Around 40 years after planning was invented, there are two philosophically different camps within the discipline, each competing to be seen as the most valuable. The divide is between 'conceptual' planners, who have their traditional home in creative agencies, and 'practical' planners, who traditionally live in media agencies. This essay argues that the great divide can and will eventually be crossed, thanks to what has already happened in digital agencies. The result will be a new breed of 'experience' planner, who will take their cues from the realms of user experience architects. These new types of planner will think about ordering smaller experiences, such as a click or reaction, into a coherent overall journey that results in a positive experience.

Experience the future

Nick Hirst

Why Experience Architecture is the future of planning

We need to transcend the often polar disciplines of 'conceptual' (creative agency) and 'practical' (media agency) planning to deliver, not communications, but great brand experiences.

In a way, the history of planning is a history of tension. It was even invented in two places, quite possibly with different agendas. John Griffiths writes in 'Where next? Account planning at 40' (Admap, April 2008) of the 'twin polarities' of planning as conceived by Stanley Pollitt of BMP and Stephen King at JWT, 'the one through the optimisation of the creative work using research groups and the second through the development of a clear and single-minded strategy'.

Now it feels planning has split even further. I don't mean the fact that slightly different flavours of planners exist, from rigorous quantocrats to inspiring cultural critics. I mean the difference between 'conceptual' planners and 'practical' planners.

Conceptual planners have their traditional home in the creative agency. They believe in static, platonic concepts, like ideas and essences. When they look at consumers, they value universal, deep, motivational insights above descriptions of behaviour. Of course they can think about execution, and implementation. But they believe that those things should come second to conceptual clarity and simplicity.

Practical planners traditionally live in media agencies. They believe in dynamic, tangible things like plans and activities. When they look at consumers, they value behavioural fact over woolly, abstract, psychological fluff. Of course they can think about ideas, but they believe that what people do and where they are should lead investment – and by extension, marketing thinking.

The trouble is, both have a legitimate claim to be the most valuable kind of planning. (Although as I'll argue, that's mainly because both are equally inadequate and blinkered, versus the kind of planning we could be doing.)

The conceptual planners have history and spectacular anecdote on their side. Everyone knows strategic thinking is about ideas; leaders are visionaries; and the great brands all clients seek to emulate have creative strategy and ideas at their heart. This sense of the power of ideas is what buys conceptual planners their place at the top table.

The practical planners can make a strong claim to own the facts because a lot of what they do is easily quantitatively measureable (like media consumption, or click-through). These numbers nicely rhyme with the numbers in clients' budgets; the media agencies thus control those budgets, and this buys them their place at the top table.

But neither of those approaches is perfect. Most media agencies would concede that, yes, ideas are powerful too. Which is why so many are trying to become more creative and present creative ideas. And most creative agencies would accept that organised deployment of budget, informed by data, is a good idea too — which is why many are hiring comms planners (including Grey, Lowe, Fallon, CHI, TBWA, LBi and Bartle Bogle Hegarty).

Even as they make the case for their supremacy, both kinds of planning culture attempt to emulate the other.

And these imperfections are becoming even more obvious the more we improve our understanding of what we do. Behavioural economics has undermined the authority of the single idea by demonstrating the power of little, tangible nudges in changing behaviour and (subsequently) attitudes. At the same time, it's getting increasingly difficult to navigate an increasingly complex media world simply by running the numbers and seeing what comes out on top.

So 40-odd years after planning was invented, we have two philosophically different camps, each with competing but flawed claims to be the most valuable. What does the future hold? Can we resolve this conflict? Should we?

Some people believe we can't. At an Admap roundtable on The Future of Planning (Admap, February 2010), Sarah Watson doubted the belief "that we can do the whole thing … Maybe that is just arrogant planners." Will Collin despaired: "I don't think that's possible."

I believe we have to. In fact, it's dangerous to allow planning to fragment. Its whole raison d'être is to create vision and direction, to direct a brand's behaviour, to "hold the strategic line" as John Griffiths describes it. It has to be singular in vision and purpose. That can't happen if different planners from different agencies, with different philosophies and different things to sell, are locked in a battle for custody of the brand. In a messy divorce, it's the kids that suffer most.

Compare us with other creative industries. You don't get people who come up with ideas for novels, and people that write them. Architects create the vision for a building, but then work with those building it to ensure it works properly. Even writers and directors of movies are responsible for both vision and execution in their respective fields. Nor should we have planners who write brand keys and others that direct brand behaviour. Planning blogger Russell Davies thinks planners should stay close to the whole creative process; he's right, but that can't happen if that process is broken up. If we don't find a single, valuable role for planning by 2020, it's increasingly going to struggle to bridge the gap between the complexity of what's possible and the ongoing need for clarity of purpose. But where does the answer lie?

At a previous agency, I wrote a paper on the future model of the ad agency. My first draft suggested that digital agencies would rule the world, but a more senior planner disagreed because "they're geeks". I saw no reason to disagree. Mark Heal expands more kindly on this point of view in Campaign's What's Next In Integration monograph: in summary, digital agencies are great at user experience but have no idea how to create compelling video; 'TV production' agencies (i.e. ad agencies) are good at content but 'limited and reluctant' when it comes to user experience. I'd probably have agreed with him at the time, too. But that was because I hadn't worked on digital accounts at an agency with strong digital capabilities before. And specifically, because I hadn't worked with User Experience Architects, or realised that they are probably the future of account planning. And the reason for that is that they understand 'Experiences'.

Nike: its advertising aims to give an experience of anticipation, excitement and joy

Consider what experiences are. They're about what you do over time, but also what it's like inside your head. Understanding an experience is about understanding how external stimuli interact with each other, and with your psychological state. Like, for example, how the stimulus of a TV ad interacts with the programming around it, the situation in which it's seen, and the psychological state of the viewer. It's not about universal human drivers versus resulting behaviours, but about how one causes the other— in both directions. In other words, they are simultaneously thinking like a conceptual planner, and like a practical planner.

This is not surprising given their pedigree. At the most basic level they exist to ensure the websites we build (along, more recently, with apps and other online experiences) arrange information in a sensible order and shape, and help people navigate through it easily. Not dissimilar from Information Architecture.

But User Experience goes way beyond Information Architecture (which is why it's unhelpful that many agencies seem to confuse the two). While the latter is a specific discipline concerned with the organisation of information to ensure its swift, intuitive navigation, User Experience considers the experience of the user as a whole: their expectations, their level of interest, their attitudes – even how they feel. Concepts like surprise, or disruption, or even entertainment – all proven tools for affective (and effective) communications — are anathema to a classical Information Architect, but entirely within the imaginative realm of the User Experience Architect.

Even now, they think about both the effect of an individual, small experience — a piece of copy, a picture, the way a button works — and the overall journey. Even now, some agencies are recognising the 'planneriness' of what they do, and reconceiving them as Experience Planners. But just imagine what would happen if we unleashed that kind of thinking on everything else that comms agencies do now.

Already, User Experience Architects do not choose between static essences and dynamic plans. In the future, as Experience Planners, they will identify the most powerful theme a brand could adopt, and then plan experiences around that theme. (Which might include the experience of encountering paid-for advertising, as well as a call to the helpline, a visit to the website or use of the product.)

The way they brief the things we already do will be much more up-to-date. Consider the classic agency brief for a TV ad, with its focus on a message or an idea to be conveyed. Now imagine a brief which asks for a certain kind of 30-second experience, delivered in film. An experience of joy. An experience of waiting and anticipation. An experience of excitement. I can easily imagine those kinds of briefs behind recent, and brilliant, TV commercials for Cadbury's, Guinness and Nike.

Now imagine that Experience Planner briefing buying teams. Asking them to think about the spaces that will best give an experience of a brand's fame. An experience that feels close. An experience that feels premium. Yes, we'll also need some demographic data. But those kinds of briefs are much closer to how media agencies are trying to think about connecting brands with audiences nowadays. As well as fusing the diverged philosophies of conceptual and practical planners, and improving the practice of both, they will also be able to think about new ideas that, so far, neither kind of planner has successfully incorporated into their strategic thinking.

Take behavioural economics. An exciting book club topic for lots of traditional planners, but very few have successfully managed to incorporate it into either conceptual planning or practical planning. That's because it doesn't fit. Intervening with a successful nudge means doing the right thing, in the right place – get either of those wrong and you fail. Experience Planners have figured out how to incorporate BE in a way ATL planners haven't. So far, they've done it in websites – for example, by changing the choice architecture on a form-filling page to reduce opt-outs. But one day, they'll do it with entire comms strategies — for example, by communicating three different prices in three different ads at judiciously chosen points in time to create a price architecture, and drive purchase at a desired price-point.

They will also understand, and plan for, things like wear-out, aggregate effect, and build in awareness much more effectively than any kind of planner we currently have. Wear-out, for example, happens over time and is affected by media weight, which is why media agencies can advise on whether an ad's likely to have worn out, and why the question 'Do print ads wear out?' is classified as a 'media FAQ' by Warc and answered by a media planner. On the other hand, the type of idea makes a difference too: 'new news' ads wear out more than more affective ads, and popular songs seem to wear out quicker, too (as Millward Brown found in its 2007 Knowledge Point paper, 'Do TV ads 'wear out' with repeated showing?').

Neither conceptual nor practical planning expertise is quite enough to plan for a phenomenon like that. But an Experience Planner will be programmed to think about how people experience a TV ad over time. Using a combination of data and creative understanding, they'll ensure the GRPs and length of burst match the creative approach, and plan ahead to avoid the issue.

Once they've solved our existing problems, they'll go further still. Thanks to a blend of time-based and conceptual thinking, they will be able to consider how memory impacts on reception of communications. They will go beyond the superficiality of contextual targeting or retargeting as it's currently understood, and think about how one piece of information discovered in one banner might interact with the information the viewer already knew, and subsequently colour future messages from that brand. They will know, for example, that the human brain tends to record the first and last part of any experience. That it tends to record more faithfully those experiences which result in an emotion being triggered. And they will use that insight to plan everything, from film content to high-frequency dynamic online ad campaigns.

They will be able to help brands as they move into the strange new world of physical/ digital spaces. Thinking experientially (rather than either conceptually or behaviourally) is the only way to make sense of this new world, because everything is connected together. People will bounce from one brand encounter to the next in increasingly complicated ways: Tesco might talk to them through their fridge, and their car, and their phone, as well as their TV; they might think about and plan TV viewing while at work; Nike might make a big impression with an in-game ad or a poster, and simultaneously be monitoring your heart rate and gait through your shoes. Increasingly, it won't help to think about brand touchpoints, as every touchpoint will be contextually different and, because of its utility, affect subsequent brand encounters in new ways.

A traditional TV planner is hopelessly ill-prepared for this world because they are trained to look for the static concept. Media planners won't be able to do it either because they are trained to think about maximising the number of interactions but not creating the quality or the content of those interactions. User Experience Architects — or Experience Planners, as they will become – are trained to think about ordering and organising smaller experiences (a click, a reaction, a discovery, a decision) into a coherent, overall journey that results in a positive experience.

If you still aren't convinced, watch Microsoft's Future Vision. Then think about the kind of planning that such a world would require. Think about the kind of thinking that a brand would need to be valued in that world. Conceptual planning and big ideas aren't enough if the experience is poor. Neither is a high number of targeted appearances in relevant contexts. What's important in that vision of the future is that brands deliver great experiences. What 'great' means will differ by brand; but experiences they will be. And if planning can transform itself to plan those experiences, by transcending the philosophies of concept and practice, it will continue to be valuable to clients in 2020 and beyond.

About the Author

Nick Hirst is associate planning director at Dare, he was formerly a senior planner at Grey London and began his career in account management at Lowe London.

This free access article was published in the June issue of Admap magazine. To benefit from insightful articles that tackle the big challenges in brand communications each month, written by experts in their field, subscribe to Admap by visiting

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There are 7 comments on this article

(Want to have your say? Add your Comment)

User Image Great piece of work. Congratulations!
Anna K. 08 June 2012 at 8:55am
Elegant piece of thinking Nick.
Leigh T. 08 June 2012 at 2:52pm
User Image Congratulations Nick, this is a really interesting piece, not because it is surprising, but  because it elegantly articulates something that many of us have battled with for sometime.

I would love to see how far you can push it, how would you bridge the gaps, train and evolve the team and the agency? 
Rob C. 12 June 2012 at 1:28am
User Image Cheers, Rob. I think you're right that it requires training. The UX folk here at Dare are probably better trained - or at least more formally trained - than most planners. UX as a discipline feels like it has more applicable theory to it than classical ad planning. But ad to that a more in-depth understanding of how TV ads work - starting with Feldwick's "50 years ... wrong model" paper, going through LIP and more recently applied neuroscience - and you start to see that to plan whole experiences, on and offline, planners will need to know a whole lot more than they do now.

Sure I'll be blogging about that some time soon... :)
Nick H. 13 June 2012 at 8:09am
Well done - an interesting piece.  I think a key challenge for Experience Planners will be how they can bridge the gap between the 'experiencing self' and the 'remembering self'.  A significant body of psychological research has shown that these two selves operate in different ways.  For example, what aids memory encoding is the peak of emotional experience and the final emotional experience (the 'peak end rule').  And, obviously, memories are what will impact on future desired behaviours (ie whether punters will chose brand A over brand B).  Personally I think at least a simple grasp of consumer psychology would be critical element of developing the Experience Planner role.
Owen J. 15 June 2012 at 10:32am
User Image Owen J, I agree. In fact, whether you think it's about experience planning or not, I think you'd have to agree that planners need to understand stuff like that much better. How we remember is critical even if you're just writing a brief for TV advertising.

If it were up to me we'd all be required to pass an exam in consumer psychology (along with a few other things...) before we could call ourselves planners.
Nick H. 25 June 2012 at 10:35am
User Image Owen J, I agree. In fact, whether you think it's about experience planning or not, I think you'd have to agree that planners need to understand stuff like that much better. How we remember is critical even if you're just writing a brief for TV advertising.

If it were up to me we'd all be required to pass an exam in consumer psychology (along with a few other things...) before we could call ourselves planners.
Nick H. 25 June 2012 at 10:36am
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