THE DIRECT APPROACH: Perspectives Red Cell's Jo Scharf argues that the data and brand planning teams within agencies should work more closely together

Perspectives Red Cell's Jo Scharf argues that the data and brand planning teams within agencies should work more closely together to deliver rich insights.

Let's visit an imaginary direct marketing agency: Silo Slow & Associates. In Silo Slow, there are two planning departments: data planning and brand planning. The agency first needed analytical capability, so it built itself a data planning department. Then, because someone decided that it really should be up with the times, it hired some brand planners. Both types of planners work on some shared clients. But separately, not as a team.

This means that the data planners rarely get involved with the creative product. (Which is odd, because creating effective communications is what agencies should be about.) Valuable learning from the data planner that could be incorporated into the brief is simply lost. The creative department could have a richer, more accurate description of the target audience with which to work.

It could be better placed to match the creative treatment to the targeting, and therefore have a better chance of making it relevant and as responsive as possible. But that's not the way it works at Silo Slow. Although they pay lip service to working together seamlessly, in reality the planners don't share learning, and the consequences show in the effectiveness of the campaigns the agency produces.

Let me define what I believe the role should be for planners in a direct marketing agency such as Silo Slow. To start with, I've never quite understood why we're called planners. I don't really plan anything. That's the job of my colleagues in account handling, or the media agency. So if we don't plan, what then is the role of a planner? First, our job is to understand. Understand in equal measures our client's business, the consumer and communications. And then to apply the insight gained from that understanding in order to produce powerful, effective ideas that drive results.

There are key differences between planning in direct marketing agencies and other kinds of agencies. Today, direct marketing agencies often house two types of planner: a data planner and an account (or brand, or communications) planner. And they are inherently different. To oversimplify, data planners were born of the need for analysis, quantification and measurement. Account, or brand planners (many previously found only in advertising agencies), are there to understand the brand they work on, provide research and help define the creative brief. Both planners are saddled with a name that does not fit. To say that data planners just manipulate data is a gross oversimplification. And understanding brands is not the exclusive preserve of an account planner. I would argue that all planners should be responsible for understanding brands.

Each planner has the common purpose of understanding their clients' business requirements, and their customers, and generating insights and ideas that deliver the client business objectives. In fact, planning in direct marketing can be enormously interesting and fruitful in this regard. Why?

Because planners in DM agencies have more tools to play with. They have the benefit of research and behavioural knowledge (call it account planning) together with analytical and transactional information (call it data planning). This rich source of understanding and insight, if properly marshalled, is a distinct benefit to the effectiveness of an agency's work.

Silo Slow & Associates is fictitious (honestly). I use it only to demonstrate a practical point. That planning in direct marketing can be much more effective when the two types of planner work together.

Specifically, in close proximity - in one department - as we've done in our agency. Why? The market demands us to be smarter and faster. If an agency can offer smarter thinking that delivers stronger creative and better results, faster, then why on earth wouldn't we structure ourselves to do just that? After all, agencies should be about understanding and a big part of proving that they do is by setting up the best planning service structure to deliver client needs.

I do not advocate creating a hybrid planner, who possesses both data and account planning skills. Each needs to remain specialist, responsible for individual areas of expertise. Nor am I suggesting that a team of planners always works together on every client. But an agency needs to have the flexibility to weave the two together when it is appropriate to do so. And this may be the case more often than not.

A department containing two types of planner is inherently more flexible and responsive. By definition, such a department is also designed for collaboration, which in turn can influence the strategic culture and mindset of an agency. When both planners work together, I don't think anyone can argue that the understanding and resulting insight is not significantly deeper, richer and more accurate. If we only understand what consumers are doing but not why, or vice versa, then at best we don't have a complete view. At worst, we make dangerous assumptions. And when both planners get involved in the creative product, the collective understanding feeds through to the creative execution.

That in turn delivers significantly better creative and better results, faster. Better understanding and insight always does.

Speaking as a "planner", I can honestly say that working collaboratively with a fellow planner with a different type of skill-set is infinitely more rewarding and successful than working in a silo.

Now, I'm left with one puzzle. If I don't see myself as a planner in the conventional sense, what shall I call myself? Any ideas on an e-mail please.