At the beginning of his talk last week, Mark Hancock, head of planning at The Real Adventure, noted the habit former Tesco CEO Terry Leahy had of interrupting any executives who offered him an opinion. Before they could tell him what they think, Leahy would say, they should first tell him what they know.
Knowledge was a big theme throughout all the talks. So too it’s more confident cousin, truth. For Leahy’s phrase neatly summed up everything planning should be: an authentic commitment to the empirical, a disregard of the bullshit that too often clouds what we know to be important to the brand and what we can observe and quantify of human behaviour.
Our three speakers all championed the role of planner as the speaker of truth. That’s not to say there’s only one answer to everything. Far from it, in fact. Merry Baskin, consultant and trainer and our first speaker of the night, described strategy as “a creative act.” Craig Harries, planning director at Oliver, exhorted delegates to use their unique perspective and passions to bring themselves fully to the challenge.
But in all cases the speakers demanded planners stay true to themselves and to the brand they work on. It was a galvanising call to action.
Each speaker had been invited to share their own perspective on the ‘planning essentials’. This was a chance, ahead of our very first training program in the new year, to go back to basics and hear from experts on the fundamentals of being a planner. As marketing opportunities proliferate, and as agencies occupy ever more niche specialisms, our output has become more diverse and the fundamental role of planners has been dispersed, and in some cases dissipated entirely, through the process.
Not that it was ever straightforward. Merry shared the 23 different roles of planning that we all need to know. Some are still sacrosanct, such as the importance of ensuring a creative brief has “clarity, brevity and fertility,” or finding the story in data, or helping to create a culture of effectiveness on your account. Some roles have become even more important given our complex landscape and multiple skillsets involved in delivery – for instance the importance of the briefing itself as a chance to get everyone to take responsibility for the work.
But other roles have become less common. It’s rare, for instance, that planners these days “penetrate the camouflage” of their audience by facilitating their own focus groups. This is a pity, since doing so helps you become the kind of authority your client needs. Planning has lost touch with its market research roots, Merry says: “if you can’t kick the tyres of an online survey you’re not doing your job properly.”
Merry’s talk was a first class history lesson in the beginnings of planning and the essential steps to becoming a trusted advisor for clients. And up next, Mark was even more explicit about planners’ denial of that heritage, and what agencies stand to lose as a result.
But for Mark this isn’t simply about turning the clock back. Planning needs to change because the remit of the CMO has changed. Organisational structure, IT infrastructure and data have all been added to the traditional responsibilities of brand equity, sales and pricing, distribution, packaging and advertising. As a result, agencies’ work has to evolve. Certainly it has to work harder if it is to create the kind of interventions that will change perceptions or influence behaviour. In this context, Mark argued, we shouldn’t think narrowly about advertising, but about customer experiences that create emotional value.
He bemoaned the “cult of self” that has grown up around planning, and our indulgence of fads that distract us from the important job of growing a client’s business. Agencies have ceded their seat at the top table to management consultancies because they’re not thinking differently about how to add the value that clients need. “The flavour of the day isn’t important” he said, “human behaviour is important. Planning will have to pull itself back to doing something more meaningful.”
To combat this as individuals, Mark suggested we reject the idea of ‘T’ shaped people, instead embracing our inner ‘X’ – four points on a crossway that represent the intellect of a brand planner, the financial acumen of a management consultant, the geekiness of a hacker and the patience of a gardener. And at the intersection of all this should be an innate curiosity about human behaviour.
Perhaps it was this change in remit that has caused morale in advertising to drop so severely. But as Craig said, “if you don’t like adapting then you shouldn’t be in the industry.” He advocated a mindset shift that reframed these challenges as opportunities – a very planner thing to do. He showed that as brands become less trusted they need planning more than ever. He showed how the fragmentation of agencies and disciplines underlines the value we can add by helping clients see the bigger picture, with “techniques that change the debate” such as experience maps.
And he showed how thinking differently about the agency model, as Oliver have done, can help you get closer to their clients’ problems by distributing planners, designers and developers around their clients’ teams. “They stop being our people.” Craig said, “and start to become our clients’ people.
It was good note on which to end an evening dedicated to perspectives. Three experienced speakers had shared their knowledge, offering their own truths of what it takes to deliver great planning, regardless of discipline. And it was really, really good.
More about the speakers
Merry Baskin – Strategic Planner and Consultant, Baskin Shark
Merry went to university in Bristol, but is a veteran of New York and London ad agencies. For the last fifteen years she’s consulted with brands and businesses at the highest level, and through her relationship with the APG has pretty much trained a generation of advertising planners in the UK.
Mark Hancock – Head of Planning, The Real Adventure
Mark is head of planning at The Real Adventure. A brand strategist with experience across digital, CRM and advertising, prior to TRA he worked at Google’s internal agency Google Zoo, which followed stints at agencies LIDA, Proximity and Ogilvy, defining strategies for – among others – Dove, VW, Heineken, Walkers, O2, RBS, M&S, Comparethemarket.com, Land Rover and Virgin Holidays.
Craig Harries – Planning Director, Oliver
Craig is planning director at Oliver (formerly Dare) and straddles the worlds of brand strategy and emerging technologies. He’s a member of TechHub, a tech-startup incubator within Google’s Moorgate Campus, and has worked at WCRS, Farm and Amp, which he also founded. He now specialises in disruptive brand positioning, integrated strategies and experience planning.
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