At last, the new millennium has hit adolescence and we have an era with a half-decent name. The noughties never caught on. The tens were never going to work. But the teenies have a ring to them and will do nicely until the twenties hove into view.
So what will happen to planning in the teenies? To answer this question, I think we first have to ask a wider one. What will happen to advertising? It is fashionable, particularly among the start-up fraternity, to disown advertising – to focus not so much on what you are, but what you’re not. And what you’re not is an ad agency. Anything but. Advertising, schmadvertising. However, to paraphrase Adam Ant, if you don’t drink and you don’t smoke, what do you do? You can say you’re channel-neutral or, even, solutions-neutral. But since when did anyone come into work to be neutral? Unless they live in Switzerland, or certain parts of France, that is.
No-one talented comes into work to be vaguely agnostic about what they do. They come into work to do what they do best. And the good thing about being in an ad agency is that you know what you’re doing, and clients know what they’re buying, and there is an honest value exchange.
By advertising, I don’t mean TV and poster campaigns. There is a revisionist logic that suggests this is what advertising used to be (with a bit of press and radio thrown in). It wasn’t. And I should know because I’m old enough to have been there (albeit not as old as Adrian, Rooney and Ian). Sure, TV and posters were bigger levers then than they are today, but they were never an end in themselves. When HHCL did the "fourth emergency service" campaign for the AA, this was primarily an internal comms job. When Bartle Bogle Hegarty did Levi’s, they deliberately promoted the soundtrack, creating hit after hit in what would now be called content marketing. Good agencies and good planners 30 years ago were looking for something very similar to good agencies and good planners now – campaigns that created word of mouth, social currency, audience participation and deeper customer relationships as a result.
Of course, we now have many more weapons at our disposal. Social media, big data, mobile, eCRM, experiential, e-commerce, augmented reality, search, content, interactivity, apps etc have made a huge difference to the way we communicate. But I suspect they have made surprisingly little difference to something more fundamental, which is why we communicate in the first place. And this is the bit that planners are supposed to be good at. It’s called strategy.
In an uncharacteristic burst of preparation for writing this article, I asked all the planners at VCCP what they thought the future of planning might be. We have planners from a vast array of backgrounds, but the answer was fairly unanimous. The future would be more like the past. Great planning would increasingly be defined by great strategies, rather than the symptoms of great strategy, be this a mash-up, a flash mob, a cuddly toy, a number-one hit or a TV ad. There is, they say, nothing so practical as a good theory, which is why I expect the teenies to see a return to good theory and to good strategy, narrative and storytelling. A time when planning will rededicate itself to the creation of imaginative strategies, which will lead to mould-breaking creative work.
Those who disown the label of "advertising" often do so because they have wilfully constricted its meaning, consigning it to an offline world of TV and posters where you talk "at", not "with". If that’s how you want to view it, and the industry you work in, so be it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In its simplest form, advertising means turn towards – that’s what an ad agency is here for, to turn an audience’s attention to the brands, businesses and messages of our clients. The best ad agencies will use every tool at their disposal to achieve this end, to make memorable, distinctive, shareable campaigns that elevate a brand’s prestige and credibility.
Jacques Séguéla famously quipped: "Don’t tell my mother I’m in advertising, she thinks I play the piano in a brothel." It’s a good line that reminds us we mustn’t take our business too seriously. What he didn’t say, however, is: "She thinks I’m faintly channel-neutral and solutions-agnostic." If she had, she would hopefully have given him a good slap.
So the job for planning in the teenies isn’t to agonise about skillsets and job definitions, or to dwell on complexity. It’s to get on with it. And "it" is the same as it ever was, which is to create the strategies that provide the foundation for great work. Simples.
Charles Vallance is the chairman of VCCP