The future of planning

The term account planning was invented exactly 40 years ago. Here, five planners tell us what they think is going to happen to the discipline over the next 40.

NEIL GOODLAD - Managing partner, CHI & Partners

The future of planning is tethered, inevitably, to the future of how brands reach their audiences. Since this is becoming richer but ever more complex, so too will the planner's role.

That's not to say that what clients want from planners will fundamentally change. Quite the opposite. Since the role was conceived, planners have been charged, broadly, with four things. First, insight about the target consumer. Second, understanding of how the brand's strengths, and those of the available channels, taken together, can effect the desired change in that audience. Third, optimising the work to meet this brief. Fourth, measuring and analysing the effect of the communication that follows.

These will remain the cornerstones of a planner's responsibility. All four, though, will continue to grow in complexity. Eclectic lifestyles will make people harder to categorise and insight harder to generalise. Fragmentation and transparency and whatever's next, will make successful models of communication hard to define. Sheer volume will make standout and accurate measurement more elusive.

We'll need new ways of thinking. Just as, it seems, clients have adopted many of the trappings and mannerisms of planning themselves (brand templates, benefit-led propositions and the like), we'll have to move things on.

The most prized planners will champion innovative research, embracing new technology to provide insight that's behavioural as well as attitudinal. Their mastery of channels will extend, so while specialising in some disciplines, they'll be fluent in many. And they'll avoid all-embracing explanations of how brands and communications work.

The future of planning gets really exciting, though, when you couple this evolving skill-set with the growing boardroom appreciation that every aspect of their brand communicates: from how its people behave, to where and how profit is made. So while it won't stop being fun to discuss the whys and wherefores of a new ad, more and more of the conversations I find myself in lately are about brand fundamentals: the business model or service culture or distribution or pricing.

This demands commercial savvy that doesn't always comes naturally to us planners. Yet if we acquire that skill too, and avoid the self-referential ponderousness that sometimes afflicts our discipline, tomorrow's chief executives will increasingly find their planner is exactly the authority they're looking for.

JASON GONSALVES - Head of engagement planning, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

The future of planning demands change. Darwin observed: "It is not the strongest or most intelligent that survive, but those most responsive to change." In the past 40 years, the competitive landscape for brands has changed beyond recognition, but most advertising agencies have done little to change with it. Only the most myopic among us would deny that our industry is grappling with some fundamental challenges, but with these challenges comes opportunity. The opportunity for advertising agencies is to redefine the role creativity can play in creating value for brands. The opportunity for planning is to become the engine for change, embracing new ways to engage consumers, exploring new revenue streams and championing new, deviant creative talent.

The future of planning demands channel expertise. We live in an interactive digital culture that liberates brands from the confines of advertising media. But in this context, we have to work harder to earn consumers' attention and the right to communicate. Planning must incorporate new areas of expertise, but the skill-set of planners is not infinitely elastic. At Bartle Bogle Hegarty, our solution has been to create engagement planning. Engagement planners bring discipline and rigour to the understanding of how brands should behave and how the entire range of communication channels can be orchestrated to build the strongest, lasting relationship with consumers. Engagement planners and account planners pair up to create "planning teams" that work together collaborating and challenging each other to help liberate and focus creative thinking.

The future of planning demands commercial flair. While planners are right to obsess about creativity and the "work", we can lose sight of the fact that the ultimate purpose of this endeavour is to create commercial value, for clients and for agencies. As client finance directors demand greater accountability from marketing investment, planning must rise to this challenge.

Effectiveness must be an obsession. Planners must be fluent in the language of business, and use this fluency to find ways to more closely align the commercial agendas of agency and client. But commercial flair is more than just good client service. Planners need to explore new business models and new revenue streams and understand how to extract value from emerging "creative products", including content development or even brand invention as we are doing with the BBH business Zag. The planner of the future is an entrepreneur.

It can be seductive to believe that the future of planning is like the present, just more so, but if we are to capitalise on the opportunities of the new digital communication age, the age of engagement, then planning must embrace change and run toward the future. The journey will be exhilarating and sometimes overwhelming. But that's OK too, because if everything seems under control you're not going fast enough.

MARK SINNOCK - Chief strategy officer, Fallon London

"The future is planning." I would say that, wouldn't I? Call it self-defence, or desperation, but I think it's true, both literally and figuratively.

If we thin-slice the history of planning you could argue that it started out as a discipline - it was the "union's rep" for the consumer. Metrics and process driven - linear, research-centric.

Then it became a specialist subject - the science of brand ... what was and what wasn't right for brand X to do or say. But now I sense we are in transition toward a new type of planning, a more intuitive type of planning.

By its nature, planning fills the spaces between things. Planners like to make sense of things. But so much has changed, and so much remains unpredictable, and there's so much more in flux, that the old models on how to compute and logic the brand are now confusing, contradictory or defunct.

Now, the best and most exciting sort of planners embrace the haze, they speculate, shape and project into the future. Unrestricted by channel, medium, form or format.

Rather than create rules and laws, great planning, today and tomorrow, will be about imagination, innovation and creativity - and increasingly it will help clients to choose and believe in an entirely new future for their brands.

Our clients can do 5 per cent on their own, they come to us for the extraordinary outcome. This constitutes a new sensibility for responsible planners. They must become the entrepreneurs within, speculating on the futures market, champions of the "brave idea" and inspiring the brave execution.

It demands a dramatic shift in the role and purpose of the planning function within our organisations: From servant of the creative product, to leader of the new agenda; from analyst and scientist, to innovator; from methods and means, to catalyst for the creative community; from curators of the brief, to bodyguards for the brave idea; from defining the next step, to creating a new space for our brands to play in.

So, I believe that the future of planning, is planning the future.

GEORGINA MURRAY-BURTON - Account planner, DDB London

I texted AQA - you know, the lot who promise to answer any question. Their response to this question was that in the future the best planners will be ones who listen to their customers. But haven't we always been doing that? Perhaps the answer lies in what we listen to and how we respond. No longer should we be concentrating on talking to and engaging the individual, we should be adapting to and influencing the communities they are living in.

It also said that consumers are going to demand interaction with the promotion of goods. I think it is already happening, except it is consumers themselves who are leading this; taking brand comms and making them their own. This is where we, as planners, come in.

How about we really try to understand the communities people exist in and help brands to be flexible to help them to fit with what people are already doing? As the flow of information moves ever more rapidly throughout communities, the more pertinent it becomes to offer something to people that they will actually talk about. If we want people to talk about us, we have to do things that people want to comment on and get involved with; but, most importantly, want to tell other people about and that they look good for telling people about it ... because it is worth knowing.

To succeed, the most successful planners will be well versed not only in multidisciplinary planning, but in a host of other skills. We don't need to debate whether comms planning or account planning will be the future. Surely by nature, influence planning means there are no separate disciplines. It is simply finding the right outlets for information or, in fact, inlets into communities.

GUY MURPHY - Worldwide planning director, JWT

A question about the future of planning is actually a question about the future of brands. Planning was invented with a purpose: to help create stronger brands in order for clients' businesses to become more profitable. If planning remembers these roots, it will become a central and dynamic force in modern marketing. If it loses sight of them, planning will rightly become a frivolous overhead.

There are two big drivers of change in modern business: technology and geography. Planning will need to understand how to manage brands in response to these changes. Much is written and discussed about planning and technology, but the issue of planning and geography will become a much more central topic in future.

The globalisation of brands is going to be one of the most important things to get right. How should brands go about crossing regions and continents? How should communication flex to resonate with local cultures?

There will be particular challenges depending upon where brands move to and from. How should Western brands create success in China or India? Where would be most receptive to brands from Brazil or Russia? When is the time to launch a brand into Sub-Saharan Africa? Planning will become central to answering these questions.

Indeed, planning will help global brands become the new big creative opportunities. There is enormous, undiscovered potential for designing brand communication for different cultures. Weaving ideas through distinctive local customs is going to create a whole new chapter of creativity.

Planners will become more internationalist in their outlook. They will stop believing that the world is uploaded to YouTube every day, and start to develop an appreciation of local cultures and creativity around the world. They will invest heavily in being connected to these cultures. Personal and professional networks that span the world will become a planner's greatest toolkit. These networks will engender a culture of generosity that will pervade the global planning community as local knowledge is swapped and traded. London and New York agencies will be falling over themselves to hire planners from India, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina.

Planners' references points will become more varied and eclectic. As a result, brands will be infused with original stimulus from around the world. Planners and creatives will experiment together. More novel, intimate and unproven ideas will be discovered. It will be a thrilling time!

Successful planning will remain true to its roots, and Stephen King will remain right in his view that planning is ultimately "strategic imagination on the grandest scale".