The Planning Landscape in 2020 - A Punter's View.


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An intentionally contrarian essay on the future of planning submitted to the Admap Essay Prize in 2012.

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The Planning Landscape in 2020 - A Punter's View.

  1. 1. ‘Planning 3.0 - The Planning Landscape in 2020’A Punter’s View, by John Shaw.Any prize that is a lifetime’s supply of anything is clearly designedto attract younger contestants, unless it’s slippers or denturefixative. If current projections are fulfilled, a twenty-five year oldwinning the prize would receive about six hundred issues ofAdmap, an unimaginable luxury, whereas at my age I would onlyreceive two hundred and seventy-six, a very pleasant trophy but aconsiderably smaller one. It’s clear, then, that I’ll be competingwith planners who are young, smart, hungry, and so digitallynative they’re practically a lost tribe. It’s a daunting prospect.The only unusual weapon I have is experience. I started in theplanning department of JWT in 1985, when every day began withan erudite coffee-fuelled discussion on what was in the dailypapers and no busy work was done until at least 10.15. So inlooking forward to what planning will be like in eight years’ time, Ican at least offer a twenty-seven year historical perspective onplanning. And this could be quite useful, if the intention is topredict the actual future rather than simply a fanciful notion of it.That’s because eight years is really quite a short time. Things mightchange much faster in the next eight years than they have in thelast eight, or even in the last twenty-seven, but if you were a bettingman, which I am, you’d have to say it’s unlikely. The things weexpect to arrive tomorrow often take a little longer than we thoughtthey would. I’ve been dreaming of a ‘smart fridge’ for years, since1997 in fact when a Microsoft product guy told me that they werejust about to put fridges on the Internet (for some reason I neverfully understood.) A couple of weeks ago the LG Smart ManagerFridge finally arrived, fifteen years late but admittedly with a fewextra features. According to the press, it has been described as likehaving ’your own Nigella Lawson.’ Disconcertingly futuristic as thissounds, it’s basically the Internet fridge I was promised in 1997.We tend to overestimate the speed of short-term change.It may be that planning should change really, really fast in thenext eight years. But planning in 2012 is still recognisably similarto planning in 1985, apart from the virtual eradication of pipe-smoking. It didn’t change all that fast from 1996 to 2004, despitethe onset of digital, and it hasn’t changed all that quickly since,
  2. 2. despite the arrival of social media and the mobile Internet. Ifplanning has evolved only gradually through these spectacularupheavals, it’s a fair bet that it’s unlikely to transform itselfcompletely in the next eight years either.This relatively slow pace of evolution means that for the (relativelyshort-term) future of planning, we can use prediction techniquesthat are based more on evidence than hunch, more on observationthan prediction, more on Moneyball than Dr. Who. Becausealthough it may not sound so impressive, that’s how you’d do it ifyou had money on it. Or even if you had two hundred and seventy-six issues of Admap on it. The most likely real-world future ofplanning will be based on several good bets:1. That the things that haven’t changed much in twenty-seven yearsare unlikely to change in the next eight.2. That the inexorable trends of the last twenty-seven years arelikely to continue in the next eight.3. That the things that have been roiling seas of confusion for thelast twenty-seven years will still be roiling seas of confusion for thenext eight.Of course, some new factors will emerge. But if we understandwhat each of the above three categories contain, we’ll have most ofthe picture of what planning will actually be like in 2020, or atleast a better picture than that produced by conventional hunch-based techniques, however sexy and imaginative they may be.The things that haven’t changed much in twenty-sevenyears.The first three fall into what you might call the Bateman category,in that if they get messed up, they produce horrified looks in thedirection of the planner. These aspects of the planner’s role are soingrained into the consciousness of the advertising world thatthey’re unlikely to disappear. (And when I say ‘advertising’, I’musing the term in its broad sense so I don’t have to say somethinglike ‘multi-layered media-neutral marketingcommunications/behaviours/memes.’)
  3. 3. 1. We’ll still be the ‘voice of the consumer.’ Many planners have sneered at this description, either because it belittles their role or because it seems to imply that we are letting consumers develop advertising. But although we’ll be using different methods to understand the consumer and we’ll be spending more time with the client’s data (see below), we’ll still be the people everyone looks at when the question arises of what real people actually think about things. Business pressures make it harder to spend time snooping around in the consumer’s world rather than showing off in the client’s one. But it’s time well spent.2. We’ll still be writing creative briefs. John Grant pointed out a while back that, having criticised unimaginative creative briefs in the past, when he actually had to write one himself again he resorted to a fairly conventional format. The basic categories on the briefs that most agencies use haven’t really changed all that much for thirty years, so it’s unlikely they’ll be entirely abolished in the next eight. There is a nuance, though. Although it’s the planner who tends to write the brief down, I think it’s a fair bet that by 2020 more briefs will be written as a record of a discussion than as an input into it. As business has become quicker and brand-building more multi-faceted, it’s simply saved time and been more fertile to get people together to discuss direction before crafting a jewel-like brief.3. We’ll still be experts on effectiveness. This is one of those categories that has been too fundamental to planning to make a sudden exit from the job description. It could be argued that the increasing variety of data ought to make this a specialist function. But one thing we’ve learnt over the years is that effectiveness is not simply a bolt-on: an understanding of effectiveness is a key part of developing a compelling strategy.
  4. 4. 4. We’ll be dealing with an enormously wide variety of problems. This doesn’t fit quite so neatly into the ‘hasn’t changed much’ category as the topics above, but it was true before 1985 and it will be true in 2020. This is partly because a modern CEO can sense cost and inefficiency from a long way off, and doesn’t like to see too many agency people cluttering up Reception. He or she would prefer to have three agencies, not fifteen, and this implies a need for planning departments that have a voracious problem appetite. Although this diversity of problems has increased over the last few years, it’s really just a return to normality. My hazy recollection of Stephen King’s substantial planning document for the launch of Mr. Kipling is that it didn’t mention advertising until about three quarters of the way through, after discussion of what the product range should be and how the delivery vans should be painted. Although there was a period, the late 80’s and 90’s, when it seemed that problems were more contained and we spent much of our time developing advertising briefs, those years were an aberration. The long- term norm for planners is to be sticking our fingers in all sorts of pies.The inexorable trends that will continue.1. We’ll be spending more time with clients. We may even be clients.Thankfully, this isn’t all about the need to be impressing clients inorder to be paid for, and thus be ‘secure.’ It’s also for the lessdepressing reason that clients now fully realise the power of data,and they are more reluctant to make agencies the custodians of itthan they were twenty years ago. So if we want to know consumersat least as well as our clients, we’ll be very plugged in to their data.The other rather scary factor is that increasing numbers of clientssee the planning role itself as something that is too important to befarmed out. Think about the job description. We are expected to be
  5. 5. expert not just on a brand’s communications, but on its purposeand behaviour. We are working across multiple disciplines andhelping to connect them. We understand how brands connect withculture in general and often with multiple different cultures. Inaddition we’re still expert on consumers, on creative development,and on effectiveness. It’s not surprising that increasing numbers ofclients are deciding that if this is ‘planning’ then it’s somethingthey’d quite like to have inside their own organisation, and in moreand more cases they’re hiring planners from agencies to bring it in.2. Planner titles will keep multiplying.There will be more titles. The blurb for this competition mentionedseven separate strands of account planning and there are manymore out there. There will be as many titles as there are differentdisciplines in the marketing landscape, multiplied by about three,and then some. I’ve come across planners (some of them verygood) who called themselves ‘imagineers.’ It’s very good thatdifferent disciplines want their own planners. My only wish wouldbe that those planners don’t become too myopically channel-evangelistic, because that is counter to the objective belief ineffectiveness that is at the heart of planning philosophy. (I can’tbelieve that I just confessed to being scared of myopic channel-evangelism.)3. We’ll continue developing our social skills.There’s still some room to improve, sure, but the need to work fastand across many specialisms and possibilities is unlikely todecelerate. That tends to place the planner at the heart of groups,and to give the planner great opportunities to pull them togetherand get the best out of them. Eventually, planners will be trainedin this to a greater degree than is the norm today. The term ‘rock-star planner’ can occasionally be heard nowadays in theadvertising lexicon. Don’t flatter yourselves, methinks. But perhapsit hints at the increasing opportunities for planners to be verycomfortable as frontmen.4. We’ll be drawn more into our clients’ internal issues.Information has been becoming more widely available for years.That means that the boundaries between ‘internalcommunications’ and ‘external communications’ are now very
  6. 6. weak. It’s safer to assume that an internal communication isavailable to all. Clients woke up long ago to the idea that employeesand business partners could act as brand ambassadors.Conversations can’t be separated. But in this context, are we seeing‘internal communications’ that are as brilliant as some of the bestadvertising? In general, no. There is still some catching up to do.So it’s inevitable that agencies will get drawn more into this area,and understanding how to motivate staff and partners will becomeanother important part of what planners do.5. Planners will be in more demand than ever.I really hope this is true. But it’s not just a hope: history is on myside. Headhunters would confirm that demand for the bestplanning candidates has been steady to increasing over the longterm, probably more so than for some other roles. There aren’t somany creative directors saying ‘planning has been dead from theneck up for years’, as one famously did many years ago. When youthink about the sort of things planners are doing, it’s easy to seewhy our skills are in demand. And what’s reassuring is that in aworld where communications are getting more complex and newpossibilities are emerging all the time, there is a premium on beingsmart and being curious. And the best planners are both of thosethings.The things that will continue to trouble us.1. We’ll still be debating whether we’re tweakers or grand strategists.This one has been around since the beginning and it’s unlikely togo away. There are more disciplines than ever which demandintimate understanding to make them work really well, but thereare still vast opportunities for planners to be involved in chunkystrategic issues. The degree of stretch in the role seems unlikely tolessen. And it probably doesn’t matter much as long as we learn, orat least deploy the social and organisational skills to make sureboth ends receive proper attention.2. We’ll still be arguing over who gets to choose the media.
  7. 7. There will always be a tension between a more creatively-ledapproach to media/channel/engagement planning and a morelogical one. And because there’s so much money at stake, there willalways be different constituencies arguing about whose decision itis. Planners will continue to be swept up in this since the solutionswe’re looking for are partly channel, partly creative. But we’ll onlyhave a valid point of view if we create enough time to have acurrent understanding of how people are interacting with variouschannels. This can be quite a big ask and will cause us stress. It willbe easier if the ‘media’ and ‘creative’ worlds come closer togetheragain. I miss my Media Research Department.3. We’ll still be wondering what to wear.Planning has always occupied an uncomfortable dress codehinterland between the large sartorial blocs of accountmanagement and creative. The tendency of each of these blocs toappropriate and subvert the other’s codes, for example through thewearing of suits by creative directors, has made the situation forplanners even more difficult. Guidance is impossible. It’s a jungleout there.So in summary, if I was in the uncomfortable position of having toput money on what planning will be like in 2020, I’d say that it inseveral key respects it will still resemble the planning we knew in1985, or earlier, with a few key modifications. But that doesn’tmake it weak or unduly conservative. It simply means that thepeople who started it got the fundamentals right. For which we canall be grateful. Admap 2012, published on Slideshare with permission.