Planning cannot afford to keep repeating old mistakes, says Mike Teasdale, if it is to adapt to the rise of data, platforms and short-term response creativity and the decline of long-term brand-building ideas.
As a parent, I have, on occasion, let my daughter make a mistake, so she can learn from it. Not big stuff like crossing the road, but small stuff like wearing new shoes before breaking them in (although I did put plasters in her school bag for when the inevitable happened).
Of course, neuroscience tells us that while mistakes are great teachers, they also teach us how to repeat the same mistakes. That’s because neural pathways get created irrespective of outcome.
Self-help gurus say that rather than heading down flawed pathways, it’s better to focus on what we want to accomplish and try to approach the goal from a fresh perspective. But that’s easier said than done, which is why we repeat mistakes. In my training work, I see three planning mistakes repeated time and again.
First, the mistake of not defining the problem correctly. We all know the adage that if you have only one hour to solve a problem, it’s best to spend two-thirds of the time defining what the problem is. In my experience, ad agencies work to a different adage: if you have only one hour to solve a problem, it’s best to spend two-thirds of the time playing ping pong, then rush like demented chickens to come up with random creative solutions to which you retrofit a plausible problem.
But in an ideal world, you would sweat the problem until it squeaks. Having written or reviewed hundreds of briefs, the number one thing that most denotes a good one is the presence of a crystal-clear articulation of the key problem that advertising needs to solve. Not a woolly business or marketing wish list but a specific job to be done that advertising is capable of. In the very best cases, the job to be done is expressed in a way that catches the reader’s eye and acts as an instant catalyst for creative development.
Sainsbury’s ‘Try Something New Today’ campaign happened because the planner rearticulated the problem, from generating an additional £2.5 billion in sales over three years, to generating an extra £1.14 from every visit (£1.14 × 52 weeks × 3 years × 14 million weekly visits = £2.5 billion).
Second, the mistake of confusing insight, observation, and information. When it comes to creative development, a powerful insight is second only to a crystal-clear articulation of the key problem. Insights not only increase our chances of a creative breakthrough, they also make the creative process less painful and less random.
Given the importance of insights, I am constantly surprised at what people think passes for one. A very common mistake I see is the jumbling up of insight, observation, and information. Assuming you have correctly defined the problem, then you can narrow your data search to information relevant to that problem. But only when you successfully explain why the information is the way it is do you move into observation territory. And it’s only when you use the information and observation to help solve the problem that you begin to unlock an insight.
An insight is a glimpse inside the mind of consumers that shines a light on a possible solution to a brand problem. Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign is based on the insight that women and teenage girls feel judged if they are out there exercising. The campaign is liberating for women as it depicts women of all ages and sizes and races getting hot and sweaty and not being remotely embarrassed about it.
Third, the mistake of forgetting to represent the consumer in the creative development process. Today’s young planners, sitting in their funky agency spaces with their headphones on, seem too busy with brand purpose or niche influencers to have any time for listening to ordinary punters. They seem too busy being futurologists or business analysts or facilitators or side hustle entrepreneurs to be the most important thing of all: the voice of Joe Public.
Maybe they think it demeans them to be a messenger but when I started out that’s what was expected of me. And that’s what gave me power in the creative development process. It’s a vital role, and no one else will do it if the planner does not.
These three repeated mistakes worry me because planning is under threat as everything in commercial creativity changes. The discipline is still about sparking opportunities for creativity by getting inside people’s heads, but the context is completely different.
Planning needs to adapt to the rise of data and the decline of insights, to the rise of short-term response creativity and the decline of long-term brand-building, and to the rise of platforms and the decline of ideas. These are new challenges, and if planning is to meet them it can’t afford to repeat old mistakes.