Is Planning in crisis?

A number of forces are converging on a planning model that is now creaking and in need of a shake-up, according to Richard Huntington. Here, he describes the problems the discipline faces and explains how it can preserve its future.

A few years ago in an orgy of self-congratulation and pithy monographs invoking the spirit of King and Pollitt, planning turned 40. The second great advertising innovation of the 20th century alongside Bernbach's pairing of creative teams seemed confident with a rosy future ahead of it both within the advertising development process and beyond.

However, far from being in the rudest of health, I wonder whether planning is actually in crisis, the result of a combination of external and internal factors that are putting it under considerable pressure. For the first time in my career, I'm not sure we can take the future of the discipline for granted and certainly not in its current form.

No-one doubts clients want greater help navigating the minds and actions of consumers or that they have an insatiable demand for insight, but has anyone let their procurement departments know? The fee negotiations that all of us have been subjected to over the past couple of years were characterised by unparalleled brutality. And it's often planning that gets compromised first in the desire to descope the agency offering to match the figure procurement has plucked out of the air.

It's not all about penny-pinching. In part, we are under pressure because of planning's success as an idea and as an offering. Few clients outside the media industry believe that there is much value in taking creativity in-house, recognising that their cultures and opportunities do not attract the best creative practitioners. But that's not the case with planning. Clients are increasingly keen to absorb more of the planning function into their own head count. And with those skills on board, they feel less inclined to outsource them to their agencies. Witness the number of pitches in which clients come not only with a problem but also half a solution, and it's the planning half of the solution they have under their arms.

Simultaneously, we are all trying to understand and enagage with our audiences at a time of unparalleled cultural and technological change. And specifically how to construct a planning offering that is capable of meeting this need while also offering more traditional brand advice and strategic counsel to our clients. Not in blogging la-la land but at the agency coalface, where planning heads are trying to balance real revenue with much-needed investment. As the skills of the strategist fragment, we have to find a way to afford a core offering of generalists as well as a stable of strategic specialists. And we have to figure out which specialist skills we need in-house, which will be offered by partner agencies and which will continue to be sourced on the open market. It feels to me like a perfect storm of declining revenue to pay for our people and expanding skills that are required of them - that's the crisis that planning is facing.

For the more myopic of you, this may be cause for celebration. Planning has been seen as a source of frustration for account handlers and creatives, in part because of the way it has de-skilled both. With a group of people focused on communications effectiveness, account handlers have lost their strategic instincts, and with creative departments offered much of the solution in the brief, they have lost the salesmanship so beloved of Ogilvy and Abbott.

But before you crack open the Krug, think what this says about the direction for our business. Let planning follow the media boys and girls out of the door and we recognise that ad agencies are no more than outsourced creative departments, there to do little more than the colouring-in for clients that already have the solution to their business problem and just need a selection of creative ideas to choose from.

Agencies need planning because though great and effective advertising can be created without us, planning makes sure both outcomes happen more often. But that need has to be based on real value to client and agencies, not bodies that can be charged on to the client to bump up the fees on the account - those days are over. And for that reason, I think we may need to look at the way we organise planning.

Since its birth, we have modelled our departments on that of account handling. Planners have always been allocated to specific accounts, like their account handling partners, working hand in glove with them daily. This approach has been effective, but it's also been rather cosy, creating an environment where the mediocre can hide, the brilliant get lost, and we have to create by necessity one-size-fits-all planners because everyone in the department is doing broadly the same job.

This isn't the case with our creative colleagues. Teams are rarely allocated to clients but, instead, a pool of increasingly diverse creative talent solves the creative problems the agency faces. One team can be allocated to a project or many and they can work competitively or collaboratively to find and execute the best solution. Some teams may be more familiar with a client than others; however, real institutional knowledge is held by the creative directors or executive creative director, who match the best talent to the task.

Perhaps it's time to operate our planning departments more like our creative departments. It might offer a better way to add value to our clients and our agencies, and, frankly, a more rewarding way for our best talent to work. With a pool of diverse planning skills, including deep specialists and anchored by a core of generalists, planning directors can match the needs of the task with the right talents and in collaborative teams working collectively and quickly to solve problems. Institutional knowledge and continuity of care for the brand would be retained by planning directors rather than at every level of the department. And without the need to staff the department with one-size-fits-all planners allocated to accounts, budget is freed to invest in strategic specialists.

Of course, in doing this, we would fundamentally disrupt the model of planning that has worked so successfully for 40 years. We will upset those clients that want dedicated planners throughout their business. And we will unpick the rewarding and powerful relationships between suit and planner that we have always enjoyed.

However, we would also escape from a system that has made planning cosy and lazy and called into question our value. A system in which planning has been taken for granted by clients and agencies, offered and bought as part of a package without real scrutiny of the value added to either party. Value we have to deliver more consistently and with greater speed in order to defend our revenue and value that we can only truly offer now by freeing some of that revenue to be spent on the specialisms we need to make sense of the world and deliver more effective solutions.

Richard Huntington is the director of strategy at Saatchi & Saatchi and an IPA strategy committee member.


BRIDGET ANGEAR, joint planning director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

I had a brief chat with our chief operating officer about whether he was finding clients less and less willing to pay for planning. His emphatic response was that he found the exact opposite to be true.

Which got me thinking: why? So I asked a couple of clients. They said that their need for simplification and clarity (hallmarks of great planning) had never been greater in order to help them navigate an increasingly complex communications landscape.

Of course, this might just have been flattery, but they did go on to say they valued long-term strategic partners who understood their business and made strategic and creative recommendations accordingly. Planners who, in the words of Warren Buffett, had "skin in the game", using accumulated knowledge of their brand and business to successfully influence future plans. Something they felt they would not get if they just hired people on a by project-by-project basis. One client described planning as the cornerstone of their relationship with an agency.

Which led me to conclude that reports of the demise of planning have been greatly exaggerated. But I don't think that means we should become complacent. Far from it. Planning needs to evolve to reflect the broader range of skills that it now needs to cover.

Which in itself creates new and exciting opportunities. I can see a future in which clients pay a retainer for a core planning function, supplemented by project-based, more specialist planning functions (data, digital, engagement planning etc) as and when they require them. So more planning, not less.

ANDY NAIRN, Chief strategic officer, Dare

It's great that the IPA is looking at new approaches to remuneration as the traditional models don't seem to be working for either agencies or clients.

Having said that, I find the premise for this particular exercise quite puzzling, since our clients are increasingly asking for more planning, rather than less. Moreover, they're telling us that, in our "always-on" world, they need strategic advice all year round, rather than in old-fashioned "launch-and-leave" chunks. So the idea of cutting planning out of the retainer altogether seems counterintuitive. Likewise, the suggested severing of links, between strategists and accounts, seems unhelpful to me. Good planners will have built up a huge amount of commercial understanding and consumer insight on their brands that would be lost if they took on a more free-floating role.

A more helpful approach would be to keep brand planning within a lower retainer and then supplement with specialists according to the task in hand. As the IPA points out, nowadays this could be anybody from a data analyst to a comms planner and all sorts in between. But, really, the bigger opportunity is to look beyond retainers and time-based models for more radical solutions altogether. These might include taking equity in clients' brands, retaining rights to a character (as Mother has effectively done with PG Tips) or owning a technological breakthrough (as we have done with MyFry). The fact that I can name specific examples merely underlines how much more work we have to do, though.

SARAH WATSON, Head of planning, DDB UK

This is a big, live question and one that goes to the heart of planning and its evolving role. On one side, we have the dream of the creative department-style fluid resource pool; efficient, energised, diverse, cross-fertilised and cost-effective. Good for the planners, good for the clients. No-brainer. However, on the other side, we have the reality of actual clients and actual human "planner" beings. There are many clients who still value an ongoing partnership at all levels, and planners who deliver their best when they've had a chance to dig around and get to know the business over a longer period, and who do valuable work that can't be completed in discrete, predictable pockets of time. The answer for us at DDB will be to build our resource around this spectrum of requirements, depending on the client: there will be a fixed body of planners attached to business where appropriate, and then a pooled resource for those clients and projects that are better served by dipping in and drawing off particular skills where necessary.

Is planning in crisis? I really don't think so - it is in great demand, and clients are demanding the highest standards. The requirement for someone clever and engaged to help get it right still burns brightly; as with everything in the industry, we're just working out what that looks like today.