This evening’s Noisy Thinking was an early sell-out on-line, and the largest room in Google’s gorgeous offices was packed. Our three speakers this time were Tracey Follows, only one week into her new job as CSO of JWT, David Hackworthy, Partner at The Red Brick Road and Alex Dunsdon, currently Development Director at M&C Saatchi and poised to follow his own career advice and do what he loves by branching out on his own.
There was something gloriously positive about the atmosphere and the engagingly contrasting views of your speakers. Forget whingeing and moaning Planners agonising about their role. This was a bravura celebration of Planners in their all their intellectual and creative diversity, shining bright lights in the corners of the Planning universe; offering strategic inspiration and some fabulously creative career advice in the process. As far as I was concerned all three were ‘right’ – and that’s what made it such a compelling evening.
First up was Tracey with an elegant, closely argued and deeply intelligent argument in favour of the wisdom of humanity against the ‘wisdom of the fridge’. She held up the semantic web of data, information, reason, language and knowledge in all its glory and challenged us not to let our reality be defined by machines and computer language define our world. This was a heartfelt plea from an acknowledged expert practitioner of the 3.0 world for the principles of Brand Planning to be applied to all aspects of the new world – in the sense that Brand Planning is the tool for creating profit and growing businesses. It was also a plea for the supremacy of the wise, happy generalist with many points of view to consider over the ‘grumpy’ specialist.
For Tracey everything we plan is an experience, and lauding UX Planning as the New Planning is as wrong-headed as championing the idea of ‘service planning’ would have been to support the newly emerging sector of service advertising in the ‘90s. Planners need to keep asking the important questions about how campaigns work, and to remember that it’s about building a service that has meaning and then building experience into it – Amazon vs. Facebook; which is the successfully growing business? If you go into the same Starbucks every single day and they ask your name every single day so that your coffee comes identified as yours; and no-one ever remembers you – or your name – it’s a transaction, not an interaction.
Planners have to embrace complexity and difficulty; stop straining out the lumps and tackle the joys of uncertainty. This was a manifesto in favour of synergy. Synergy teaches us to value difference and also empathy for ‘the other’. If the end goal of integration is to simplify, synergy is about embracing possibility; being united rather than unified. Synergy requires influence and maybe we should consider the potential for a Chief Synergy Officer seeing brands as a meaning, experience, stimulus and response and pulling it all together.
In a world where everything communicates, Planning is more than knowledge, and the role of the Planner is not to know everything but to question everything and to understand that it’s wisdom, not knowledge that makes a difference. Because wisdom will only ever reside in people and wisdom is the tension between knowing and not knowing, having to think about lots of points of view and come to a judgment based on experience and common sense.
Let’s stop thinking about the World Wide Web and consider it as the World Wise Web. Let’s agree not always to have an answer but to embrace difference and uncertainty; wisdom and common sense.
David chose to look at the question from a quite different perspective. He asked how we should put our new thinking into practice and whether our structures and organisations allow us to do our best as Planners?
He rehearsed the different facets and faces of planning from the last 20 years. He talked about where planning began with the age of the voice of the consumer, the planning cycle and the big idea; all of which could arguably be learned from a book. He noted the emergence of creative planning particularly in the US, and talked of building from the business problem out and cultural anthropology. He went on to review co-creation, trans-media planning and ‘do-ism’ or ‘brand as verb’, with multi-platform engagement planning and the customer as part of value chain. And finally the emergence of ‘conviction’, covering behavioural economics, experience architecture and mutuality. This came together as a kind of evolution of planning – complete with dodgy graph – that culminates in David’s enthusiasm today for ‘searching after truth’ and thinking about what you believe in as a human being. Truth is of course subjective and belief-driven and each agency has its own truth and each is different; and that’s as it should be in a world where there are no right answers and where your power comes precisely from finding out what you believe, preaching and pitching it.
People come first in this vision for planning and there are some limpidly clear principles to adhere to:
“Treat people as people Entertain them Educate them Connect them with each other – and be useful in their lives.” (Ed Cotton)
It’s a compelling manifesto for anyone, and like Tracey, David’s a proselytiser for working out which basic, human questions you should be asking and making sure you have a bunch of people who can ask those questions and will all approach a problem in a different, constructive and individual way.
It’s harder to do within the current structure of planning departments in you might call ‘legacy agencies’. We should be able to look at a piece of business and ask where and how Planning can best help rather than put a person a piece of business and suffer the consequences of one view, one specialism and one personality trying to solve all the issues. Instead we should asking where a business needs help and putting the best resource on it so that ’T-Shaped Planners’ morphs into Task Based Planning, working out who’s best to solve a particular problem. The idea is to draw up a list of tasks, put people onto them and traffic it properly – much more like a creative department than mirroring the structure of account management – and never employ two people who are the same. Also think about payment by performance rather than payment by man-hours, about business management not account service; about re-bundled rather than unbundled media, and creative process, not creative departments.
The basic contention is that you must change structure to change strategy – free the structure and the strategy will follow.
‘I had a gnawing feeling that what I did wasn’t enough’ said Alex Dunsdon. In many ways it was another modulation on the theme of the human and the personal because Alex was all about looking inside you for answer.
In Alex’s view Planning is far too insular and obsessed with itself, and Planners with benchmarking what they do against each other rather than their impact in the world. For Alex outcomes are what matter, not inputs, and Planners are too obsessed by theories and words and not enough with what they actually DO. And if they are paid by performance, what is it that’s actually being paid for if the value s going out of the communications planning?
Instead Planners need to embrace uncertainty and learn new skills. With marketing departments increasingly disaggregated from business, Planners risk becoming strategists for production companies. Alex would be the first to say that if that’s what you want to do …fine…but echoing Tracey, we should be more concerned with helping brand owners to make money. So Planners should be more like entrepreneurs and interested in doing stuff rather than just sitting and talking. This is exacerbated by the fact that under the current remuneration structure in creative agencies, Planners are paid to attend meetings. What clients want is transformation, and what Planners tend to deliver is revelation.
In Alex’s view we should be able to answer the questions clients ask of us without citing comms as a matter of course.
Directly challenging Tracey he believes that more of our creative output will be automated and software will do more of our jobs: and this is where the successful Planners will be those who take responsibility for doing stuff – as John V Willshire says “making things that people want, not making them want things”.
At the heart of Alex’s speech was a rallying cry to follow your own convictions. He asked us to think carefully and honestly about what we love to do and work out what really inspires us: Business, brand or personal transformation. Strong stuff indeed, and he at least is practising what he preaches.