Can Planning Save Adland?

Planners are creative generalists whose skills could be the industry's salvation. But unless agencies recognise their value, they could be lured away to other sectors, Russell Davies warns.

Planners tend to be over familiar with their own navels. There is something about the profession that has us constantly on the cusp of writing portentous articles called things like "Whither Planning?", in which we prophesy the end of our trade, lament the irrelevance of our skills and bemoan the decline in standards since the great days of the forefathers of planning, Stanley Pollitt and Stephen King.

If we are not doing that, we spend a lot of time debating whether "planning" is the best word to describe what we do. I hate all that. It's stupid.

I think planning is a fabulous trade that has never been more relevant, more necessary or more undervalued. And I think the advertising industry should care because planners are increasingly in demand as agency managers, as essential personnel for clients to deal with and, heaven forfend, as clients themselves.

So my purpose in this piece is to make some sweeping generalisations about the state of the business at the moment, to suggest that planning could be the salvation of a slightly parochial and tradition-bound industry and warn you all that, if you're not careful, all the good planners are going to bugger off somewhere else.

My excuse for writing this article is that I have just been involved in organising, judging and arguing about the Account Planning Group's Creative Planning Awards, which are a fabulous opportunity to peer under the hood and see how brand thinking actually happens nowadays. And, having spent six months at Nike and having worked on the brand for years, I am really starting to understand what should be obvious to everyone but is sometimes very hard for agency folk to internalise - advertising agencies don't have a monopoly on good ideas.

Most client organisations are full of imaginative, talented, creative people and they partner with all sorts of businesses to get even more good ideas. Agency planners are valuable to us because their skills and experiences have taught them to be good collaborators; they know how to work with people and ideas. They tend not to be precious about where the idea has come from. And, unlike many people in agency life, they have learned how to be good listeners. In the world we are all moving into - a world of client-based strategy and creativity, multiple agency partners and communications integrated across a wealth of media platforms - these will be increasingly important skills. So here are some things to think about.

New ways to add value

Remember the good old days of consultancy envy? Agencies looked at the influence and fees that companies such as McKinsey got and said: "Hey, we've got some speccy people who read books, we could do that."

Ever since then, the whole industry has tried to get as far upstream as it can. Agencies are continually trying to rebrand their planners as market analysts or something, and they are always presenting clients with intricate processes that emphasise how all the strategic problems will get solved way upstream, leaving nothing unpredictable to get in the way and giving the creatives a virtually open goal they just have to tap into.

I don't know why agencies persist in doing this. Personally, as a client, I feel I'm capable of analysing my own market. What I'd really like a planner to do is to help make the ads and stuff better.

What was refreshingly obvious from the APG judging process was that planners are happily ignoring the upstream myth and are going to where they can actually add value. Which means they are sailing up and down the stream like Ratty and Mole in pursuit of an insight. They're upstream, downstream, midstream, underwater and having a drink in The Riverside. They are doing all the traditional stuff but are also getting involved in art direction and casting, internal communications and every aspect of brand building.

And this is not just wannabe creative meddling. This is planners realising that the executional is strategic and that their responsibility extends beyond the creative brief.

I loved seeing this. It makes for better communications. It means planners have more interesting lives. It's the only way to do things these days.

Planners are managing ideas

When judging these things we were constantly asking: "But who actually had the idea? Was it you?" Because we felt we should be rewarding the person who had "the idea".

This is a prejudice we may have to abandon, and it may be something we have to change for the next awards because it is obvious that, in the modern world, ideas aren't really had by lone geniuses. They don't come from a clever planner in an ivory tower or a genius creative team in a black box. The modern brand world is too complex for that. Ideas are turning up through teamwork, conversation and iteration. And that team includes the client, agency people, other partners and random people like consumers.

So it is probably unfair to punish planners for not having the idea.

We saw, in many instances, that planners were operating more like midwives.

They laboured to ensure the group delivered a healthy, vigorous idea, even if they didn't have it themselves.

This midwife role isn't something you read about in many planning textbooks, but it is one of the reasons why planners are so employable outside advertising these days - it is how most media and communications businesses operate.

Teams have ideas. Teams do strategy. Teams do execution. And knowing how to make that happen and how to swarm all over that process makes you very valuable.

Unconventional approaches

There has never been a huge canon of conventional planning wisdom. There is some shared language, some familiarity with TGI and focus groups, lots of Adam Morgan's Challenger Brands and some of Dru's Disruption.

Otherwise, most planners seem to base everything on the people and brands they have worked with, some dimly remembered training courses and lots of Malcolm Gladwell.

But every day a bit of conventional wisdom turns out to be a myth. Neurologists and psychologists destroy our basic assumptions about how communications work. Propositions are shown to be old-fashioned and unheard. Media proliferation upsets our campaign planning habits. Markets change before the SWOTS have been SWOTted. New research tells us that the ads people skip through are more effective than the ads they watch.

So a lot of traditional planning discipline has gone out of the window.

Which is both good and bad. The positive aspect is the liberating effect it has on some people. Unexpected solutions are more necessary than ever and many planners are finding the current strategic free-for-all just what they need to reinvent the way communications are made. But on a bad day, people are forgetting the basics.

When we throw out the bathwater of conventional wisdom, it's easy to lose the baby of hard-won experience. Yes, it's important not to be a slave to tools such as propositions and "reasons to believe" but, if you're going to dismiss them, you have to know why.

The gonzo model - dive in, busk your way through and see what happens - has its attractions; you get unexpected answers, useful tangents and a more interesting life. But you have to be really good to make it work.

Musicians have to know their scales before they can become great improvisers.

Many of the papers we did not shortlist were full of out-of-the-box imaginative thinking but lacked coherence and common sense. It was like listening to the worst free jazz - no ideas and no structure. Traditional jazz may be boring but at least you know what it's trying to do and when it may end.

Planners. Bless 'em

Whenever we get a non-planner involved as a judge on the awards, they always remark what generous and modest people planners are. Generous with credit, praise and ideas. They tend to contrast the convivial atmosphere with the backbiting and ferocity of creative awards. Which is nice.

But it's more than just nice. It's one illustration of why planners are so in demand by industries other than advertising. There are many others.

We also saw some incredibly tenacious and insightful research being done.

We saw planners get their hands dirty with art direction. We saw inspired media thinking and expansive total communications planning. We saw planners constructing new facts because the existing ones were not compelling enough.

We saw planners spot opportunities their clients had completely missed.

We saw planners leading and inspiring teams. And, refreshingly, we saw planning knowing when to get out of the way.

Planners are almost always the third most important people in any agency, which means we have to know how to collaborate. We learn that, to be effective, we have to surrender our own ideas. Or at least accept that we won't get any credit for them.

Planners have to bolt together disparate ideas and post-rationalise intuitive decisions. They have to be sensitive to consumers, to clients and to the multiple partners they work with. They stretch themselves across all sorts of brands, consumer groups and product categories. A decent planner can talk knowledgably about statistical significance, rotation effect, art direction, casting, projective techniques, neuroscience, interest rates, merchandising, onomatopoeia, transactional analysis, grime, the triple bottom line and Coronation Street.

Great planners are creative generalists who can apply themselves quickly and flexibly to all sorts of problems. That's why good planners are so hard to find. Everybody wants them.

Countless industries have realised that specialised craft skills are quite easy to come by, but the kind of generalised skills planners have are very rare. There are thousands of colleges turning out very talented creative writers, designers, film-makers, what have you. A mere handful are trying to create planners (and I would argue that planning's a thing you can only learn by doing). So planners are moving into lucrative and fascinating jobs within all sorts of strange and wonderful industries.

Some are even becoming clients.

This is something British advertising should be proud of. It invented this odd endeavour and now it's giving it to the world. But you should think about what you are giving away.

Diverse and effective solutions

The best thing about being a judge for these awards was realising that there are a million different ways to do good planning.

Almost every presentation highlighted an approach I just wouldn't have thought of. Some led with research, some with brand analysis, some with thinking hard about the consumer, some with the product, some with statistical analysis, some just dived in and fixed the art direction. But every solution worked. And these answers didn't arise because they were necessary solutions to the problem but because individual planners decided to do it that way.

In an industry that is plagued by earn-out-induced blandness, it is important to cherish this diversity of thinking (even as we lament the lack of other forms of diversity).

I'd suggest that planning directors, for instance, are more diverse than creative directors, less interchangeable and more revealing of the character of their agency. I suspect clients find the personality and working style of planners - rather than account people or creatives - instructive of the character of the agency.

Planners represent the accessible bit of the agency's thought process - the conscious mind of the organisation. The creatives are very often just a black box, the unconscious mind that you can't really get into.

And this means that planners are more emblematic than anyone else of what makes one agency's style of thinking different from another's.

There is an opportunity here for the industry. People such as Mark Earls of Ogilvy or Jim Carroll of Bartle Bogle Hegarty are doing better, more rigorous, more nuanced, more surprising thinking than many in the wider communications world, yet we insist on pushing the same few creative names to prominence (who then, predictably, bang on about big ideas and content being the new black).

What the future holds

Agencies could learn a lot from their planners. They should learn to listen. They should learn to share. They should learn to play nicely with others. Because modern communications are built by integrated, multidisciplinary teams of creative people, some of whom work for advertising agencies.

That's the future. And planners are making themselves valuable by getting to that future first.

- Russell Davies is the global planning director at Nike.

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