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A Reasonable Rant

Being a planner today is bewildering. Or at least, I am bewildered. Big picture wise, in line with client-agency relationships, the role of planning seems to have got smaller as it has become more complex.

In addition, I find my lack of control extremely disconcerting. What can I do about recessions, budget cuts, new CMOs, organisational structure and culture of global organisations, the separation of ownership and control at those organisations, just to name a few?

This is why I believe the bits where planners can play a role and influence the outcome of proceedings become heightened in importance. We need to do the best we can to add as much value as possible. For me, that begins with understanding the past.

The Past

Personally, I find it astonishing at how much of the knowledge from the past is still relevant today. In light of Brexit, there is ‘Conflicts in Democracy: The Need for More Opinion Research’, a paper written by Stephen King in 1980. Or for planners trying to get ideas through research, I’m sure they can relate to ‘Testing to Destruction’ by Alan Hedges, written in 1974, updated in 1997 and still applicable today.

I think it says two things: One, there have been some incredibly intelligent and prescient planners in the past. Two, what the fuck? If things written 20, 30, 40 years ago are still relevant today, are we as an industry not making progress but just thrashing about in cycles? Are we really better than we were 10, 20, 30 years ago? Why are things we know to be true, and not true, still up for debate? For example, we know the link between creativity and effectiveness – so why in 2016 has Peter Field written a report called ‘Selling Creativity Short?’ What is going on? Maybe this explains why advertising has got smaller – we have shot ourselves in both feet so often they needed to be amputated.

There is no simple remedy. We just have to be better at understanding our past, determining enduring truths and acting on them. We need to stand on the shoulder of giants to see what is ahead because the world is changing faster than ever before. Some things are changing. Some things aren’t. But awareness of our history gives us the perspective to think long-term and be progressive.

The Present

Which brings me to the present. Where do I start? Let’s talk about P&G scaling back targeted Facebook ads. It’s a logical move - after years of being promised the Holy Grail of the ‘right message, at the right time, to the right person’, brands have realised that Facebook is a hamster and Programmatic smells of elderberries (I couldn’t resist a Monty Python reference).

Of course, there will always will be a role for targeting but it begs the question - why are advertisers so obsessed with it? Perhaps the enduring quote “I know that half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. My only problem is that I don’t know which half” has something to do with the desire for ever greater targeting and efficiency. Armed with an abundance of data, advertisers have gone hell for leather in the pursuit of personalisation and zero waste.

However, this fundamentally misunderstands how to build and grow brands. Fame is what drives the greatest business results and it cannot be achieved through targeting. Rather, conspicuous waste, through extravagant creative and media choices, is how a brand can affect the way the whole society feels about it – beyond the ‘target audience’. The wastage is a signal that communicates reliability, prestige, strength and quality in a socio-cultural context, becoming a powerful source of competitive advantage. Brands with aspirations of being famous need to embrace waste – those losing sight of this by targeting are not maximising their potential.

I think these misunderstandings occur because we don’t discuss the numerous ways communications can work with our clients enough. With no mutual understanding, it’s easy for them to reduce our work to a soul destroying box ticking exercise. We need to make clients feel comfortable with the fact that advertising is complex, can work in a number of different ways and cannot be codified.

Digital is a great example. If the medium is the message, what is digital saying? I don’t think as an industry we have really confronted this question and its implications for people and brands. Have we considered how digital advertising actually works? How it’s consumed? Whether the implicit social contract of exchanging attention for content is worth it?

The term “advertising-literate” consumer has been around since the early 80s – the premise being that people have a relationship not just with brands but with advertising itself. The current relationship status with digital? Adblocking en masse. It’s obvious to me that it’s not about the ads themselves, but the frustrations of the experience in a highly impatient medium. We need to stop blindly chasing toxic metrics and consider the effects on people and brand building.

Because that’s what we do. We build brands, as Stephen King said, by stimulating the “maximum intensity of response”. We have to ask ourselves everyday – is what we’re doing building the brand? If not, I fear we are just killing ourselves in the long-term. Strategic vision and leadership, from everyone, is needed more than ever.

I used to think that was about being unreasonable. You know, the George Bernard Shaw quote – “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” In fact, what I have realised is that I am a reasonable man. It’s the world that is totally unreasonable. I have numerous examples of clients demanding totally unreasonable things that just don’t make any sense when you are trying to build a brand. I am sure you do too. So I urge us all to remain stubbornly reasonable and persist in adapting the world to our point of view, championing creativity and long-term brand building.

How we go about this raises an interesting dilemma – getting the right balance between big ideas vs long ideas. Do we as advertising people have enough patience for a long idea? What is the right amount of time to work on an account? It feels like a double-edged sword; on one side, planning directors have vast experience in multiple categories and the breadth of those experiences helped them progress, but on the other, this fuels the desire to make a big splash and move on to the next thing, which naturally means a bias towards space over time. But brands are built over time, not just space and I don’t think we can bemoan the short-sightedness of our clients when we ourselves often think about the next interesting challenge. I suppose it’s something we all need to figure out individually as well as collectively and move forward in the best way possible, for everyone.

The Future

So what about the future? I am both hopelessly optimistic and resolutely terrified. When I think about ‘the’ world (as opposed to ‘my’ world or ‘our’ world) – AI, climate change, the shifting of geopolitical tectonics etc, I agree with Jim Carroll that advertising is a ‘trivial career for serious people’. But that’s what I love about it. When you work in advertising, there are no limits to what you are encouraged to explore. And as long as the current economic framework holds, brands will exist and they will compete. There will always be a role for creativity and communications because it is what it has always been – an edge over the competition.

How that manifests itself and the role we as an industry play will be crucial. Planners can lead the way and shape the future by thinking about more than just communications but brand experiences, being entrepreneurial to create opportunities and wrestling with the biggest problems – all with the aim of meaningfully connecting brands to people.

To sum up, my personal wish is that we as an industry make progress, that we can honestly say that we are better in 20XX than we are today.

Steven Son

Planner at J. Walter Thompson

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