Crisis, what crisis?

What’s the plan for planning? Image courtesy of see_another_side.

A few years ago in an orgy of self-congratulation and a pithy monographs invoking the spirit of King and Pollitt, planning turned forty. The second great advertising innovation of the twentieth century alongside Bernbach’s pairing of creative teams seemed confident and cocksure with a rosy future ahead of it both within the advertising development process and beyond it.

However, far from being in the rudest of health I wonder whether planning is actually in crisis, the result of a combination of external and internal factors that are putting it under considerable practical pressure. For the first time in my career, I’m not sure we can take the future of the discipline for granted and certainly not in its current form.

No one doubts that clients want greater help navigating the minds and actions of consumers or that they have an insatiable demand for insight but has anyone bothered to let their procurement departments know? The fee negotiations that all of us have been subjected to over the past couple of years were characterised by unparalleled brutality. And its often planning that gets compromised first in the desire to descope the agency offering to match the figure procurement has plucked out of the air.
Of course, its not all about penny pinching, in part we are under pressure precisely because of planning’s success as an idea and as an offering. Few clients outside the media industry believe that there is much value in taking creativity in-house, recognising that their cultures and opportunities do not attract the best creative practitioners. But that’s not been the case with planning. Clients are increasingly keen to absorb more of the planning function into their own head count and marketing departments. And with those skills on board they feel less inclined to out-source them to their agencies. Witness the number of pitches in which clients come not only with a problem but also half a solution and it’s the planning half of the solution they have under their arms.
Simultaneously we are all trying to understand and enagage with our audiences at a time of unparalleled cultural and technological change. And specifically how to construct a planning offering that is capable of meeting this need while also offering more traditional brand advice and strategic counsel to our clients. Not in blogging lah-lah land but at the agency coalface where planning heads are trying to balance real revenue with much needed investment. As the skills of the strategist fragment we have to find a way to afford a core offering of generalists as well as a stable of strategic specialists. And we have to figure out which specialist skills we need in house, which will be offered by partner agencies and which will continue to be sourced on the open market.
It feels to me like a perfect storm of declining revenue to pay for our people and expanding skills that are required of them, that’s the crisis that planning is facing.
Now, for the more myopic of you this may be a cause for celebration, planning has often been seen as a source of frustration for both account handlers and creatives, in part because of the way it has de-skilled both of them. With an entire group of people focused on communications effectiveness, account handlers have lost their strategic instincts and with creative departments offered much of the solution in the brief they have lost the salesmanship so beloved of Ogilvy and Abbott.
But before you crack open the Krug pause for a moment to think what this says about the direction of travel for our business. Let planning follow the media boys and girls out of the door and we recognise that advertising agencies are no more that outsourced creative departments, there to do little more than the colouring-in for clients that already have the solution to their business problem and just need a selection of creative ideas to they can choose from.
Agencies need planning because though it’s true that great and effective advertising can be created without us, planning makes sure both these outcomes happen more often. But that need has to be based on real value to client and agencies alike not bodies that can be charged onto the client to bump up the fees on the account – those days are over. And for that reason I think we may need to look at the way we organise planning.
Since the birth of the planning we have modeled our departments on that of account handling. Planners have always been allocated to specific accounts like their account handling partners working hand in glove with them on a daily basis. This approach has clearly been effective but it’s also been rather cosy creating an environment where the mediocre can hide, the brilliant get lost, and we have by necessity to create one-size-fits-all planners because every one in the department is doing broadly the same job.
This isn’t the case with our creative colleagues. Teams are rarely allocated to clients but instead a pool of increasingly diverse creative talent solves the creative problems the agency is faced with. One team can be allocated to a project or many and they can either work competitively or collaboratively to find and execute the best solution. Some teams may be more familiar with a client than others, however real institutional knowledge is held by the Creative Directors or ECD who match the best talent to the task.
Perhaps it’s time to operate our planning departments more like our creative departments. And to do so because it might offer a better way to add value to our client’s, to our agencies and frankly a more rewarding way for our best talent to work. With a pool of diverse planning skills, including deep specialists and anchored by a core of generalists, Planning Directors can match the needs of the task with the right talents and in collaborative teams working collectively and quickly to solve problems. Institutional knowledge and continuity of care for the brand would be retained by Planning Directors rather than at every level of the department. And without the need staff the department with one-size-fits-all planners allocated to accounts budget is freed up to invest in strategic specialists.
Of course, in doing this we would fundamentally disrupt the model of planning that has worked so successfully for 40 years. We will upset those clients that want dedicated planners throughout their business. And we will un-pick the rewarding and powerful relationships between suit and planner that we have always enjoyed.
However, we would also escape from a system that has made planning cosy and lazy and called into question our value. A system in which planning has been taken for granted by clients and agencies, offered and bought as part of a package without real scrutiny of the value being added to either party. Value we have to deliver more consistently and with greater speed in order to defend our revenue and value that we can only truly offer now by freeing some of that revenue to be spent on the specialisms we need to make sense of the world and deliver more effective solutions.
This post was first published as an article in Campaign Magazine

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13 Replies to “Crisis, what crisis?”

  1. Are there really no departments already working like this, with a hive of planners buzzing away at a problem? I’m surprised. It doesn’t seem all that revolutionary, and it wouldn’t be too hard to arrange.
    As someone keen to enter planning, it is of course a concern to hear such death knells; but simultaneously encouraging to hear that people within planning are considering how diverse their workforce really ought to be. The risk is that without core skills defined, planning’s role within and outside the agency becomes uncoupled to the added value.

  2. I don’t think we’re taking planning for granted (planners are amazing at doubting the worthiness of their existence every other month…), but you’re right in raising this point and I must say that there are a few agencies experimenting with this model already…
    Over time I think planners will be the key figures responsible for the casting of the team dedicated to each project, as they’re the persons most likely to have an idea of what kind of work, and thus what kind of people, would be needed.
    But I must add that:
    – we need planning more than ever, precisely because clients are coming up with their own half-baked communication ideas, and they’re often shallow and incompetent, because more often than not they don’t have the right training and experience. We need people that can assess those ideas versus the business needs, and in case challenge them.
    – we are to blame for a recent lack of focus on planning: many people in the ad industry got so excited by the digital age that they started replacing strategy with buzz words (“consumers own brands”, “people want to participate”…) and applying them to everything and everyone, as well as refusing to point the creative work in a certain direction, under the illusion that “you make something cool and it’ll fly”.
    That’s not how it works, and with a more complex environment ahead of us, we need more strategy than ever.

  3. I suppose, my only comment on this is simply to say – do you believe ‘social media strategy’ is Planning?
    To me, it seems a wholly different, more of a research-minded role. I’m yet to see a ‘social media insight’ in the same way I’d expect something in a creative brief.
    (This isn’t a slight at SM; I just think it’s a different role to conventional brand planning, and adding ‘planner’ to a SM role confuses things more than it should).

  4. Why are clients getting rid of planners?
    Because they have no idea what on earth we spend our days doing.
    What do they see from their fee put against planning? The odd creative brief to sign off if they’re lucky.
    We’re terrible at PR ing the value we add, as are our agencies – I rarely see the planner in the credits for awards unless it’s awards that we invented (APG and IPA Effectiveness).
    A lot of work that we do goes on behind the scenes.
    We do the thinking and write the decks that make the account handlers look smart and enable them to sell the work in.
    We help creatives get to great work, but we’re not on the shoot or in the edit suite so clients forget we were ever part of the idea.
    Suits get the credit for regurgitating our thinking (because they’re talking to the client every day) and creatives are celebrated for the great work – not the brief that led to the work. I remember being told in my first few weeks in advertising that “there’s no such thing as a great brief, only great work”.
    The paradox is that clients are questioning the value of planners at a time when we have never been more needed.
    Effectiveness has never been more important and the media landscape has never been harder to navigate.
    If we bring in specialists we deskill ourselves, becoming puppet masters of clever people, without actually adding anything to the process – not dissimilar to the situation suits have got themselves into.
    Bring in a comms planner, a business analyst, a trend watcher, a social media specialist, a technologist, a programmer and we remove more and more of our offering.
    Rather than bringing in specialists we should make a land grab for these areas, adding to the list of things that justify our existence.
    There are elements from the creative process I think we could learn from – planners working in pairs, being given longer to crack a brief (if creatives can’t crack the work it’s because it’s a “hard brief” or “a shit brief”, they’re given more time to work on it. If a planner can’t write the brief in two days it’s unacceptable because he’s taking away time for creative development) and giving briefs to more than one planner to add a bit of healthy competition and stop planners writing lazy briefs.
    But don’t deskill us by bringing in specialists.
    It will be the beginning of the end for planning.

  5. Richard’s model of generalists and specialists is basically right. It’s one that media and integrated agencies are moving to already – media because they aim to make money for added value services, integrated because they have to cover a wide range of skills. It’s also a model where big agency groups may have an advantage as they probably have this generalist and specialist talent already, even if it’s siloed in to separate agencies and departments at the moment. Where it gets challenging is where it becomes a free market for talent. Agencies need to be willing to free up their planners to be a floating pool of talent. And all of us planners need to ask ourselves how well we’d fare if our talent was on the block in an agency’s internal market every day.

  6. Richard the problem with planning isn’t one of structure but of discipline. Planners don’t need to get SM they need to be masters of the macro socio-dynamics which make it a relevant phenomenon. The reason planning’s value has come into question is that as it came of age it failed to expand its frame of reference. Its discipline suffered the same strategic convergence, from which it was supposed to be rescuing its clients’ brands.

  7. Good article. It’s not in crisis – but if it were to be then it’s about our lack of ability to be more ‘and and’ rather than ‘only about’. In other words more adaptive but retain our core value – to understand human beings in the cultural context within which they make decisions and connect at that point.
    It may be time to look at what account planning Vs the other disciplines actual do again. If we don’t understand why people do what they do then we are useless to advertising and technology and any other things we try to shoe-horn into our daily lives.
    I smile when I read about how brilliant it is to fail and fail fast and to learn from that failure. Great – if your making things that you expect people to pay money for but not if your constructing a strategy to add intangible value to a clients product/service to create greater propensity to purchase.
    What happened to being brilliant and getting it right? By all means make stuff and try it out with an audience but lets not forget about human truths and need states and how our job is to be useful and interesting in a way that connects their emotional nerve endings to a product or service.
    And if we want to be in the boardroom – let’s at least use their language rather than ours!

  8. While I would agree that planning is under pressure from many directions, my experience of working with planners for 25 years is that one of the greatest threats to planning lies elsewhere.  
    I observe that the desire of many clients for their agencies to provide great strategic planning has never been stronger.  The best clients greatly value planning’s objective 3rd party perspective, free of clients’ political pressures and informed by deep consumer insight, experience from other markets and an understanding of how creative ideas can energise brand strategy.  What clients do NOT value is planning being used to sell.  A notable change I have observed in 25 years as a qualitative research consultant is the way that planning’s role in many agencies has mutated from that of ‘honest broker’ to salesman, with planners being used to post-rationalise work that really doesn’t meet the brand’s needs.  This used to be the Suit’s job – and as an expedient business tactic it’s fair enough.  But putting planners into this role badly undermines their credibility and trust, without which they are nothing.  While I would never be naive enough to suggest that planners are wholly impartial, they do need to function as the most ‘independent’ voice within the agency, with the client’s best interests at heart.  It is when the agency does not respect and preserve this status that planning loses its value.  
    If there is a crisis in planning, I believe it exists in those agencies where its true value has been undermined by its mis-use as a selling tool.  However, as indicated by the responses to the Campaign article from Bridget, Andy and Sarah, this is not a universal issue.  In my experience, the agencies where planning is most valued by clients are those where it is part of the business culture, absolutely integral to the way the agency operates.  This can only happen from the top down, with a heavyweight planner’s name either literally or metaphorically ‘on the door’.

  9. From where I sit planning is going through a rennaisance. I am doing more brand development work, upstream business strategy work and creating more ideas of more shapes and sizes than ever before.
    Now more than ever I am being asked to help my clients in a more upstream way and genuinely shaping their business not just their comms.
    There are at least five things I think contribute to this:
    1. Proper planning training combined with broad experience. Although I have proper old school planning training I have learnt how to apply these skills in a more open way.
    My training at BMP, JWT, TBWA and Chiat Day have been invaluable. But I also think 4 years freelancing doing anything from brand strategy to communications planning and 10 years in media planning/buying/sales have been just as important.
    Do we really have the right experience, training and skills that clients need in this new converged world?
    2. Do we work in an environment that encourages the right solution? I am part of a management team (with a finance director) just as excited by us creating a built space idea, a designer hand-bag, a 2 for 1 promotion or a new logo as a solution as we are a TV ad or website. We aren’t set up to create X-shaped answers.
    3. Are we truly open to bringing in people who have very specific business, technical, media and technology knowledge and experience in executing things when we don’t have it. e.g. data fusion, business analytics, GPS retail technology, licencing, games research etc. We see ourselves as designers, creators, curators, activators not producers.
    4. Do we help clients really see the benefit of more open solutions? We are lucky in that we work with clients who don’t tend to have a shopping list of media or even comms discipline allocations. But for those that don’t we try and show them different types of solutions as well as what they asked for.
    5. Finally, I agree that it is important for planners to have a much clearer appreciation of what they actually deliver to clients. What do you spend your time doing and what experience and expertise will you bring? How is that valuable to a client? Try writing a proposal for yourself with costs against it and the value you think you’ll deliver.
    This is hardly revolutionary. Or is it?

  10. Firstly, can you add a tweet and/or facebook like buttons to your posts?
    Secondly, planning is losing its grip because of the ‘new economy’. Whilst we planners are busy philosophising and writing books and talking about where brands are headed, there are digital/creative people actually getting it done. And in the new fragmented/digital/social economy access to information and insights is much more readily available. So we better all start learning the ropes of ‘the new world’ or face extinction.

  11. Brenda, Thanks for your comment. Wish I could add a sharing feature to the posts but unfortunately this software predates both facebook and twitter. Any suggestions on how to add this to moveable type welcome.

  12. The myth of the account planner is that strategic ideas come out of their heads first and foremost and the lucky lucky agency and clients get to benefit. I applaud your suggestion for anchoring a planning function in the agency just to remind us intellectual airheads that the strategy belongs to the agency workgroup and has no reality until the team (along with the planner) has implemented it. The blogosphere created the illusion of the planner as the savant who could sit in coffee bars giving good chat and dole out brand strategies without ever removing their hands from their pockets. We’re more like the fly half. We are judged by how well we feed the team and ultimately how often that team scores.

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