Claire Beale: Why agencies need to shout about planning
A view from Claire Beale

Claire Beale: Why agencies need to shout about planning

Advertising agencies have always been extremely good at showcasing their creative work.

Even in a multichannel digital world, where so many creative solutions – often made by a range of agencies – coalesce around a central big idea, agencies still do an excellent job of presenting their creative jewels.

When it comes to enthusing Campaign, awards juries and potential clients about their creative brilliance, agencies have mostly mastered the art. So why do they fail to do an equally good job showcasing their planning brilliance?

I’ve rarely sat through a "ta-dah" unveiling of a big new ad campaign where the strategy and planning has been mentioned, even as a footnote. And when agencies – as they are starting to do right now – send us in a roll-call of highlights from their year, all their great strategic ideas barely get a look-in among the new-business triumphs, the creative achievements, the technology capabilities and the lovely new offices.

Of course, it’s much harder to sum up weeks of research and insight in a few soundbites to present alongside all the pretty pictures. But agencies should be pretty good at solving that sort of "marketing" problem, shouldn’t they. Often, it’s not until we see the papers from the IPA Effectiveness or APG Awards that we can really appreciate the wonderfully clever layers of thinking that lie beneath a great ad. All this despite the fact that the planning director is invariably one of the most interesting, stimulating, inspiring and properly impressive people in the agency management line-up.

So it’s a little depressing, but not so surprising, to read the comments on page 21 about the status of planners. Yes, it seems planners are more valued as the industry places even greater emphasis on effectiveness and accountability, but there are fewer top-notch planners around and their contribution to our industry’s best campaigns is woefully underplayed.

And for some clients, at least, the role of an agency planning department remains limited. As Toshiba’s Matt McDowell says: "I’ve had planners trying to interpret data for me and I’ve had to tell them to stop. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Planners don’t have the depth of knowledge of our business." There are plenty of reasons why that might sometimes, or even mostly, be the case. For starters, it’s only those clients who really see their agencies as long(ish)-term business partners who can hope to develop, together, a team of planners who really understand their business issues, from NPD to sales. Not enough clients are prepared to make the sort of commitment necessary to effect this.

But until agencies get better at investing in, empowering and celebrating planning, many clients will continue to undervalue its contribution and resist greater strategic collaboration. McDowell says of planners: "Would I ever put them in front of my board? Most definitely not." How damning – and limiting for all – is that?