Planning’s mid life crisis


Image courtesy of stoopidgerl.

Only planners would have spent the summer celebrating their 40th birthday. Unless I am very much mistaken, the creative fraternity aren’t given to marking Bernbach’s marriage between art directors and copywriters or account handlers to commemorating the launch of Microsoft Excel for Windows. But the Johnny-come-lately of the advertising community has always felt the need to prove its contribution and to celebrate its survival.

And indulgent as it may have seemed, this bout of navel gazing gives us a clue to why planning has survived so long. Like anyone wrestling with a mid-life crisis the greatest thing that we planners fear is losing the youthful exhuberance of the discipline and settling down with a pipe and slippers to a life of comfortable predictablility.
The truth is that becoming part of the agency furniture is not just the greatest testament to planning’s success over the past 40 years it is also its greatest threat. It is precisely the point at which planning is taken for granted that real planning dies and those around it lose the will to live. Planning that is ordered up by clients and dished out by agencies for the simple reason that it is now part of the process on both sides. And planning where the principle output is not better work but acres of powerpoint created purely to serve that process. This is not planning, it is no doubt handy, but it is not planning.
You see planning has survived and prospered for so long for one reason alone. Not because we are part of the furniture but because we are utterly dispensable and we are at our best when we know it.
Only a fool would suggest that you need planners to create powerful and effective work. Not only was our business famous for delivering immensely powerful and effective work long before planning arrived on the scene but it also authored some of the most admired strategic ideas of all time. From ‘We’re number two, we try harder’ for Avis to Stella’s ‘reassuringly expensive’, both safely in the can before planning was even a twinkle in the eyes of Pollitt and King.
The only reason that planning was created and continues to have value is because when it’s good it increases the likelihood of producing powerful and effective work. If it is doing this then it has a potent role in the agency and a right to be part of its future, if it isn’t then it is probably time to pension the planners off and spend your money on a few more Swedish creative teams.
So forgive us our mid-life crisis, it is simply because planning, unlike the other disciplines, is only useful if it is being useful.

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15 Replies to “Planning’s mid life crisis”

  1. My question for this is a simple one – how does this play out on a global scale?
    We’re constantly being told that planning is the glue that knits the whole global lot together, despite rather dubious tracking studies from each country – which we’re supposed to interpret and digest into one (seemingly prosiac) whole.
    I agree that planning should be quiet for the most part, but when it’s relied upon to this degree, do you not think it’s compromised in some way?

  2. I think planning has survived so long is that it’s usurped so much space that the only people who can now get rid of planning are planners. And that’s not going to happen.
    Good planning is so very, very rare. And is usually just intelligent, talentless people, trying to find themselves a cool job.
    In my experience.

  3. As a copywriter I find planners to be far, far more useful than the actual discipline of planning. Most planners I’ve met are thoughtful, interesting, intelligent people. Most planning I’ve seen, on the other hand, is predictable, tedious gobbledygook.
    When you get a planner involved in your work early on in your thought processes it almost invariably makes the work better. But when those same people draft a creative brief, they all too often arrive at a badly written endline, masquerading as a strategy, propped up by a handful of dubious “learnings.” Genuine insight is thin on the ground.
    My way around this problem is to seek out a planner who doesn’t actually work on the account in question. For whatever reason they tend to be more honest and helpful that way.
    I’m not sure that planning will have value (internally) for another 40 years. But planners – whatever we end up calling them – sure as hell will.

  4. Nick – interesting stuff, particularly on the misuse (and, honestly, abuse) of the word insight. It’s a great shame, and something which I think is the fault of both client and agency.
    An actual, real, game-changing piece of thinking is worthy of being called an insight; knowing that mums buy baby shampoo because it smells nice isn’t.

  5. ‘Reassuringly Expensive’ was coined in 1982, well after twinkles appeared in the eyes of King and Pollitt.

  6. There are few truly good planners – this much is true – I have met/worked with only a handful that I would say were even close to ‘good’. Great ones – rarer than hen’s balls.
    Planning it seems, flourishes in agencies where there is a lack of willingness to understand or even like a client’s business. Laziness in the creative department fuelled by a lack of intelligence in client services has created the conditions where planning has been allowed to create it’s own version of powerpoint hell. We have ourselves to blame.

  7. “. . .the greatest thing that we planners fear is losing the youthful exhuberance of the discipline and settling down with a pipe and slippers to a life of comfortable predictablility”.
    Nothing wrong with a pipe son! Slippers, maybe.

  8. Damn this spam; getting in the way of an interesting debate. As a researcher ( and ex planner) What I want to know is: why aren’t more planners creatives? You lot are bright enough (how many creatives could author adliterate? only the very best writers I suspect)and imaginative enough, so why don’t you give birth rather than act as midwife? Always wondered. Maybe you could address the issue in another spam free post?

  9. Dominic – good point and one that I can answer to a certain extent having been a creative director before abandoning the magic marker for the art of the chart 8 years ago. It is very much the same process in essence I agree – great creatives are in fact often highly strategic – Dave Trott, George Lois, Ogilvy and Howard Luck Gossage to name a few. (Incidently David Ogilvy said he loved this line from HLG in homage to his RR ad: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Land Rover comes from the roar of the engine.” – brilliant).
    But to be REALLY good you have to be able to create emotional connections in a way that transcends words, music and filmic technique. The balance has to be just right nuanced for the prevailing cultural mood.
    The line between simply ‘doing ads’ and creating work that becomes part of our cultural milieu is not easy to define – in fact it’s impossible before it has been deployed but there are some people that can spot it and make it happen more often than not. These are the true artists – and I mean artists, who have a unique expressive ability – John Webster for example.
    I am not saying planners are not capable of creating ads – of course they could with the right conditions around them and they would turn out just as much crap as most working in the industry today – but they wisely choose not to.
    Why wouldn’t planners necessarily make great creatives? Having met a few artists it seems to me that real artists have no choice other than to BE an artist – they are compelled – planners on the other hand have too many choices and therefore can never be a true artist. Gosh bit up my own whatsit here – but hopefully you get the point.

  10. why do planners feel they ought to explain their existence, and anticipate their survival?
    Planners often seem to prefer solo soul-searching to group hugs; which could go some way to explaining why it is difficult to classify the herd that is planning and hence where it will go.
    I met an engagement planner today. who then told me he wasn’t really an engagement planner. and then told me he wasn’t a planner.

  11. Hello Lisa – long time no chat.
    I’m a planner. Not an engagement planner (i’ve never quite understood that job description – surely every planner’s role is to engage and be engaging), but a planner.
    A planning function will be around for a long time. It’ll change and evolve, but the basics will still remain.

  12. Hi planner Will.
    Today my colleague explained that as an engagement planner he was able to frame his relationship with the account with greater flexibility. Avoiding the one-size/template/brief/thought process/etc.-fits-all approach to a business objective. And furthermore, he felt enabled to have a strong directive on media choice.
    We’ve gone from engagement planner, to planner, to “a planning function”.
    I hope that spells survival..)

  13. Hello Lisa.
    (Have already responded on Facebook to you, but if you get this first..)
    That definition isn’t engagement planning; it’s planning full stop. You’ll always need someone to take the time to think (rather than do or create), so I think there’ll always be a point for planning/strategists.

  14. Thanks for clarifying Will.
    Back to the Gouda then.
    Take it easy and see you around.

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