Planners need to get out of the echo chamber this year
A view from Richard Huntington

Planners need to get out of the echo chamber this year

Instead of pontificating from the sidelines, strategists need to enter the field of play and take control of the scrum, says Richard Huntington.

If 2016 has taught us anything, it is that prediction is pointless. It may be desperately tempting, it may feel like a commercial imperative, it may even be your job, but it’s clearly pointless.

Take the first issue of Campaign in 2016. Struggle as I might, I can find no suggestion that Britain would screw its future by voting to leave the European Union or that Craig David’s career would see a resurgence.

So let’s not try to predict what will come of planning in 2017 and think instead about the stuff that’s actually in front of us. About the things we can clearly see and clearly need to deal with.

Think of this as our "to-do list" for the year.

Tell the robots who’s boss

We need to stop talking about programmatic and actually do it – by which I mean do it properly.

The automation of the advertising coalface is as inevitable as a Cliff Richard Christmas single but God help us if we leave it to those at the implementation end of the business. People for whom strategy is a genre of board game with little metal figurines and ten-sided dice. We need to put strategy in the driving seat and ensure that the automation of advertising serves the brand’s broader commercial agenda.

That it is knitted into the fabric of the brand’s activities and the distinctive way that it shows up in the world rather than blindly following industry best practice.

Otherwise, the single most powerful tool in performance marketing since the coupon will be left dicking around optimising the colour of the call to action rather than actually making a difference to brands.

As planners, we must now take responsibility for making automation a force for effectiveness, not just efficiency, serving our clients’ broader agenda.

To know something is one thing, to understand it is another altogether. As real data replaces survey data, we now know more than ever about people’s behaviour. But the risk is that we fail to understand and empathise with the motivations behind this.

Technology cannot replace empathy in our quest to better understand people and how to influence their decision-making.

Of course, greater customer understanding is most needed in our clients’ businesses, especially at the top of the organisation. But when it comes to planning, it means getting planners away from their laptops and into the homes and lives of our customers. And so we are clear, sitting behind a mirror drinking cheap white wine and bitching about respondents doesn’t count – we need to do primary research ourselves.

The fewer the steps between real people and the creation and delivery of our work, the better. Humanity is this industry’s killer app and planners need to be the lightning rod for humanity and empathy in our agencies. Let 2017 be the year planners are out in the field in record numbers.

Get out of the echo chamber

The online echo chamber may have turned Facebook into the globe’s pre-eminent outlet for fake news and made Twitter an engine of abuse and haven of hatred. But it’s time to recognise that there is an echo chamber in marketing every bit as powerful and damaging as the echo chamber online. An echo chamber in which a frightening number of beliefs about marketing are constantly recycled and reiterated until they achieve the status of incontrovertible rules. Like the belief in engagement over reach, like the obsession with content over communication, like the millions spent keeping brands always on rather than always available. And don’t start me on storytelling.

All this despite the fact that most of these ideas are just plain wrong as well as hugely damaging to the legitimacy and credibility of our industry. As planners, we need to be more cautious about echoing fads and fashions before they have proven to be valuable and effective. Others will have their heads turned by a perky soundbite or new piece of kit – planners need to be far more vigilant.

Stop faking it

A decade ago, Paul Feldwick talked about the industry’s "benign conspiracy". A conspiracy in which we know that advertising works in concert with our emotional decision-making processes but we pretend to clients and our clients pretend to their organisations that the paraphernalia of rational decision-making, of facts, claims and truths, are still the backbone of successful marketing.

This conspiracy has to stop. It is disingenuous and it makes our business far too hit-and-miss. If the two most effective campaigns of 2016, for Leave and Donald Trump, dispensed with facts, truth, logic and reason, we must rapidly figure out what this means for effective brand communications.

As planners, 2017 has to be the year we decide how advertising actually works. The chit-chat about system one and two thinking is beyond tedious; if we think that people make decisions without recourse to the rational, then we need to commit to this and get off the fence.

This will be a massive challenge for the way we create and sell work, but the prize is to wrest the delicate art of advertising away from the platforms and back into the hands of those that actually understand how people make decisions. And that is a question of survival.

Planning is a full-contact sport

The state of the world and the direction of our industry will make 2017 a big year for planning. But only if we stop pontificating, posturing and predicting, and actually commit.

Planners are all too often content to be bystanders, observing the machinations of the marketing industry from the sidelines while firing off critically acerbic tweets. The reality is that planning is, and needs to be, a full-contact sport with planners engaged in the game and instrumental in taking it in the right direction. Plannerkind, 2017 is our year – let’s leave a mark.

Richard Huntington is the chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi London.