Planning planning

(or ‘towards a complete redefinition on the role of the brand strategist’)


There’s a terrible joke or riddle I still remember from school: ‘What was the longest river in the world before the Nile was discovered?’. The answer, of course, is ‘the Nile’.

The launch of the landmark Stephen King retrospective on planning poses an similar question. What was King’s job (and Pollitt’s for that matter) before they invented planning. Presumably job titles like ‘head of planning’ were, at that point, unavailable.

The answer is different for the two men. King worked in JWT’s marketing department (which appeared to involve research and the setting of strategy – so broadly the same, although presumably very differently conducted), Pollitt was an account man who’d been put in charge of research.

And a bit like ‘Hitchhikers’ guide to the galaxy’ and the secret of life, the universe and everything, ever since their job was invented, planners have been  trying to work out what it means.

King, apparently lamented planning’s obsession with constantly trying to redefine its raison d’etre (as Jeremy Bullmore is supposed to have joked, it is a major irony that a profession that spends so much time looking for insight, still can’t explain itself), his own view seemed merely to be that planing was bringing science to the art of communication and persuasion. Famously he said the role spanned ‘grand strategist’ to ‘ad tweaker’.

So what’s the new planning? How do we start defining the role, the profession of the marketer / communicator / staff member who can drive business value through product and communication strategy nowadays.

Of course, if you speak to a planner, they’ll tell you that planning is the new planning. Indeed many of the leading lights of the new discussion (Russell Davies, Richard Huntingdon) and the most interesting and exciting thinking have come from this area. But that’s bound to happen, underlying truths about communication are indeed timeless, and the biggest and most insightful brains are the ones most likely to understand the changing face of the market (they’re the ones faced with the demise of the old paradigms)

But is ‘old planning’ the same as ‘new planning’? Hardly. We all see far too much ‘old’ thinking and approach being forced into the new discipline.

Perhaps marketers will lead the charge. Well again, there clearly are some marketers (like Godin) gearing up, but it’s certainly not most of them. What about designers? What about UEs? What about ‘Persuasion Architects’? Hell, what about cartoonists? That seems an equally rich vein at the moment.

So what are the axioms of this new group?

We take as our starting point that the adversarial unilateral relationship between brands and consumers is over. We understand that great, interesting products will succeed. The acknowledge that consumer insight must inform the product itself and not just it’s messaging or communications. We understand that the consumer will decide how they value goods and services.

Iain Tait’s somewhat tongue in cheek ‘why digital is better than advertising‘ speech at PSFK contained this gem (apologies for the transcription):

[in the traditional agencies, you find] structures that have been put in place  […] to make well-understood units of advertising, that’s why you have planners, creatives and TV producers. It’s not the same structures you need for technical and cultural innovation.

But like the pioneers that brought science to advertising through planning, we must look at how we do that more broadly in a world where we no longer ‘game’ communications; where we return to designing brands that matter in its deepest sense. It will have to be someone who understands people – from meeting them in all contexts, through observing them, through understanding the latest drivers in society and culture; someone who understands the tonnes of research we can now gather constantly; someone who understands user-experience across multiple media; who understand the truths of communication and persuasion, and the limits of a huge number of media.

But let’s not try and pretend that there is one group ready to simply take the crown. There is not.

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