Welcome to the age of micro-planning

Downstream – where planning is heading. Image courtesy of SunnyUK

I had the absolute privilege of judging the Account Planning Group Creative Strategy awards recently. I love the APG Awards, they showcase real planning and great planners in a way that the other so called planning awards do not. And for me this year saw a return to form for the awards. In all there were 26 presentations from some of the best in the business, delivered in person, which is one of the reasons the awards are so special – for planners and judges alike.

This year’s shortlist has been public for a while. And there is everything in it from extremely famous campaigns like Cravendale’s Thumb Cats, the Yeo Valley rappers and The Stella ‘She’s a thing of beauty’ campaign to an internal project at Weiden’s to reduce energy consumption, a Japanese bottled water that cornered the market with a new collapsible bottle and a campaign to help demobilisation of FARC Guerillas in Columbia. Clearly I can’t let on what has won yet but every one of them is worth a read when the papers are published shortly.
That said I think there was a clear difference in this year’s papers and presentations. A lot less brand planning (though there are some splendid examples) and a lot more micro-planning. I have no problem with the downstream approach to planning, it has always represented proof that the planner is more than a brief writing machine and is capable of and welcome to bring their skills to bare on the more executional facets of a campaign. This is particularly the case when real time planning is required as a campaign unfolds and evolves.
That said it seems a shame to me if planners are walking away from, or unable to deliver, ‘upstream’ brand planning. Planning that either repositions a brand in the marketplace (such as Matt Boffey’s Lurpak work or Craig Mawdsley’s Sainsbury’s thinking which both won in 2007) or shapes a communications campaign with a clever reframing of the problem or sharp proposition (think Richard Storey’s Met Police campaign or Stuart Smith’s Positive Hate thinking for Honda).
So why are we seeing a lot less brand planning and a lot more micro planning? Indeed this year’s particular theme was the selection and prioritisation of celebrities according to their social media reach. Worthwhile but not really award winning. Personally I don’t think it’s the quality of our planners, I rather suspect it is the quality or nature of the briefs that we receive and in particular the pitch briefs that we get.
Once upon a time in a land far, far away clients would issue pitch briefs with the commercial problem they were seeking to solve and ask a selection of agencies at the top of their game to answer that problem by any means they felt necessary to meet the objective. That was a brilliant time for planners because our role was to work out how to use brand and communications and their meaning and content to change people’s behaviour and thus solve the problem. That’s why Craig Mawdsley’s Sainsbury’s paper is so good and won a Grand Prix, it starts with a commercial problem and shows why asking people to try something new today would and did deliver incremental sales to Sainsbury’s.
However, this kind of pitch has become rarer and rarer. For one thing the this shoddy Government has turned its back on communications led behaviour change after decades of success in doing this – there were a lot fewer UK Government papers this year (though notably the Governments of Iceland and Columbia both retain a faith in what we do). But more importantly Clients are arriving at our doors having done the planning bit – whether this is good, bad or indifferent. Often this has been with some kind of branding agency or research company and it’s rarely that edifying. Clearly every client has the right to do this but it means that Agencies are given briefs to execute work to a brand idea not to solve a commercial or social problem. In one pitch this year the planning had been done entirely at the previous incumbent and then the creative brief shipped out to a selection or new agencies – which must still stick in that planners throat, especially as the thinking was award worthy but severed from the creative work by the review.
Micro-planning, downstream and real time planning have all been a welcome addition to the capabilities and remit of the strategist. However, these approaches should have been in addition to our role in providing the first moment of transformation in a brand’s future or in the success of its communications rather in replacement of it. Call me old fashioned but I’d still prefer to be delivering exciting new futures for brands not just fiddling with the execution of the creative work.
The APG Awards are announced on Thursday 6th October.

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14 Replies to “Welcome to the age of micro-planning”

  1. Wait.
    Are you actually blaming clients for this? Complaining about not getting good briefs? Perhaps it’s that clients have lost confidence in adland’s ability to do upstream planning and thus you no longer get all the work.
    Adland is in a planning rut. Long-term value is hard to find and brands are having trouble trusting agencies (especially traditional/ATL agencies) with upstream brand planning when it is obvious that they’re no longer able to see the big picture with any kind of certainty.
    The examples you cite are proof of the problem … Whilst I might agree that Matt Boffey’s Lurpak work is solid and Craig Mawdsley’s Sainsbury’s thinking is notable, it’s hard to see how Richard Storey’s work for the Met Police or Stuart Smith’s Positive Hate thinking for Honda has any long-term “upstream” impact on those brands.
    Need a 30″ spot? Or a print campaign? Or some other disjointed/non-integrated piece of advertising? No problem. Need an add-on to an ATL campaign? Be my guest. Plan away until your heart’s content. The thing is, the idea of planning has changed, and traditional planning simply hasn’t kept pace with the changes.
    “Call me old fashioned but I’d still prefer to be delivering exciting new futures for brands not just fiddling with the execution of the creative work.”
    Ok, you’re old fashioned. ;-)

  2. George, I think you raise an important point about being able to see the big picture – I think a side effect of badly thought out ‘integration’ (where agencies of different stripes are simply expected to get on) means that many either stick to their own disciplines – leading to short sightedness – or protect their fee and try and land grab.
    I don’t think it’s as simple as claiming there’s a planning rut, or that it’s all the fault of the client’s brief (though I do believe that badly thought out integrated projects are largely to blame). I’ve worked with client-side planners (Diageo spring to mind) who were terrific – who helped shine a light on parts of the business that, if I’d have had five years on the business, I wouldn’t have known.
    George, talking about ‘traditional planning’ as a whole is a tad hard to do; surely it’s simply a set of skills? Certain projects (depending on medium and client task) will require more or less of them. There will undoubtedly be agencies who’re behind the curve, but to accuse a whole discipline of not keeping pace is a mite unfair.
    For me, I think the point is about getting closer to the business, and proving that you’re not constricted by your discipline (whether it’s digital, ATL, PR or otherwise) is crucial. That said, I still believe the race will be run by those agencies that understand the relationship between data and business building ideas. Given ‘traditional planning’s’ focus on these areas, I should think it’d be a long time before those traditional skills die off.

  3. I think this post is nice and does a good job at describing micro planning and a problem. But not THE problem. In my opinion it’s not micro planning, but rather micro marketing. I believe it has to do with the change in how people consume information and our client’s brands. That consumption pattern is vastly different than during the period of classically trained planners. So, in my thinking, it’s not the client or the planner but more of the market dynamics that have created this situation. In some ways, George, is correct. The idea of planning – or rather the task of planning – has changed. That’s not something that we can pin on any one party, but rather all parties and the marketplace itself.
    That’s my two cents.

  4. If that is the definition of old fashioned – adding value to a client’s business then I am distinctly stone age.
    I’m not blaming anyone, merely seeking an explanation for why there is less brand thinking on offer in awards like this. The truth is that there were some decent brand ideas but scarily planners weren’t interested in talking about them – they wanted to talk about their micro-planning. Like its the fashion of the day.

  5. Todd -you’re spot on.
    I kept planner in my job title when I set the agency up. But what it means now and what it meant 6 years ago are light years apart.
    Even – dare I say it – crowd sourcing design business models like 99 designs push a ‘test and iterate’ model into the face of all clients- not just the penny pinching ones. We have to embrace this new style of work – adapt our data handling and intel generation to a scenario that means we are genuinely agile. It still needs absolute clarity of thinking – but the more you iterate, the clearer it gets. We’re supposed to be planners – thinking ahead of the game and not catching up. I say let’s try this agile thing.

  6. When I’m asked by my non-advertising friends what I do, I usually explain that ‘it is my job to make sure the money my Client spends on communications is effective, solving a business problem and selling some product.’
    To my mind, regardless of whether we’re up or downstream, this is always our focus. However, surely it is upstream that we’re best able to impact our Client’s business and deliver effective comms.
    But how sexy, new, ground breaking is this part of the job? How much more difficult is it for a planner to justify his/her role in the face of Clients, internal planners, consultants etc?
    Wouldn’t it just be easier to do something cool with SM, gaming etc? Less competition here, sexier, immediate gratification.
    I agree with Richard that Planners are focusing on fashion and losing our way. Planning was never ‘fashionable’ and surely all the better for it?

  7. Luke,
    Totally agree. Starting to wonder where agile/micro/fringe/real time planning is an excuse for not getting on with the real task. Do clients really, I mean really value this stuff? And wouldn’t it be better done by other people in the team rather than the plannner. Thinking of launching a campaign for proper planning. He he.

  8. I suspect that it depends on the type of client.
    Small, agile, entrepeneur-led outfits want everything we can give them, macro and micro.
    In bigger, global businesses we do seem to spend more time downstream. But I don’t think it’s all down to either us or our clients – at least not our direct ones: the marketers.
    In the big global businesses (and the bigger national ones too) I think marketing is less and less being involved in the big business problems. How much does marketing get in front of the board/exec committee/insert name of key decision making body?
    A lot of marketing is increasingly being seen as ‘colouring in’ or just downstream. How many annual reports or key analysts briefings major on marketing and how it’s driving the business?

  9. In my experience, the issue is twofold really
    – on the one hand clients are less global / holistic. Now you get different marketing managers to deal with the same brand across different a) geographies b) media and even c) target groups. So nobody sees the big picture of the brand any more.
    – on the other hand, I think planners are increasingly focused in coming up with brilliant ideas that, specially when it comes to digital, end up being a shiny one-off.
    Maybe the time has come to rebrand ourselves as “tactical planners”…

  10. great post. Id also been thinking a lot about this lately
    I think there is a really interesting tension going on from dare I say more experienced planners vs more junior.
    If you take some of the more experienced planners that are now consultants. Mr Earls,John Grant, Russell Davies (was now back into it agency land). These guys can work upstream and change businesses. The fact that they are consultants show they can get paid for it as well. Im sure the likes of yourself Richard and other senior planners in top agencies are the same. But how big agencies make money is a bit more diluted. But the simple question is how did you all get there. With tangible examples of your brilliance.
    So as a junior planner walking around. The first question is always ‘give me an example of your work’ you cant show them a powerpoint of great thinking. people want campaigns and awards for work. Planners need portfolios these days as much as creatives or designers
    Seeing some junior friends in planning departments in ATL agencies I very much see this microplanning and this drive to whatever the latest shiny toy is. They are asked less and less questions about the business and brand. The rigor is being lost and overtaken by the shiny PR grabbing work. For someone thats great… just make me something cool Why not. They make a cool app / social campaign they get internal praise but also agencies get paid for making stuff. They can tell their friends and all is good.
    It feels like the more experienced end of the market need to push clients for more time / money but also teach the juniors that the end result of great ideas is fine. But there needs to be a lot of rigor done at the beginning around the business and the brand.

  11. Mikej
    I have long believed that planners should have books to show off their thinking and the work that has resulted. Even. if like junior creatives its speculative work rather than stuff that has actually been implemented.
    And you are right we need to get back to the business and the brand rather than dwelling exclusively in the work of execution.

  12. The APG awards has I think gone past a fork in the road. Planning has become a worldwide phenonomen – you find planners popping up in the oddest places. And as you suggest, a lot of the planning is taking place elsewhere – clients are doing it themselves (and why not?). What the APG awards has turned into is answering the question How do UK ad agencies use planning to create value for their clients. As such the APG awards can’t represent more than a fraction of the planning going on in the UK albeit a highly competent and interesting variant. Nor does it represent the achievement of planning thinking which has transformed marketing, research and communications all over the planet. I’m not pessimistic about planning at all. I just think we need to sit down and work out how to celebrate and increase the quality of this thinking and implementing – because the first thing I do when I hear the APG awards shortlist has been posted is to go and look down the agency shortlist. And it gets narrower. Every single time.

  13. I would like to propose a more constructive point of view.
    Obviously we should all strive towards greater involvement in our clients’ business problems. It’s just that we don’t have the opportunity or mandate to do so with every assignment.
    This doesn’t mean we should sit on our hands waiting for that golden brief to come through the door. We can still make a difference through micro-planning if we choose to treat each campaign, tactical or not, as an opportunity to propel the brand forward. For years, we’ve being preaching for brands to act, not just talk. Tactical work IS the opportunity to prove a brand stands behind its promise.
    That said, we must continue to challenge and inspire clients on the big picture stuff. But it is unhealthy for planning to shy away from tactical work. As this will only make planning more removed from the work than it already is.

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