This guest post is an extract from Martin Weigel's speech to the APG of Sweden, the full text of which can be read on his blog.
In parts of our industry planning is in rude health, with sharp, brilliant, imaginative minds helping shape innovative and effective solutions to clients' business issues. The APG's Creative Strategy Awards and the IPA's Effectiveness Awards both provide invaluable evidence of how intelligent, creative thinking can yield fresh ideas that move businesses.
Yet planning in many other quarters feels like a photocopy of a photocopy – reproduced, but with much of the original clarity lost.
In fact there is a palpable sense of confusion, uncertainty and anxiety within the planning community. We speculate whether planning is merely a subset of UX, whether marketing has been replaced by growth hacking, whether (God help us) the creative brief format should change, whether the big idea has been rendered obsolete by the small idea, and we entertain advice on what planning 'should' be by people with the flimsiest of strategic credentials.
Moreover, there is no sense that planners share a common philosophy, let alone a common body of accumulated marketing knowledge. So to confusion, uncertainty and anxiety, we can also add ignorance.
Turning to survey the role of planning within agencies we have the planner as creative apologist and 'strategic setup' writer. As translator of client briefs into something coherent and workable for creatives. As articulator of other people's ideas. As powerpoint jockey. As trend spotter. As bad creative with a big vocabulary. As cheerleader for 'innovation'. As conference speaker and panelist. As politician and manager of client relationships. As speculator about what the future holds. As salesperson for agency capabilities.
However valuable these contributions might be, none of them represent the core purpose of account planning. Alone they are planning distracted, and domesticated.
If planning is to help businesses adapt, survive, and prosper in this world, it must regain its sense of purpose, and go back to its future as a radical movement.
Now by 'radical' I do not mean mean wayward, destructive, or self-consciously hip – coming from the Latin radicalis, meaning root, the original use of 'radical' meant going to the root, or essence. Planning in other words, was (and at its best continues to be) about going to the root of the matter. It was about asking questions – the obvious yet unasked, the awkward, the penetrating, the fresh and unexpected. It appreciated the fundamental truth that creativity begins with questioning.
Hunch, gut, improvisation, lateral thinking, guess work, hypothesis, prejudice, intuition, even naiveté … they all have an essential and vital role to play in the development of strategy and ideas. Planners who fail to bring these elements to to the table are just as handicapped as planners who fail to bring to bear rigour and a desire to get to the root of the matter. Planners after all work with research, but in communications. As such their business is the same as everybody else's – the application of imagination to clients' business issues, helping create entirely new futures for our clients' businesses and brands.
Planning then, is an essential part of the messy process, and is not just an upstream, conceptual discipline that does not get its hands dirty with the work. It is practical, pragmatic, and focused on execution, not mere abstraction.
However, without the skills and interest to get to the heart of the matter, planning is a body without a skeleton, and without this necessary infrastructure of knowledge and ability – without radical planning – we do ourselves, the work, and our clients a disservice.
Without planning that gets to the root of things, planning simply has no foundation. It speaks without authority, reduced to just another opinion – one everybody else is perfectly entitled to ignore. We are, after all, already over-supplied opinions.
Without radical planning, we also do creativity a disservice. We risk creativity being tasked with unreasonable, unrealistic, or inappropriate objectives, we deny the creative process the fuel of that old fashioned word, insight, and devoid of deep understanding, we render the development of successful ideas a roll of the dice.
And of course without radical planning we also do our clients a disservice.
At this point we should pause and shudder as we contemplate the fact that the average tenure of a CMO is now a paltry forty-three months.
The implications for the organisation are clear. Results (sometimes any results) must be delivered, and delivered quickly. Inevitably then, short-termism has become the scourge of the marketing world. And it is a scourge because real, significant, sustainable business results are felt in the longer term.
Only by getting to the root of things do we have any hope of helping clients set the right objectives, select the best tools, and marshal the appropriate level of resources. For as Laurence Green has observed:
"Too often, our business has sliced and diced its tasks in the style of a sub-prime mortgage bundler. A corporate task set by the chief executive, reframed as a comms task by the marketing director, refined by the brand consultancy, and reduced by the ad agency to the stuff advertising can do: Grow awareness, nurture engagement. Too many links, too indirect and weak a connection between commercial possibilities and creative resolution."
Without properly radical planning we – along with our clients – we will remain hostage to this kind of thinking and operating.
So if we want to take proper advantage of the ever-expanding canvas of creative opportunities, if we desire a broader application of creativity to clients' business needs and issues, and if we are to go beyond only ever seeing and solving ad-shaped problems, then we must go beyond the merely superficial and apply ourselves more seriously to asking more, better, and different questions.