West Wing planning: a new approach

Tracey Follows, the new APG chair, urges planners to use persuasion for a strategy that is both radical and rigorous.

Follows: seeks a planning approach that combines technologically rich ideas with strong influence among the mainstream audience
Follows: seeks a planning approach that combines technologically rich ideas with strong influence among the mainstream audience

In Adam Morgan’s foreword to the Account Planning Group’s Creative Strategy Awards in 2013, he draws a distinction between two types of planning: "Washington planning" and "Hollywood planning". The analogy comes from when he asked his two boys one day: "What is the capital of America?" One answered Washington and the other said Hollywood. As Morgan points out, both were right, in different ways.

The same is true of planning, he suggests. Washington planning is the rigorous, authoritative, category-centric, consumer-closeness approach that often delivers long-term effectiveness; Hollywood planning is the radical, culturally conscious, category-busting approach that attempts to grab our attention in ways we didn’t see coming. As Morgan explains, these two different models currently coexist.

One might say that duality has always existed in planning: the role for planners under JWT’s Stephen King was that of "grand strategists" focused on the building of brands, while BMP planning was centred on the creative idea and its iteration through continual consumer research.

There has never been one view of planning and there never will be. But I do think it is helpful to try to fuse the best of Washington with the best of Hollywood to create something closer to The West Wing. That is to say: we can aim for technologically rich ideas that are also proven to be hugely influential among mainstream audiences.

We have of late seen various awards and adulation paid to the novelty idea or execution. It may be smart, it may be interesting. It may even be original. But will it make a blind bit of difference to anyone’s behaviour beyond the pavement cafes of the advertising village? Or, to put it another way, can planning be at once both rigorous and radical?

Like any good brief, we should start with the outcome. What is the outcome we want from planning, as an industry, as a discipline, as a practice? I would argue that we want planning to bring about as much influence as possible in the world of creative ideas. We want planning to demonstrate how it makes the difference between what is an interesting idea and what becomes an influential idea. In fact, in my view, it is now the role of the planner to take an idea that is merely interesting and make it influential.

The core skill of the planner is in persuasion. Particularly if it is true that, in any given scenario, 20 per cent of people are with you, 20 per cent of people are against you and the remaining 60 per cent are persuadable either way. Planners can’t choose which idea is presented to the client or make a client approve it, but we can persuade the agency team of the right strategic direction over and above all other alternatives, and we can persuade the client that there are better ways than others to achieve a particular result. An interesting idea may be inherently interesting to 20 per cent of your audience; the planner needs to shift that to 80 per cent.

To that end, the APG will be focusing on training that helps nurture and develop persuasiveness. One of the APG’s best-attended courses is "Holding Your Own With Senior Clients", and we will be building on this theme this year. An understanding of your audience as much as your idea is at the heart of many a successful strategy, pitch or presentation.

Later in the year, we will be staging "An Audience with Sir Lawrence Freedman", the author of Strategy: A History. The book is a tour de force in strategy and its importance across business, politics, the military and even primate groups. The core issue at the heart of strategy, the author notes, is whether it is possible to manipulate and shape our environment rather than simply become the victim of forces beyond one’s control. One might call that being "influential with your ideas".

Craig Mawdsley, as the previous APG chair, has done a wonderful job of getting the planning community to approach the discipline through the lens of innovation. Now it is the role of the APG to ensure that innovative ideas are also influential in the broader sense – reaching bigger and bigger audiences with even better and brighter ideas than ever before. Our industry is at its very best when it is democratising niche ideas for the benefit of the many – helping to "push the human race forward", as one of the greatest strategists ever once said.

The planner’s role is no longer to be the voice of the consumer. Through social media, the consumer has found their own voice, and they make it heard directly and in real time. The truth is that the real core skill of planners today lies in persuasion. And, in that sense, we can see that, over the years, planning has changed almost entirely and yet hardly at all.

Tracey Follows is the chief strategy officer at JWT London and chair of the Account Planning Group