Tracey Follows on West Wing Planning and the Influential Idea

23 Jan 2014

This is the text of Tracey’s article that appeared in Campaign on 23rd January

 

In Adam Morgan’s Foreward to the APG Creative Strategy Awards in 2013, he draws a distinction between two types of planning: Washington Planning and Hollywood Planning. The analogy comes from when he asked his two boys one day: ‘what is the capital of America?’. One answered Washington and the other said Hollywood. As he points out, both were equally right, in different ways.

 

The same is true of planning, he suggests. Washington Planning is the rigorous authoritative, category-centric, consumer-closeness approach that often delivers long-term effectiveness; and Hollywood Planning is the radical, culturally-conscious, category-busting approach that attempts to grab our attention in ways we didn’t see coming. As Morgan points out, these two different models currently co-exist.

 

One might say that duality has always existed in planning: the role for planners under Stephen King was that of ‘grand strategists’ focused on the building of brands, whilst BMP planning was more centred around the creative idea and its iteration through continual consumer research.

 

There has never been one view of planning and there never will be. But I do think it is helpful to try to fuse the best of Washington with the best of Hollywood to create something closer to the West Wing. That is to say that we can aim for technologically rich ideas that are also proven to be hugely influential amongst mainstream audiences.

 

We have of late seen various awards and adulation paid to the novelty idea or execution. It may be smart, it may be interesting. It may even be original (check Youtube) But will it make a blind bit of difference to anyone’s behavior beyond the pavement cafes of the advertising village? Or to put it another way, can planning be at once both rigorous and radical?

 

Like any good brief, we should start with the outcome. What is the outcome we want from planning, as an industry, as a discipline, as a practice? I would argue that we want planning to bring about as much influence as possible in the world of creative ideas. We want planning to demonstrate how it makes all the difference in the world between what is an interesting idea and what becomes an influential idea. In fact in my view, it is now the role of the planner to take an idea that is merely interesting and make it influential.

 

The truth is that the core skill of the planner is in persuasion. Particularly if it is true that in any scenario in which you find yourself , 20% of people are with you; 20% of people are against you; and the remaining 60% are persuadable either way. It is our job to persuade. Planners can’t choose which idea is presented to the client, and planners can’t make a client approve it, but planners can persuade the entire agency team of the right strategic direction over and above all other alternatives, and we can also persuade the client that there are better ways than others to achieve a particular result. An interesting idea may be inherently interesting to 20% of your audience; the planner needs to shift that to 80%.

 

To that end, the APG will be focusing on training that helps nurture and develop persuasiveness in planners. One of the APG’s best-attended courses is ‘Holding Your Own With Senior Clients’ and we will be building on this theme throughout the year. An understanding of your audience as much as your idea, is at the heart of many a successful strategy, pitch or presentation.

 

Later in the year we will be staging an Audience with Sir Lawrence Freedman, the author of ‘Strategy: A History’. The book is a tour de force in strategy and its importance across business, politics, the military and even primate groups. The core issue at the heart of strategy, the author notes, is whether it is possible to manipulate and shape our environment rather than simply become the victim of forces beyond one’s control. One might call that being ‘influential with your ideas’.

 

Craig Mawdsley, as the previous APG Chair over the last two years has done a wonderful job of getting the planning community to approach planning through the lens of innovation, now it is the role of the APG to ensure that innovative ideas are also influential in the broader sense – reaching bigger and bigger audiences with even better and brighter ideas than ever before. Our industry is at its very best when it is democratizing niche ideas for the benefit of the many – helping to “push the human race forward” as one of the greatest strategists ever, once said.

 

The planner’s role is no longer to be the voice of the consumer. Through social media, the consumer has found their own voice, and they make it heard, directly and in real-time. The truth is that the real core skill of planners today lies in persuasion. And in that sense we can see that over the years planning has changed almost entirely, and yet, hardly at all.

 

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