ability to continue to do what it has always done, and that is to find interesting and engaging ways of connecting with consumers. It just so happens that we now have more opportunities to do this. The problem I grapple with is how we make planners with different skills work more closely together.

I'd be interested to know whether anybody thinks we should be pairing planners rather than persisting in bifurcating them. Surely it's not possible to be an expert or superplanner, but there is an opportunity to create dynamic and insightful planning teams which develop strategic ideas together.

24 September 2007

David Hackworthy wrote:

I like the idea that planning becomes more of a task-based discipline, where you seek the expertise you need when and where you need it. The traditional brand guardian would not be necessary to hold the account team's hand every step of the way.

You could have a more business- minded account team calling the shots, bringing in planning as needed. Planning becomes more of a value-added discipline, and you get the best thinking for the job.

You may have fewer planners on the staff, but access to a greater pool of talent outside that comes on board as needed. You become free to find new ways of doing things each time and planners can be more focused on what they are each good at. It doesn't work so well with the classic process-driven, cost-plus, staff-heavy network model, which is a good thing from where I sit.

24 September 2007

Lucy wrote:

Greetings again. I now have very grubby feet, but a full glass.

From my perspective, I think that the upside of a big network is that you have the luxury of being able to hire a whole host of people and put them together to work on different projects. That way they pick up different skills and outlooks.

We run most of our pitches and a lot of big projects with hothouses these days ... that way, you can pull in a few different planners and some creatives from different backgrounds and countries, too.

25 September 2007

Nikki wrote:

I totally agree with David. We worry at the business model of an agency from the point of view of who's going to get the biggest slice of our clients' fees, when the answer is in being more focused on getting paid for what we produce.

I like the idea of planners who are more project-based from three perspectives: 1. Clients get what they want when they need it, not when they don't; 2. I think this plays to a planner's true strength, which is to solve problems; and 3. It forces a more entrepreneurial attitude, in the sense that you would sniff out the interesting problems across accounts like good creatives hunt down the quirky hard briefs.

I think entrepreneurialism is going to become an increasingly important quality in planners as we move through the next decade, and is certainly a quality I'm seeking in interviews.

We are going to need them not just to help clients innovate and open up new ways of growth, but we are also going to look to them to do that within our own industry.

27 September 2007

David H wrote:

Entrepreneurial planning. Sounds good. Anything that breaks down the slavish adherence to process is a good thing. I like the idea that strategic planning is essentially an oxymoron ... that you can only invest in preparedness and building an environment for creative accidents to happen (I am paraphrasing Henry Mintzberg here).

There is way too much effort put into codifying the planning process these days, rather than mixing up rigour and creativity to come up with original ideas.

Because planning is still a means to help develop great creative work, in whatever form it comes, I think the best planners in the future will be working where the best creative work is being made.

27 September 2007

David Bain wrote:

A bit late to this debate. Rather than get up to speed with your conversation, I think I will have a bit of a rant into the digital darkness.

Lately, I am more often than not furious with planning and planners (except my own dear planners at BMB, of course). I am exasperated by a planning culture that too often stands outside the tent of our industry, smugly pissing in: a semi-detached planning, best typified by the planning department of one of the great American agencies, which has a section on its blog called "Ad Agency Death Watch". As they post away, their own agency is slowly dying.

This summarises a culture that is in love with the next new thing, be it user-generated content or social networking, but has little apparent interest in finding its commercial application. I see a culture failing to participate in its own future, happy to play it safe at the margins.

Planners need to shed their ironic T-shirts and take responsibility for the fate of their own industry. They need to become players, not merely commentators. The old culture of the cardigan and the graph is being replaced by an equally aloof breed of planners who are happier to spend time on Facebook than they are working out how a brand can make money from it.

I want to see a new type of planning, driven by passion, engagement and creativity, peopled by doers, not critics - because what we do matters more than ever. Clients and agencies need engaged and imaginative people to help them chart the way through an exciting future. The planner's ability to imagine a more profitable future for a brand matters too much to be left to people whose minds are elsewhere.

27 September 2007

Nikki wrote:

I think planners will always move towards the places where great creative work is done, but I think the way in which planning is developing that work is becoming a far more active role. If I think about what clients need from planning today, compared with ten years ago, it would be strategic energy and action, rather than ponderous intellectualising.

Our time-frames for thinking are shrinking, while our canvas broadens. Strategic ideas that can be formulated and expressed quickly and creatively mean we are probably looking for a far more dynamic set of character traits than previously. We are in an environment where we need to "idea-smith" rather than wordsmith, and that's a huge leap forward.

At the same time, I don't think this is happening at the expense of rigour. In fact, the pressure to read data and analyse it quickly is increasing in order to deliver those strategic thoughts. So, seeking out that energy is mission-critical for any agency of the future.

27 September 2007

David H wrote:

On Bain's points, he's right. It's only us planners who would endlessly debate whether blogging about planning is killing planning. Sounds like the US planning group that used to have conferences like "Is planning overprescribed?". There's so much we can actually do, rather than talk about, today, and getting down and dirty with businesses, shaking them from their safety nets and getting brave work out the door is where the action is.

Entrepreneurs do stuff, and so should entrepreneurial planners - like getting out of the dying networks and into the places where they are more likely to live and die on each day's work.

27 September 2007

Lucy wrote:

Yes, energy is mission-critical. And, no, I don't have any more of that today.

So, given my rants about the blogosphere being full of people with nothing interesting or well informed to say, I'm going to shut up until I can think straight.

27 September 2007

David B wrote:

Hack, give the big agencies a break, they serve a useful purpose in training good people for us to steal later.

28 September 2007

David H wrote:

Fair enough, just trying to get a reaction.

28 September 2007

Andy Nairn wrote:

Hello all. As a late entrant to this conversation, I have the privilege of being able to piggyback on all the smart ideas above.

On this front, I really like Nikki's idea of planning as a form of entrepreneurialism.But at the risk of dancing on pinheads, I'd quibble as to whether this involves an extension of planning's traditional "problem solving" role.

To me, problem solving suggests too much finality and certitude: as if brands can be defined in an absolute, rigid way, in perpetuity. I agree that this is often how planning has operated in the past, but as we all know, consumers are creating and changing brands themselves. So maybe we should be looking for planners to create opportunities instead: flexible frameworks, which consumers can add to themselves. This is closer to the idea of entrepreneurialism, but a shift in the way that planning has traditionally worked, which will involve new skills - relinquishing control, accepting constant change, and acknowledging that planning in the literal sense is less possible.

I'm also interested in how little "effectiveness" is discussed in planning circles these days, especially among younger planners. Sure, it's implicit in a lot of our conversations, but I worry that it's being relegated to secondary importance, behind all the "more exciting" talk about emerging communications models and processes. It's almost as if the means are more important than the ends.

Surely accountability has to have a central place in any future vision of planning? It would be strange if, at a time when clients were increasingly demanding it, planning abdicated this territory to concentrate on "sexier" stuff. As in the past, the great planners of the future will be those who can not only develop great ideas, but prove the value of those ideas afterwards.

28 September 2007

Lucy wrote:

Why have planners totally ceded control or interest in research to clients and the research industry?

Bad research isn't going to go away, but we can't seem to be bothered to tackle it these days, nor do we seem to spend any time thinking about better, more interesting ways of finding out about what people really believe and do.

There is all this amazing new technology and academic insights about the brain and neuroscience, but we seem to have walked away from this space, in favour of being the creative's best friend or, as David B says, fiddling on Facebook.

I know it's not fashionable, but surely part of our job is trying to predict what people will do? I think that requires some properly thought-through research, not just vapid speculation by three trainer-spotters and a dog from Hoxton.

I see far too many planners who are just interested in what's fashionable and can't be bothered to think through things from first principles. Nor can they be bothered to think about how they could test out their intuition and instincts.

I think the planners of the future need to get back in touch with some of this type of thinking. There is so much interesting work being done by academics out there and we are ignoring it.

As for the usual rants about big agencies, frankly I'm bored by them. One of the best things about big agencies is that you have loads of stimulating people with whom to talk every day. I suspect that's why you'll not find many big agency people spending time in the blogosphere. We have access to a multitude of different talents and opinions en route to the coffee machine. Smart people want other smart people around them to talk to. The best big agencies can provide that. It makes it fun to come into work every day.

I can't imagine somewhere else where I would have the brainpower of some of the best digital people, econometricians, connections planners and direct planners all within one corner of a building, happy to share their thinking.

28 September 2007

David B wrote:

I think accountability culture matters, not simply because it sounds so very, very grown up, or even because it gives credibility to the economic value of creativity. It matters because it trains planners in the art of not taking shite.

The discipline of the "null hypothesis" teaches us important lessons about the robustness of arguments that we should apply elsewhere. A lot of the pop-culture anthropology that passes for planning fails to ask itself tough questions about the truth of its pronouncements. It fails to try to falsify its own arguments (sending your man Karl Popper spinning in his grave).

So, for example, many prominent planners would have it that we live in a "post-consistency" age in which brands should positively seek to diversify their communications, becoming more eclectic, interesting and surprising as a result. This is an exciting hypothesis for agencies as we get to do more ideas. After all, we are often bored by consistency.

But let's try to falsify that hypothesis. We needn't look far. Take O2, that paragon of militaristic consistency, and wonder if it makes nonsense of such absolute pronouncements. It is more contingent, and each strategy and communications approach is almost entirely bespoke. Sometimes it is right to mix it up, sometimes it is right to give the brand police big sticks.

So, truth matters in planning, and the rigours of accountability teach us to be truthful and avoid seductive but lazy habits of mind.

28 September 2007

Lucy wrote:

I'm finally going to respond to one of Nikki's earlier posts.

At the moment, we are trying two things. We are pairing up planners on accounts - with digital and brand planners (I refuse to call them "traditional") working together on a project, or direct and brand planners working together. And we are swapping people out of their disciplines - putting some brand planners to work on pure digital projects and vice versa, with the proviso that they have proper mentors as a sounding board. That way they can get a good grounding in other disciplines and expand their skills pretty fast.

Personally, I don't believe that one planner will ultimately be able to do everything, but I do believe we need to be far better generalists than we currently are.

I think McKinsey has a good model. It has a bunch of generalist consultants who do most of the work on pretty much any project. It also has specialists on particular industries or issues, who can be brought in for short periods for the more detailed stuff, or for very specialist projects. It acknowledges that one person can't do absolutely everything, but makes sure that it trains the generalists to be able to do most things.

The problem for agencies is that, if we are really honest with ourselves, we don't have skilled enough generalists. We don't always know how to get the best out of other disciplines or how and when to involve them most effectively.

That's why we still need to go through a phase where we overinvest and either pair people up or use mentoring systems.

28 September 2007

David H wrote:

It's hard to change strategy without changing structure. We are all talking about evolving how we think about strategy, but it is embarrassing that there is so little structural change in our industry.

I admire Lucy's attempts at mixing things up, although the negative rants about networks would stop if one of them genuinely changed the way people worked together on a global level - something as significant as Bernbach putting the art director and the copywriter together for the first time, or the introduction of an account planning department.

28 September 2007

Andy wrote:

Reading back on this, are we being too harsh on the new generation of planners? Now that we've ranted about a worrying lack of commercial rigour or interest in accountability, what about celebrating their good points?

At the risk of over-generalisation, I'd say many have a refreshing sense of idealism, a sense that communications really can change the world for the better. This belief, that brands should give as well as take, and that profits and principles are not incompatible, should serve planners well in future, given changing consumer attitudes.

The flipside is that, if the industry doesn't harness this idealism, we might lose out on some great talent. Returning to the original question - where will the best planners find themselves in the future? - I'd say that ethical consultancies are attracting some of our brightest thinkers right now, to the detriment of the "mainstream" industry. And this will continue, so long as advertising is used as an attempt to obscure poor corporate behaviour.

As David B says, it's time for planners (and brands) to tell the truth.

28 September 2007

David B wrote:

Andy, you are a much nicer man than me. My ire isn't aimed at young planners. I believe, with Whitney, that they are our future. But I believe that the planers of our generation must evolve or die.

King and Pollitt invented planning, Feldwick, Duckworth et al improved it, and we ain't done much since. You are right to bring us back to the brief though. If planners take responsibility - for their agency, their industry and for their ideas - then their brand of more abstract imagination will be useful almost anywhere that creativity and commerce meet.

In truth, planning is a disposition and a habit of mind that has always existed in advertising, in all its forms. Sometimes it is people called planners who are good at that way of thinking, sometimes it is not.

Anyway, it's now Friday, so I am going to try to be less bilious by the weekend.

28 September 2007

Nikki wrote:

Sorry everybody that I haven't been in the debate today. It's hard to disagree with anyone on anything on this blog because it's all true. Yes, we have to be accountable, yes, we have to be creative, yes, we have to be brilliant at research, and yes, we have to be energetic and entrepreneurial.

But while I know all these things make up the planner of the future, and are essential to how we are perceived in the wider community, I look at that list and think that, actually, it's not planning that needs to evolve, but mankind to keep up with it and perform such an all-encompassing role.

I don't mean that to sound defeatist, but I'm wondering if there is such a thing as a total planner. Planning departments need to be more holistic rather than expect people to be so (back to the clever pairing of skills).

And if these superbeings do exist, then we need to start paying them a living wage. I agree with Lucy - we should really look at the investment levels we are currently putting into them to encourage total planning in the individual.

If the planning of the future can be all of the above and more, then planners need not worry about becoming obsolete, but they might want to think about how they acquire new planning powers and force the hand of people like me to ramp up the debate.

28 September 2007

David H wrote:

A seminal planner once cautioned me that planning is all about getting to the "right" answer.

That's rubbish. There are always so many ways to answer things - that's what is so fun. The creative process is an iterative one.

MEET THE BLOGGERS

- Lucy Jameson, Executive strategy director, DDB London

Thinks: In big agencies you have loads of stimulating people to talk to every day, which is why we don't spend much time in the blogosphere.

- Nikki Crumpton, Executive planning director, McCann Erickson

Thinks: I like the idea of planners who are more project-based. It forces a more entrepreneurial attitude as you would sniff out the interesting problems.

- David Hackworthy, Partner, The Red Brick Road

Thinks: Planning should be more of a task-based discipline, where you seek the expertise you need where and when you need it.

- David Bain, Planning partner, Beattie McGuinness Bungay

Thinks: I am exasperated by a planning culture that is uncritically in love with the next new thing, but has little interest in its commercial application.

- Andy Nairn, Planning director, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

Thinks: Effectiveness is being relegated to secondary importance, behind all the "more exciting" talk about emerging communications models and processes.

DEBATE IN BRIEF

- "The planners I've met in Shanghai are picking up things incredibly fast, with a voracity I've never seen in London. Here they want to try everything out - whether that's law, advertising or banking" - Lucy Jameson

- "The future of planning is not going to be about monikers. It lies in its ability to continue to do what it has always done, and that is to find interesting and engaging ways of connecting" - Nikki Crumpton

- "Entrepreneurial planning. Sounds good. Anything that breaks down the slavish adherence to process is good. I like the idea that strategic planning is essentially an oxymoron" - David Hackworthy

- "The old culture of the cardigan and the graph is being replaced by an equally aloof breed who are happier to spend time on Facebook than working out how a brand can make money from it" - David Bain

- "Surely accountability has to have a central place in any future vision of planning? It would be strange if, at a time when clients are increasingly demanding it, planning abdicated this territory to concentrate on 'sexier' stuff" - Andy Nairn.

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