The year ahead for ... account planning

David Bain says that after years of complacency within the industry, inventive thinking is now needed to make the most of shrinking budgets.

If, in 2009, Sir Martin Sorrell was revealed to be the secret leader of a species of hyper-intelligent intergalactic space badgers, I would be only mildly surprised. Because, if 2008 has taught us anything, it is that, in 2009, almost anything is possible.

Business became the strangest place in a strange world last year. In this topsy-turvy world, Gordon Brown, the boom economy's most potent symbol of starched frugality, is telling us it is now our patriotic duty to go shopping. We must spend for victory.

And this strange contrariness is also played out in the dominant consumer mood. There is a strange sense of collective glee mixed up with all the economic gloom. It seems that the thought of austerity has made us all a bit giddy. We appear to almost like the idea of this recession. We seem to be gloating at our old complacent selves, pointing the finger at yesterday's slackness - "That'll learn yer for spending nearly four quid a pop on double chocamochaccinos every bleeding day."

We appear to want to take our medicine, be purged, restored. Journalists such as India Knight (the author of The Thrift Book: Live Well And Spend Less) are almost making austerity chic.

Could it be that the past ten years of economic growth, our years of surplus and plenty, have somehow sat uncomfortably with the British psyche? Could we be leaping on this recession so zealously because somehow we are happier and more comfortable with a picture of ourselves painted standing square-jawed against adversity; all brilliantine, resilience and pluck? We'd never had it so good, but maybe ended up feeling rather bad.

Perhaps. But what I do think is certain is that greater austerity this year will demand greater things from agencies. With shrinking budgets and dissipating demand, we will need to put a John Mills twinkle into our eye and just make the most of a bad job. "Make do and mend," as the wartime slogan insisted. We will almost certainly need to give ourselves appropriate nicknames (I am already calling my partners Trev, Bil and Andrew by the more apposite Squiffy, Spodger and Tinkles).

I must admit to sharing some of the self-flagellating glee about these more testing times. Affluence in the advertising market has ultimately been a force for conservatism as there has been little necessity for innovation.

So, just as the past few years has provided an upsurge of communications possibilities, it has also seen most brands still doing broadly the same things they did 20 years ago. Plentiful budgets may have led to many a pretty microsite, but it has also led us to primarily construct campaigns through expensive sways of paid-for broadcast media.

We have had it a bit easy, we have been able to talk a good game, but we have never really been required to adopt the startlingly new by an economic imperative. We have been playing at marketing with Monopoly money with often monotonous results.

But we have a tried-and-tested strategy to deal with these issues. Inventiveness has always been our natural, practical response to difficult times. No nylons? Never mind, slap some Bisto on your pins. No fabric for a wedding dress? A nip and a snip of this parachute should do the trick. Mother necessity has always brought out a particular genius in the British.

And the necessities of the advertising market this year will be that we must do more with less for our clients. We will need to create ideas with greater persuasive force for less money. We will have to coax a frightened consumer back into confidence without the budgets we took so blithely for granted in the fat years.

Inventive thinking in advertising is about finding affordable and fresh ways to connect with consumers when resources are lean. So, our McCain TV ads are wonderfully creative (well, my mum thinks so), but putting McCain chips into a play at The Old Vic is better described as inventive. Nike+ is inventive but probably not nearly as inventive as Walkers' "Do us a flavour".

The best viral ideas seem to be inventive as well as creative. Every one of the millions of consumers who "elfed themselves" across the world this Christmas was a participant in a beautifully inventive and shrewd piece of creativity. Inventiveness gives ideas more affordable scale, gives us the possibility of reaching the world on a shoestring.

Planning's role in a more inventive culture is critical. But first we need to purge ourselves of our brand- and broadcast-first perspective on the world. If the answer is less likely to be a brand campaign on TV this year, then we almost need to start thinking about ideas that publicise and provoke on the assumption of a zero budget.

As planners, we need to apply our energies as much to the cost and value of how a brand behaves as we do to what it stands for and says. We must help brands decide on what activities are really valuable and which are superfluous. It will mean helping brands stretch their money further by strategic inventiveness (how else could we achieve the same ends by radically different means?) and by helping them recalibrate their ambitions so that expected ends are reasonably matched to means.

In recessionary times, we might need to adjust to a quite different set of planning questions. "What are the fewest things a brand should meaningfully do or say this year?" and "How can we get them done for next to nowt?"

So, my hopes for advertising this year are for an explosion in inventive thinking, that harder times might set us free from the complacency of plenty. Tight budgets, new technological possibilities and the blurring of boundaries between digital, PR, advertising and events make it possible, but it will be cunning, chutzpah and guile that make it real.

- David Bain is a partner at Beattie McGuinness Bungay.