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The Year Ahead for Planning

Legend has it that George W. Bush once dismissed French business culture, by saying: “They don’t even have their own word for ‘entrepreneur’.”

I sometimes wonder if the same complaint could be made, more validly, of planning culture these days. And I hope that this changes in 2016.

The first planners were, of course, classic entrepreneurs. Pollitt, King and their peers burst onto the scene in the 1960s, with an iconoclastic energy characteristic of that age. They questioned the status quo and disrupted traditional ways of working. They created their own roles, learned from their own mistakes and made stuff up as they went along. To borrow from Adam Morgan (who, in turn, lifted the phrase from Steve Jobs), they were the Pirates, not the Navy. Today, it feels like too many of us have swapped our eye patches for cosy uniforms. It’s time to hoist the Jolly Roger again.

At a planning forum in Cannes last year, speakers noted several factors behind the “institutionalisation” of our discipline. Some cited the adoption of standardised research processes. Others noted shifts in the broader client-agency relationship, suggesting that it’s harder for planners to exert their influence, from a more downstream position. Many pointed to the fragmentation of media and the consequent downgrading of big ideas and long-term campaigns. All of these explanations have merit. But blaming others will only get us so far. True entrepreneurs take their future into their own hands. So here’s what I think we need to do, to define our own destiny, in 2016.

First, we need to ask harder questions of ourselves, our agencies and our brands. Remember, this is how planning started in the first place. But we are no longer the voices in the wilderness. In fact, we have arguably become the most vocal mouthpieces for our industry. Conventional wisdom is now driven largely by planners, who are more active in the blogosphere and on the conference circuit, than any other discipline. As a result, I’m afraid we have created our own version of groupthink, often based on fuzzy concepts such as “digital”, “engagement” and “content”, which don’t actually mean anything. We have become the status quo, but if we are to become more entrepreneurial, we need to get back to challenging it.

Second, we need to think quicker. Anybody who has worked in, or with, a start-up will know that they simply move at a different pace than traditional organisations. Talking to some planners, it sounds like some of us are still stuck on an old-fashioned production line. To be clear, I’m not arguing for cutting corners, just for cutting the crap. We need to get to big ideas earlier in the process, package them beautifully and then forge on with making them happen. Silicon Valley veterans relate that they only get 6-7 slides to convince would-be investors; that 90% of success is in the execution; and that perfection is a dirty word. Maybe we should take a leaf out of their MacBooks?

Third, we need to take more risks. This is perhaps the defining feature of an entrepreneur: having some skin in the game. Truly great strategies have always carried an inherent danger, for both the brand and the client-agency team. The best ones still do. For instance, I thought 2015’s APG Award winners included some great acts of strategic bravery: including Guinness appropriating “black” as an attitude, Adidas taking on the “haters” and Ikea making the “everyday” wonderful. All of these were tremendously successful, but could equally have gone horribly wrong. We need more such scary leaps into the unknown and fewer sensible sidesteps. It’s true that ideas like this can induce sleepless nights, but as any entrepreneur will tell you, these are infinitely preferable to yawn-filled days.

Fourth, we need to get out our black books. Collaboration is a hackneyed phrase these days and covers all manner of relationships, from coerced cooperation to perfect partnership. One of the joys of being an entrepreneur is that you experience far more of the latter, because you have greater choice over who you work with. It strikes me that this is increasingly what modern planning is all about: not accepting the forced form of collaboration (all-day brainstorms with 20 people you don’t respect), and proactively seeking out friendly faces. I know that this freedom isn’t always available to everybody, but it’s up to you to bring better people to the table. So get networking.

Fifth, we need to regain our passion for the industry. The best entrepreneurs love their chosen sector and the people they serve. In contrast, too many planners appear somewhat ashamed to be in the business of persuasive communications and decidedly antipathetic towards their “clients” and “consumers”. We need to stop sniping from the sidelines and be positive champions of change. Dare I say it, we need to have a bit of fun, because an entrepreneurial rollercoaster without any snorts of laugher or screams of excitement is the worst of all worlds.

Finally, we need to remember what doesn’t change. Obviously, any decent entrepreneur embraces the future. But the really successful ones also get the stuff that stays the same (Jeff Bezos of Amazon always says this is the single most important quality for anyone in modern business). In recent years, too many planners have been seduced by what’s new, at the expense of some enduring human truths. But thanks to the likes of Richard Huntington at Saatchis and Martin Weigel at W+K, the pendulum may now be swinging the other way. Forget the latest shiny baubles. The less 2016 is about 2016, the better 2016 will be.

So there it is. A simple manifesto for planning, that borrows from start-up culture, but applies to agencies of all shapes and sizes. A set of principles that should make us better at our jobs and enjoy them more too. A call to unleash the entrepreneur in every one of us. It’s up to each of us to define our own future – and nobody else.

Bonne chance, as they say in Texas.

(First featured in Campaign on 8th January 2016)


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