Brands should embed diversity and inclusion throughout the planning process, rather than regarding it as a tick-box exercise, according to BBDO’s Melanie Norris.

As planners we have a significant responsibility around diversity and inclusion (D&I).

If we, as an industry, want to get to more authentic representation and to better and more diverse work generally, and we really do want and need this, we have to start with the stories we tell, and this all starts with strategy.

Planners are at the very start of the process, we take the brief, we own the problem, we interrogate the data, we bring audiences to life, we start the story, we set the tone.

But we are also incredibly stretched, the demands on planning and planners are greater than ever, and so we battle time.

It is no surprise that the trend or theme that planners thought would be most permanent was the focus on D&I, but the second most commonly cited enduring trend was an increased speed of working. We have to ensure that this trend of increased speed doesn’t work against our overriding desire to focus on the need for D&I.

One of the solutions lies with more diverse teams, teams who are comprised of visible and invisible differences. Some 86% of strategists this year said they either strongly agreed or agreed that strategy teams need greater diversity in hiring, 27% say their company has a framework in place with targets for hiring diverse candidates. Another disconnect. There is no doubt that diversity and creativity are inextricably linked. Diverse teams, across the board, must be non-negotiable.

In terms of the process that planners adopt in order to get to the work, I think we have to intentionally create barriers and obstacles that require us to challenge everything we put in and everything we pull out. For example, your go-to data sources, are they diverse? Is your research group diverse? Are you actively seeking out different? At our organisation, ‘seeks out different’ is one of our values, it requires us to question our assumptions and statements, and to go beyond the data to ask for different points of view, different stories, different approaches, even if it slows us down. Our strategic planning process also requires us to write truths and this use of the word truth is intentional. We are asking our planners to stand by their statements – are you sure this is the truth?

D&I is integral to our planning process, but is not a tick-box exercise, nor is it adding a box to our brief. It is about embedding diversity and inclusion throughout our process. It ensures we are always striving to get to more authentic stories that lead to authentic representation in our work and the world.

One simple, small tip is to stop planning at your desk. Thinking outside the box starts with thinking away from the desk. One of the best tips I ever heard was to ditch the focus group and go and sit on a bus, a train, go to a coffee shop, a supermarket and listen, talk to people, ask questions and really listen to the responses.

Planners are at the beginning, we are responsible for shaping, curating and creating. We are responsible for the quality of the ingredients that form the brief and the briefing. We need to take responsibility for the role we play in directing the course that the creative work and the creative casting takes. Let’s slow down a little and seek out different.

Future of Strategy 2021

Melanie Norris' piece appeared originally in WARC's Future of Strategy 2021 report, which you can read here.