Media Forum: Can everyone plan comms?

Has the discipline now become a basic hygiene factor, Alasdair Reid asks.

We could have sworn we heard Jim Marshall banging on about communications planning at last week's Campaign Media Awards. There he was, up on stage, giving his speech as chairman of the judges, arguing that we had moved into a new era, where agencies were embracing the challenges to integrate more effectively. The awards, he added, were blessed with an encouraging number of genuinely creative submissions.

And, as the big agency networks scooped all of the important prizes, this rather went to prove that everyone is now up to speed on comms planning. It has, you could add, become a basic hygiene factor in the advertising process - and indeed the conclusion might be that no-one can expect to punt comms planning excellence as a unique selling proposition any more.

To some, Marshall's apparent enthusiasm for comms planning might feel somewhat unlikely. The media agency of which he's the chairman - Starcom - has always housed one or two senior figures who've been sceptical about the claims of a new-generation of planning agencies that began emerging a few years back.

Marshall himself has always taken a pragmatic view of the realities of the media marketplace. His address was perhaps in itself the strongest possible indicator that we have entered a new era. But is this the case? Is the whole marketplace basically up to speed when it comes to comms planning?

Some people would certainly like to think so, Pete Edwards, a partner at Edwards Groom Saunders, says; but the reality is sadly different. He argues: "It's true that everyone says they do comms planning. But you have to ask yourself to what extent it lies at the heart of everything they do. For many agencies, what they do in terms of comms planning is fundamentally rooted in its expression through media. In others, the approach is far more holistic. Big agency networks can obviously hire talented people and give them the resource and the facade of a big organisation. But if you earn the lion's share of your revenues from buying media, then it is going to be very difficult for you to approach this in an objective fashion."

Understandably, that's not entirely the way Daren Rubins, the managing director of PHD, sees things - he points out that clients really do expect a comms planning offering from all their agencies these days. But that doesn't mean that everyone's approach is likely to be the same. He adds: "What an agency needs to focus on as a USP is the quality of its people, their culture and ultimately having great ideas that are shown to work. Agencies need to create an environment that encourages intellectual rigour and creative thinking."

And Stephen Farquhar, the head of strategy at ZenithOptimedia, says it's misleading to talk of comms planning as a mere hygiene factor - because each agency will evolve a unique and individualistic approach to this discipline.

He explains: "To relegate the role of comms planning to a functional one undermines its commercial importance to clients. Clients rightly believe great communications thinking gives them a commercial edge. Most new-business briefs evidence this belief by placing comms planning at the top of their success criteria. To suggest that no agency differs in its communication planning is untrue."

And what of Naked Communications, the agency that basically invented comms planning as a standalone discipline? John Harlow, a founding partner of Naked, concludes: "There's a fundamental difference between us and what the more traditional agencies are able to offer. We were born specifically to cater for this and it's built into the very structure of our agency. The structures of creative agencies and media buying agencies are based around certain outcomes. You can't be objective when you have strong incentives to follow a certain route. The work we are asked to do involves neutral planning ideas. Media agencies can't really involve themselves in that."

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NO - Pete Edwards, partner, Edwards Groom Saunders

"At a network agency, even if the discipline is only partially compromised by revenue-generation demands, which derive from media buying, that can have a significant bearing on the final outcome."

NO - Daren Rubins, managing director, PHD

"We still operate within an industry where agencies only pull out the stops for the savvy clients that demand great work. The only way agencies will deliver consistently great work is by creating the right environment."

MAYBE - Stephen Farquhar, head of strategy, Zenith-Optimedia

"It's right to imply that having an approach to comms planning isn't unique, but where each individual agency gets to as a result of its approach should be markedly different. Our perspective on brands and customers and our depth of thinking is what separates us and is what we should be paid for."

NO - John Harlow, founding partner, Naked Communications

"It's true that some agencies may well work to a definition of comms planning that restricts itself to paid-for channels. But pure strategy can only be born out of objectivity. It comes down to flexibility and whether you have vested interests in the outcomes of your deliberations."

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