This post is an extract of a blog by Phil Adams, planning director at Blonde.
"Planning is the voice of the consumer."
The stock, cliched, answer to the question "what do agency planners do?"
Well, in addition to being stock and cliched, it also remains true. It is accurate but not wholly so. The truth but not the whole truth.
An effective planner these days speaks with many voices, representing many valuable agendas. I can think of six, which I have outlined below. These are roles that, in my view, sit most comfortably with Planning. Not uniquely maybe, but definitely most comfortably.
Thanks to Martin Weigel and Noah Brier whose respective posts on radical thinking and first principles got me to pondering these things.
God knows the consumer needs a voice when brands stubbornly, stupidly (still!) take their broadcast, message-based, advertiser mindset into social media. Good social media planners are the voice of the otherwise occupied and the not easily impressed.
The voice of the consumer sets the agenda for planning. We care about things that matter, but which often get overlooked. And people, whether you call them consumers, users or followers, are the prime example.
Our industry has a dangerous habit of confusing means with ends. Advertising is treated as an end in its own right, rather than a means to achieve some higher commercial purpose. So we jump straight in and start planning advertising without thinking long or hard enough about defining the problem.
But how a problem is framed has a huge influence on the quality of the solution. This is obvious, simple, but far from easy to do well. Our industry is so obsessed with its output that we don't pay enough attention to the quality of input. Namely defining problems that deserve and lend themselves to great solutions.
I studied chemical engineering at university. I am hard-wired to insist on knowing how things work. To the point that not knowing is stressful. I need to know how things work at a mechanical level, but also in terms of the fundamental physics. And I brought this under-the-bonnet curiosity with me to advertising.
I have never been satisfied with the trite "if they like the ad they'll like the brand" school of how advertising works. I want to know the fundamentals, the psychology and the neuroscience.
Sadly, scientific rigour is not as common as you'd expect in an industry that, in the eyes of a cynical public, is all about the manipulation of minds.
Maybe there is less of this assumptiveness latterly, now that the fields of neuroscience and behavioural economics have become more mainstream topics in client and planning circles. But if planning doesn't concern itself with these things, no-one else in the agency will. It should be an important part of the job.
It drives me nuts how sloppy and imprecise the language of strategy has become.
Planners should say what they mean and mean what they say. Unfortunately this is another thing that sounds simple in theory but which is not easy in practice. Some very bad habits have set in and infected the whole industry.
Being the voice of precision can make you appear pedantic at times but rare is the strategy that wouldn't benefit from a heavy dose of constructive pedantry. Your strategy will be much more effective and your evaluation frameworks much more useful if you dedicate yourself to precisely defining your terms.
There is a lot of pressure within agencies to "own the thinking". That is how people, particularly planners, impress and progress. This, in turn, creates its own pressure, a pressure to make the thinking "clever". Which is fine as long as it doesn't get too clever for its own good; up itself in other words. And this happens a lot. Intellectual onanism is the enemy of effective creative strategy.
At the creative end of the process I see the planner's role as that of Sherpa. You do the heavy strategic lifting. You have a sense of mission. And you have enough creative nouse to guide the ascent. But at some point you've got to leave the guys to it and hope that they are good enough to make a spectacular push to the summit – on strategy but delightful and surprising.
Last and probably least is the voice of context. Least? How so? Context is a big deal in marketing communications right now. It has certainly been a hot topic at every conference or seminar I've attended recently.
And context is obviously important. The cultural context, the media context, the technology context in which our work lives should all have an influence on how the work is conceived and executed.
The trouble is that context is easy. It's easy to Google and it's easy to "Magpie" from Twitter or a speaker's conference slides. And it's easy to agree with because it doesn't mean anything until it is applied to the job in hand. So there is a very human temptation to place too much emphasis on it. So by all means by the voice of context, but keep context in perspective.
Done well, planning is highly valuable. A planner who consistently masters these voices will tend to be the most important voice of all in the eyes of the client – The voice of "Getting It". Clients occasionally say things like, "So and so just gets it". And that's the kind of language a client uses when they would move their business to follow you.