Planning and planner are lovely, simple words. But they are immensely complicated vats full of skills, aptitudes and opinions, as well as approaches, data and knowledge. The contents of the vats are ever-changing, as are the shapes of the vats themselves. So how do we ever get a handle on where planners and planning are at, and where they might or should be going?
One good marker is the APG Creative Strategy Awards, held this year in association with Google, our title sponsor. And as the chair of the APG, I helped to moderate the final judging of the shortlisted entries: 26 presentations of thinking; 26 inspiring, illuminating expressions of individuality, insight and brain power in the service of brands, people and even countries. Each approach was completely fresh and each underscored a planner's ability to unlock a problem in a new and enlightening way.
The challenges and problems planners face are diverse and demanding: planning the launch of an app with no marketing budget; trying to stimulate the tourist industry of a country in crisis; getting people to donate their organs; realising that the investment model for your campaign needs to be turned upside down for it to work ...
These challenges are both seductive and terrifying, and the price of failure is high and can come in many guises. Missing the sales target is benign compared to failing to prevent death.
So what do these awards say about planners and planning in 2011?
First, planners are facing up to the range of challenges posed to them and solving them with flair and skill, using an array of new tools and channels.
But they're not just dazzled by new opportunities. Planners can be tenacious terriers, worrying at a problem until it's solved. Some of the shortlisted entries showcased an ability to go back to old, thorny problems, have another go and really push the game on with powerful thinking and insight.
Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's "named rider" campaign for the Department for Transport illustrated this by getting to the nub of the relationship between car drivers and bikers, helping to humanise and protect bikers in the process. Dare's "smoke-free: real kids" campaign for the Department of Health also rethought the rules by focusing on the misery and fear experienced by the children of smokers and giving those children a new voice with which to appeal directly to their parents to stop smoking.
Planners are also able to take a metaphor and understand its power to unlock the sales of a brand. In the case of Stella Artois, the light bulb moment came when Mother turned to relationship counsellors for help in mending the tarnished relationship between Stella and its drinkers.
Using a seduction analogy and semiotic analysis, Mother identified that the former wife-beater could be re-cast as a siren of feminine wiles and then went on to showcase a simple but exceptionally useful model for planning across markets. For many global brands, more than half the battle is working out how to manage the brand's communications across countries at different stages in its "life cycle". Getting a brand-centric handle on this allowed planners to identify different stages in the brand/consumer relationship from first love to the bleaker plains of empty nesterhood. They showed some winning examples of how this approach helped them decode the campaign and adapt the creative to support the brand in the right way in the right market.
Today's planners have a sophisticated understanding of the power of insight, not just to shed light on a consumer problem but in reframing business problems, borrowing from culture or even the client's company culture.
"It's just from Ikea" had become the default descriptor of Ikea furniture and a measure of the brand's standing in British culture.
Mother's "happy inside" campaign for Ikea abandoned the hectoring, bossy tone of "chuck out your chintz" for a new understanding of how Ikea should be integrated into British homes - cats and all.
The best planners also have an instinctive ability to seize on an insight, recognise its intrinsic truth and then set to work and make it work for brand. One feature of this year's awards was the prevalence of the "expert". Psychologists in particular were called upon to help shed a professional light on problems. But as one of the presenters attested, it's the ability to take a huge download of "stuff" and find the transformational gem that make you a planner, not an "expert". Excellent planners also make all this seem easy and simple - there is a lot to be said for humility in presentation.
The most impressive presentations I saw had two main ingredients: a game-changing idea presented with passion and conviction; and built on the best of behavioural economics and could demonstrate genuine behavioural effects.
One of these was the campaign by Lowe-SSP3 with the Colombian Ministry of Defence to encourage Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia guerillas to demobilise. The effect was that 331 guerrillas laid down their arms and went home. For me, that is an astonishing testament to the power of good planning. In this case, the brilliant use of research (interviewing demobilised guerrillas came up with some exceptional channel planning ideas) and insight (Christmas is when guerrillas are at their most vulnerable to persuasion to come home to family) combined with the use of just about every tool in the new planner's box to literally change lives.
This and Wieden & Kennedy's "off/on" campaign illustrate another theme of this year's awards: the power of planning - or planners - to do good.
Sophie Dollar of W&K told the story of how she, with massive reserves of energy and determination to apply her brain and planning tools at her disposal, stopped people wasting energy in the office and redistributed the saved energy to the developing world - in this case, with the help of the NGO Solar Aid, to an orphanage in Kenya.
The APG exists to bring its members together and encourage them to share experiences, learning and insights. All of these cases are designed to add to the body of learning available to planners and marketing thinkers. They will shortly be published in book form by the APG and also in film and print to members on our website so that you can see both the quality of the written argument and the power of a compelling presentation.
The way planners approach problems can be so personal, drawing from our knowledge and experience in such individual ways, that it makes the nature of this competition essentially community-minded. There's a lot of limelight to be had in winning APG medals, but when you enter the Creative Strategy Awards, you understand that your thinking is setting a standard and that it will be shared, mulled and argued over, learned from, copied and repeated. I believe thinking and ideas are better shared and almost always improved in company.
Indeed, many of the presentations were partnerships between planners in an agency or a planner on behalf of a multi-agency team. The best entries made you want to be on their team, learning from and working with them.
Undeniably, planners are stronger together, and that's precisely why we have an APG. But we are in the midst of unprecedented change.
"We suffer not just from ignorance of the future, but from a limited capacity to imagine what the future might be," John Kay said in Obliquity.
Planners are among the most imaginative thinkers in the business community. It's clear that we'll have to carry on finding new ways to confront the challenges that face us and seek out newer and bigger challenges to future-proof our discipline.
There was plenty of evidence from the shortlisted cases of powerful and game-changing thinking. There was also evidence that planners can shape up to challenges using the traditional weapons well - clarity of thought, an ability to focus, persuasive argument - and they can read situations fast and respond dynamically using new tools and approaches.
The question is: are we doing enough? Are we bold enough and brave enough to push ourselves further, building on what we know and finding new and more far-reaching ways to exert our influence?
I consulted Adam Morgan, planner extraordinaire and good friend of the planning community. He is quite clear on this point: "Planning is an exciting discipline in an exciting world. But planning needs to stop talking brilliantly to itself and start talking to a broader audience ... and be a more dynamic, high-profile and appreciated agent for change in the agency and marketing worlds."
So what's needed is a simple idea. We amplify what is best about the Creative Strategy Awards and into a bigger, bolder APG-sponsored initiative. For now, I'm calling it Noisy Thinking and I think it consists of two things.
First: intellectual leadership. Bold, innovative thinking that has a wider application to the business, marketing and communications worlds.
I am lucky to work for Ogilvy & Mather, which values intellectual leadership and is prepared to give planners the space, time and resource to explore new thinking and become active in the London marketing community. Some media agencies are investing in visionary thinking, too. But for planners in less well-resourced and outward-looking businesses, the APG has a duty to provide a voice and an outlet for their talents and a means of extending the influence of planners and planning in a way that is commensurate with their abilities.
Second: training, sharing learning and supporting each other. The APG runs excellent training courses and provides a knowledge database for its members. But the best knowledge database we have is ourselves: a vast pool of planners of every hue and level of seniority doing very different jobs across multiple disciplines. We need to engage this army of thinkers to get together, debate, share and train each other and get a grip on solving tomorrow's problems with even more imagination, skill and flair than today's.
Noisy Thinking starts this autumn. The APG will sponsor a series of debates and events that kick off the dialogue, inviting the thinkers of our time to be as vocal, controversial and imaginative as possible. Their ideas and the contributions of the audience will start to help us shape a visionary agenda for planning for the next five years.
The APG will also be sponsoring a new series of planning seminars for younger planners, tutored by respected current practitioners. Designed to train and hone the planning leaders of tomorrow, they will be given a proper forum for their thinking and a channel to the heart of the debate.
Finally, I hope that all of those who have been kind enough to give me their thoughts and opinions on the future of planning will be ready to get up and think noisily - for all our sakes. The invites are in the post.
With special thanks to Morgan, John Shaw and my fellow judges.
Sarah Newman is the global planning partner at Ogilvy & Mather.