Image courtesy of badjonni

I have a very cruel, but accurate, joke about why planners have adopted social media with more enthusiasm than others in the advertising business. In advertising only planners blog, account handlers have nothing to say and creatives have better places to say it.

Indeed planners have taken to the world of online self-publishing with an alacrity they once reserved for pouring over extremely dull quantitative research. The same goes for virtually every other online or mobile tool that enables people to share their lives, photos, films and even powerpoint presentations. The online planning community is so vibrant that it even has its own name, the plannersphere.

This enthusiasm is very specific to the nature and role of planners. These are naturally the most geeky people in an agency, obsessed with why people do things and how to get them to do something else, so they have always naturally gravitated towards shiny new things.

They also crave community, since outside the major English speaking advertising cities planners are often on their own or in very small and isolated departments. The opportunity to join a network of people doing the same job and experiencing the same challenges has been a godsend to the planning diaspora.

There is also the distinct possibility that in many agencies planners lack a voice and and audience for their ideas and thinking and so have latched onto social networks as a way to ensure their ideas and opinions are met by welcoming ears.

Which simply leaves one critical question unanswered. How come there are precious few examples of brands using social media well? How come the great social media case studies of the moment start and end with Wispa and its army of Facebook fans. After all aren’t planners, as the architects of brand ideas and communications strategies, in a perfect position to influence brand behaviour online. Why haven’t planners translated their personal enthusiasm for blogging, tweeting, poking, uploading and sharing into the activities of their brands?

I maintain that it is precisely our familiarity with these tools that has placed a brake on their widespread adoptions in communication planning. It has always been the case in advertising that the more a medium means to the people in the business the more care we take over it. This partly explains why more love and attention has traditionally gone into TV advertising than into Direct Mail and Telemarketing.

So it is with social media, planners get what is going on and understand the nuanced etiquette that is expected of anyone wishing to participate in these communities. We understand the two key rules you must abide by if you are to take part in online social networks. That brands, like any of us, have to let go of the control they crave if they are ever to gain influence. And that social networks are built on simple human conversations, and a brand only has a role if it can make that conversation better. Above all we understand that the most rewarding presence that any brand can have is through the natural enthusiasm of its fans much like the devotees of Mad Men have done in twittering as members of the cast.

So forgive us for being slow in delivering plans that involve the mass adoption of the social networks that we love, it is precisely because we use and care about them that we are extremely cautious about the involvement of brands in this space. Meanwhile we will continue to use social networks in the way that best benefits our clients at the moment, as a means to listen to the conversation.


This is great. We should use the social media that we all know and love to better understand the broader culture our audiences and brands inhabit. In doing so, we can contribute to it in a way that will organically lead to the brand's presence in the social media we used in the first place. It doesn't let planners off the hook though. We need to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves why the work we're doing hasn't motivated our audiences to start the online conversation (if that's the case). If we have achieved that first step, how can we continue to cultivate it? It's a virtuous cycle - the more conversation that arises, the more we can listen and react to...

Posted by: Michael Schmidt at March 22, 2009 09:53 PM

Totally agree.
There are very few cases of social media branding. But I am optimistic about the possibilities.
Your two key facts are right. I think that there could be something more. I don't have the answer yet, but I will try to find it.

Posted by: aSplit at March 22, 2009 10:49 PM

>Meanwhile we will continue to use
>social networks in the way that
>best benefits our clients at the
>moment, as a means to listen to
>the conversation.

You are doing your clients a disservice Richard. And I think you know it...

Posted by: Robin Grant at March 22, 2009 11:09 PM

Great post!
I think the crucial point is that "a brand only has a role if it can make that conversation better".
So far, it's unclear how most brands can make a useful contribution to social networking.
The channel's got to be right for the context of what the brand is trying to say; there's no point trying to use a channel just because it's interesting in and of itself.
But for the right kind of campaign, social networks will be the 'right time, right place', and then they're the right choice.

Posted by: eskimon at March 23, 2009 02:51 AM

Look Richard. Give me a client with balls and who isn't stuck in whatever 20th century quarterly earnings arse-hole-misery-meaningless business economic hologram they cling on to for security blanket and one knows they have some hot RSS combo action going on to keep on top of the ace shit that is spilling with remarkable generosity all over the show and I'll shake things up.

I'm gagging to rip up the rubbish that is how we get by in the main. That's a promise because it's just obvious what needs doing. Lay some context and I'm good to go on anything. Really.

The grey reality is nobody is quite hungry enough yet to do the unthinkable and change ROI into Recognisably Obvious Improvement. What the fuck is wrong with knowing something is better without having to spreadsheet it for evidence? Facts are great but it's love and hate and other shit that kicks off the magic that the mediocrity just wont get. It's in their interest to maintain the status quo. As are slow moving diplomats, pompous academics, business bullshit aficianados and all the others that do politics way better than they do change and ruled over those that simply think different. You know. The crazy ones...etc.

We don't spreadsheet love in marriages or compare who loves who more because it's obviously stupid, crass and dangerous if we just thought about it a bit. We need to bin a lot of that shit thinking which is so pernicious. Spreadsheet rage over.

No balls, marketing myopia (again) and too many low qual people in charge who played the game to the max, did well but are so boring its no surprise that the surprises now non existent in so many businesses. But that will change. Two years max. Writing on the wall even though I'm loath to predict stuff.

Sit down with anybody who has half a brain and run off some Umair Haque or Confused of Calcutta or Rob Paterson on a great day and it's bloody obvious the shift is beginning. Ideas so powerful that we change the way we see the world. Ooops social media ideology. Better steer clear because its so hip to slag anything and everything off (fuck off there's plenty to be really gloomy about if that one gives you the horn) I mean even if it's close to a miracle or a proper revolution with guillotines and nervous bankers and everything *evil smile* there are people who slag stuff off but never try something new or admit mistakes are fucking great if it moves things on.

I've obviously made myself completely unemployable again with this rant, but it's the truth and worth saying because when it kicks off, I'll have put my money where my mouth is and offended the people I want nothing to do with because while they may mean well and drive well appointed cars and read newspapers that confirm their opinions, I've had to sod about for six months while waiting for them to shuffle around and I've messed up on that estimate. I thought more change by now but the pain thing is so heretical that we are dragging out the death of monetarism until we probably weep at the stupidity of the short sharp shock that is the uncommon sense screaming out to the shit that main stream media is just not grown up enough to handle.

Those that don't grasp the fundamental changes taking place are a menace. It's not personal. I've been crap at many points in life, probably more often than not, and knew I was rubbish but I'm on top of where we need to be pushing it all which is arrogant but passionate not artificial.

Business, sustainability, managed decline, more for less and lots more tough stuff that is important to our collective success, but I'm stunned that people think printing dough isn't serious enough to hit the streets for protest, and scream about the deeper mess constructing and will just push through the logical conclusion more sharply.

Great post. Got me pumped up AND up for it. You used to do that day in and day out. But you have to handle more mediocrity nowadays. But can't see you suffering fools gladly. We used to have balls as a business. Yet we employ people who failed to get into the city. We're shit now and we know it. Well not you but you're still an old media expert really. It's a compliment but I wouldn't even know where to stick a TV in my place without it sticking out and messing up the Feng Shui.

Posted by: Charles at March 23, 2009 02:56 AM

please change your font! it's really upsetting

Posted by: alinalore at March 23, 2009 10:03 AM

Agree that a brand only has a role if it can make the conversation better but a brand can't hang around waiting until it stumbles across something it has to say and can therefore suddenly join the conversation.

For a lot of brands social media is where their target audience already is. So, the brand better think of something useful, relevant, entertaining, provocative, informative, educative, challenging, or playful to say and that it can be a part of the conversations that will no doubt continue, with or without it.

I do think we've got to try harder as planners to give the brand that content so it can be in, or start, that discussion. We're no longer planning a 'message' in the traditional advertising sense, but planning something we want the brand to 'express' within a debate or conversation, something that will create an equal and opposite reaction to the one which our brand takes...and therefore spark or amplify conversations. That means taking a position (not a positioning). And publicly so. How many brands are really prepared to do this?

I think that's why Skittles got the bums rush. The brand was using social media technology without having any social media story ie the brand had nothing of interest to actually express - and therefore ended up in the tray marked 'gimmick'. It wouldn't have been half as bad if alongside the twitter page innovation there had actually been a belief, point of view or something the brand wanted to express or actually bring to the conversation...Better the brand is a participant in a social media conversation than just talked about in it behind its back.

Posted by: Tracey at March 23, 2009 03:43 PM

that's more like it!

a great post and rewarded by a five star rant from Charles

Posted by: jemster at March 23, 2009 05:18 PM

I often wonder if the social media revolution will move forward much like the creative revolution started by Bernbach in the 50's. I work at a creative agency, that proudly wins loads of awards, and believe in respectful, creative and intelligent work. In my experience it delivers superior business results. However, 60 years after the beginnings of this "revolution" many don't believe in it, produce the work we shudder at, and it still delivers business results acceptable to management and viable as a profit seeking enterprise. Though I argue that those results could have been better with increased creativity, but that's another debate.

Bottom line, "creativity" is not for all brands.

There is no doubt this social media revolution thing is profound, and some believe very profoundly in its power. And there is much to learn from the conversation, I've gained more out of the plannershere than probably any other source of information over the past decade. But, applying social media to brands, or being “social” is tricky, often in my hands-on experience social media most profoundly seems to be an outcome rather than a precipitator of changing consumer perception/behavior. Or as an input to better inform, research or test. Much like the creative revolution the social media revolution seems to be a revolt happening in very slow motion. Five years old already isn't it. I whole-heartedly believe it is for some brands and a great tool, but not so much for others. Personally, I hold minimal desire to engage in a conversation with the manufacturer of my motor oil.

But like creativity, I guess that just depends on what you believe in.

And if I’m not mistaken this comment on this post is in a very circular manner reinforcing the very premise of the post. I think you may have just suckered me in...

Posted by: Brett T. T. Macfarlane at March 23, 2009 06:50 PM

Oh but Brett....That's such a terrific topic. The "another debate" because I thought about nothing else for years and years and was just plain intimidated by it. I didn't know the answer and it looked like pumping out rubbish ads in Asia worked quite well. Which made me feel ill.

I did finally reach a positive conclusion through everyones blogging so no claims on this.

Roughly speaking creativity = risk and the rest of our work is just PROPAGANDA (prior to the internet maturing)

PROPAGANDA = Scare Marketing

Scare marketing = buy my xyz modern fmcg and be successful/pretty/admired like me, or else be a loser.

It works really well too at that frequency and reach level, because lets face it propaganda is pure messaging. The opposite of what we know Feldwick et al determined is less effective.

Efficacy versus Risk is the decision that clients and agencies have to make. But the process itself destroys anything interesting as per the rubbish that Millward Brown pedal as Link Testing.

Research for marketing pussies I think I heard it called once. Can't remember where.

Great agencies tend to pump out consistently good stuff that doesn't on the surface look risky per se, but when lesser agencies try it, suddenly what looks effortless becomes risky.

I've waffled on again, but I love this end of our job and of course there's much more.

But responding to your comment properly. I think we have a responsibility to shape social medias contribution to our work and our clients and our customers.

We can't just sit back and let the bean counters take over again, when whats worth remembering is that our gig is that money is speech or that budget is power.

We didn't appreciate that fully as the monologue marketing era emerged after the war, and we ended up with powerful one sided fear-marketing as the most effective and/or least risky way to sell.

It's our job to make sure we don't repeat that mistake but I think social anything is pretty good at taking care of itself :)

Great to hear the word profound used by someone else. It is profound and it's made our work more exciting than ever. It's not often we get these chances to rewire what is evidently a pretty ruthless and selfish profit model at the expense of creating a cynical creature that we labeled as consumers who then went on to become the disposable society.

Doers of our bidding. How arrogant eh?.... Apologies for typos and stuff but I like them now I've learned that it winds up the spelling fascists :)

I could be cheeky on the Motor oil comment because there's always a way to be useful which aint bad as a conversation starter. Brand Utility. Mapping loads of stuff if pushed to be useful or generous.

Posted by: Charles at March 24, 2009 06:13 AM

Great post, RH. And surely part of the problem is that, as you put it, "creatives have better places to say it". Advertising creatives are the last people in the world whose audience is bought for them. Everyone else — bloggers, authors, film-makers, musicians — has to earn an audience, and is increasingly embracing opportunities to build relationships, communities and interactions with them. While most art forms have become increasingly democratic — the good stuff rises, but anyone can play — advertising creative work is still a pretty dictatorial form, and very few traditional teams have any interest in changing that, despite sounding ever more like record company execs in a download age. The great thing about social media as a marketing tool is that you have to earn the attention, so you have say something worthwhile. That's the opportunity: the challenge is whether there are creative teams willing to take the dare.

Posted by: Jonathan at March 24, 2009 09:32 AM

Charles, I agree and would add that while I believe fully in the power of creativity the line between responsible use and propaganda is very thin.

One thing about social media that I pray, and it is already rearing its head, is that it holds creativity, and in fact all advertising, to a higher standard. A higher standard of honesty and transparency rather than manufactured claims or creative fluffery.

So even if the creative and account folks aren't farting about in the plannershere, bloggershere or whatever, they are all increasingly answering to it as a further consideration to all work. And we have to have our clients prepared for it.

Last week we released a poster campaign in transit systems related to security leading up to and beyond the Olympics. A particular group became very upset and raised a social media ruckus, the CEO of the company was prepared for this and within 24hours was on CBC, our equivalent of BBC, discussing openly the merits of the work, the ruckus subsided. Disaster adverted, work stayed in market.

All media is social now, provided it is interesting, or good, regardless of what medium you release the work.

Posted by: Brett T. T. Macfarlane at March 24, 2009 04:32 PM

Me too. Give me a client who is either a genius or a pushover and I'll really shake things up.

If all clients are self-evident morons, I do wonder why some people consciously enter what is a service industry.

It's a bit like becoming a hooker and then moaning about all the blowjobs you've got to give.

Posted by: grumpy at March 27, 2009 12:07 PM

Great essay! And so true! And in the same time I would say it is also one best ever descriptions of what does it mean to be good planner.

Posted by: Zigurds Zaķis at March 29, 2009 07:46 PM

We ( made this with Cadbury, which is going well so far and we're only a few weeks in and there's a lot more to come.

But I don't agree with you about social media comms adoption being slow because of planners' care of the area. Planners are often the people most enthusiastic about the web but I haven't seen ad agencies adopt that well in their comms.

There will be many reasons for this but a big one is structure. Successful ideas online (and of course in social media) tend to start small and grow slowly through collaboration. This doesn't fit in the campaign structure that agencies and marketing dept's work within.

Posted by: Ben Mason at March 30, 2009 05:13 PM

yes. but we need to get in there as well. it just its such a different staffing time ongoing commitment requirement that it's hard to know how to do it efficiently within existing structures..will need to create new ones.

Posted by: faris at April 3, 2009 06:58 PM