Close-Up: Live issue - Has in-house comms been a failure?

Agencies are struggling to woo clients with their channel-planning ventures, James Hamilton says.

The Red Brick Road's decision last week to axe its full-time communications planning role and employ Tony Regan on a part-time, freelance basis instead underlines just how hard many agencies find it to sell media planning.

Whether they brand it audience, channel, connections or engagement planning, a number of agencies have now discovered that a standalone media planning offering operating with a virtual P&L within the agency is not the cash cow they hoped it would be.

Four years ago, an agency was a dinosaur if it didn't have a comms planning unit. Jealous of the growing client interest in companies such as Naked, a string of agencies poached media planners and launched ventures they hoped could generate additional revenue out of clients.

Today, it's a different story. Nylon, launched jointly by Young & Rubicam brands and Mediaedge:cia, no longer exists. Fallon has merged Happen, its comms planning arm, into its account planning department; and TBWA\Connections is in the process of rebranding as TBWA's Media Arts Lab, effectively a separate agency to house the Apple account. What went wrong?

"The whole communications planning space is commercially very fragile," the Fallon founding partner, Laurence Green, says. "The raft of communications planning agencies don't enjoy great commercial returns."

In essence, then, it's an inability to convince clients to fork out an additional fee for a service which many of them feel they're already getting from their media agency.

The Red Brick Road planning partner, David Hackworthy, was involved in TBWA\Connections at its launch in 2003. He argues that the communications landscape has changed since then, and it would be naive of agencies to attempt to sell a single process of communications planning to each of its accounts. "Clients rightly ask, 'what's the difference between that and what my media agency does?'," he says.

Hackworthy advocates "task-based" planning", where the agency draws upon specialist freelance talent when needed. Regan will be one of the freelancers he uses. "Planning is a task within an agency, not a department," he says, adding: "You need different types for different problems, and you should be free to develop the right solution for the right client."

At CHI & Partners, managing partners Tim Allnutt and Enyi Nwosu are reinventing the agency's former Naked Inside venture as an integrated media planning offering - branded as "ideas planning"-within the planning department.

"In my experience, it's very difficult to up-sell communications planning," Allnutt says. "By definition, this positions it as a separate and optional service.

"As an industry, we consistently talk about how important it is to have communications planning at the heart of the creative process - we simply need to practise what we preach. Put it at the heart of planning. Have one bottom line."

It's a similar approach to that taken at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, where Kevin Brown's engagement-planning department now has eight staff and works on accounts including Vodafone and Audi.

"You have to integrate communications planning under one roof," Brown says. "Creative agencies have to make a commitment to its role; a lot so far have been quite tokenistic."

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COMMS PLANNER - Enyi Nwosu, managing partner, CHI & Partners

"To deliver integrated ideas fully, we have to break down the barriers between the disciplines. The well-documented changes to the 21st-century media landscape requires a multidisciplinary and open-minded team working together at the start of the process, not introducing them later.

"The approach has to be what we do and not what we sell. One bottom line is essential to make this happen.

"Clients will pay for a joined-up approach if it delivers big brand, content and channel ideas that grow their businesses."

PLANNER - Laurence Green, founding partner, Fallon

"A standalone comms planning agency can only survive if it can charge a profitable fee. In an agency, it's easier to attach one comms planner to clients who will pay for what they do.

"We started Happen as a separate company because it was a joint venture with Naked. By dint of it being owned by two parties, it made sense to be separate.

"What you quickly find out is that comms planning might be part of the blended team, or part of the answer for the client. It's a discipline rather than a separate business unit, and we've unbundled it at Fallon over the past six months to reflect that."

PLANNER - Tom Morton, head of planning, TBWA\London

"Comms planning as a standalone department within agencies hasn't been a great success, but the people and the experience have taught the industry the value of thinking from an audience-planning perspective and how to introduce it to clients.

"The challenge is that clients have media planning agencies that should be doing it for them already, so a creative agency offering it is an additional cost.

"We need to introduce it to willing clients, rather than across the board. Then, in the longer term, all creative agency planners will have to acquire audience planning skills, because the days of the automatic audience have gone. Where to find people is becoming much more important."

PLANNER - David Hackworthy, planning partner, The Red Brick Road

"Advertising is a game of talented people solving problems. Communications planning has become too much of a pissing match between processes and egos and, because everyone is fighting for turf, they're jamming up agencies with more process and more departments. Process tends to limit rather than liberate thinking.

"There isn't a silver bullet - it's a matter of finding the right solution, so I don't think it's right to sell communications planning as a separate thing to a client.

"Brand and communications planning need to work together. Unbundling definitely hurt the quality of our strategic thinking; we're all struggling to put it back together again."