You can't just put a planner in a consultancy and expect different answers
A view from Nick Baker

You can't just put an agency planner in a consultancy and expect them to come up with different answers

To be a success, planning consultancies have to free themselves of the agency boxes that they were once placed in.

It’s Monday morning. Cup of tea in hand – although it should have been something much stronger, as the kids have just left for school, their second week back after almost three months – and the headline jumps out at me:

"Why planners are breaking free from agency chains."

This is right up my street. And there I was, nodding along freely. Planners are frustrated at the agency model. Yes. Clients are asking different questions of agencies. Absolutely. Agencies are struggling to properly monetise strategy. You bet. There may be a new way to access senior agency strategy and planning without having to buy the whole agency. Welcome to the party.

These were all catalysts for setting up Stick & Twist – a strategy and planning partnership – in 2017.

But is this really new news? Clients have told us for years that they need access to different skill sets, different specialisms and that the traditional model is just not working for them. And this is accentuated with strategy and planning. But many agencies and networks have been too slow to respond. Lots of talking, not enough walking. Because the reality is that acting on these client pleas fundamentally changes the business model. 

One of the only good things to come out of the past 12 months is that it appears people in the industry – particularly planners – have gone through a period of reflection. And with more pressure on client budgets and even more focus on marketing effectiveness, the industry is ripe for a shake-up.

So, it is great that we are now talking about real change. Although we have to be careful with the rhetoric.

Running Stick & Twist for almost four years now has been the steepest learning curve we have been on. Steeper than I could ever have imagined. We thought we had cracked it four years ago, when we decided to challenge the model. But we hadn’t cracked anything at all. 

Because changing the model is only the first step forward. It makes agency strategy easier to sell. But it doesn’t make it easier for clients to buy – and this is the biggest challenge that we face. You just can't take a planner out of a traditional agency and plonk them in a consultancy-based model and believe they will come to different conclusions to the ones they have been trying to sell for years.

We now know that clients need more than creative thinking wrapped around a new model. When we get into our clients’ worlds, there are some extremely complex challenges that every one of them needs support on. And the reality is they need an evolution of the model, and an evolution of strategy itself. 

At Stick & Twist not only have we changed the way clients can buy strategy, but we have fundamentally changed the strategy that they can buy.

Firstly, we deliver commercial strategy. And this has moved far beyond creative effectiveness. By being free from creative agency agendas, we deliver the most effective marketing strategy for our clients.

Sounds obvious, right? But it is amazing how creative solutions can bias or narrow strategic thinking. We can harp on about the purist views on the role of creativity as much as we want, but if we hadn’t delivered successful commercial strategy, then our planning consultancy would have never made it past first base.

We also deliver connected strategy. In the old world, a number of agency strategists would gather around a client marketing table, sat in the brand/media/digital/content/social/CRM/data (delete as appropriate) boxes that we had been pigeonholed in. We would all sit there, smile nicely at each other and try to play fairly, while always trying to protect the work that we were sent in there to do.

To be a success, planning consultancies have to rise above this and free themselves of the boxes that they were once placed in. As Stick & Twist has become more established, we have become more involved in other aspects of our clients’ businesses. And in the past 18 months we have been building relationships with the commercial, product, digital and – dare I say it – financial teams, creating one integrated, connected strategic voice.

This cannot be achieved by simply rebranding traditional strategy. It has to be much more than that for it to scale and lay down the new pathways of client/agency relationships.

We’ve had to challenge the old ways of working and remove unnecessary process, so our clients have the freedom to access our strategists on their terms. We’ve had to invest in ourselves – and in new talent – to create the right balance of generalists and specialists, to meet a wider set of client needs. And gaining the trust and confidence of the roster agencies we partner has been critical. We’ve had to prove that, rather than trying to steal their lunch, our approach helps make them, and the whole thing, more effective.

We wanted to create something unique, but having stress tested our model, we now realise we’re past trying to be different. We want more people to embrace real change in our industry. And the more people who do what we do the better, as it will give everyone – especially clients – the confidence to change their approach.

Nick Baker is founder of planning consultancy Stick & Twist