Planners are in danger of being caught up in the minutiae of campaigns when they should be looking at the big picture. And, says Ed Cotton, they need to become mini-MBA students as well.

Account planning was born in the cultural revolution of mid-1960s Britain, a time when the ad industry was feeling detached from consumers. Account planners were charged with the responsibility to close the gap, but their role was also to use consumer insight as a springboard to new futures for their client’s brands.

Fast forward to 2018 and a quick look at WARC’s Future of Strategy report reveals a discipline that lies caught between the aspirations of the past and the realities of the present. The role has taken on more responsibilities and fragmented into various specialties, while at the same time becoming constrained by time, talent and resources.

Much of this is a result of clients shifting their communications approach as they look to achieve success with tighter budgets over shorter time-frames. Planners have been forced to become more tactical and work with the small picture, rather than the big one that used to be their domain.

This is a dangerous development that could spiral out of control as planners end up dealing with ever smaller issues and solutions. The irony is this is happening at a moment in time, when, one could argue, the world is going through more dramatic change than occurred in the 1960s when account planning was born. Equality, diversity, the rise of populism, climate change, sustainability, technology, privacy, to name a few, are issues that demand understanding and attention because they have a direct bearing on the business health of our clients. 

The combination of many of these trends is leading to the transformation and disruption of business. To illustrate the scale of this revolution, Credit Suisse has reported that the lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 Index has shrunk from 60 years in the 1950s to under 20 today. Or consider the market capitalizations of tech companies Amazon and Apple, which are around double that of Exxon and four times larger than either AT&T or Verizon, while Uber was recently reported to have a likely valuation of $120 billion for its upcoming IPO, according to Bloomberg.

If planning embraces its original vision of finding pathways to the future for companies, planners should be dialed in to understanding the forces of change and their impacts on consumers. Most critical of all is that they need to be constantly questioning and challenging prescribed dogmas and ingrained thinking as marketing has made the revolutionary shift to an automated digital landscape.

One big difference between the 1960s and today is that companies face growth challenges, which weren’t a problem back then. This means companies should be seeking out radical and dynamic solutions to gain competitive advantage, but corporate cultures are being driven by fear and resistance to change.

So, we have a strange dichotomy – a macro context that demands a planner’s fullest attention and a need for big bold ideas, but at the same time efforts to realize these ideas are being stifled by the short-termism and fear that is prevalent in the corridors of business. 

To escape this trap, planners cannot simply accept the status quo. They need to bring big thinking informed by an understanding the dynamics of consumer change, but to do this successfully, they need to apply themselves to understanding business.

By business, I mean they need to understand how their client’s business makes money. In short, they need to become mini-MBA students. This is all about helping to provide the conditions necessary for planning to operate effectively. Today, developing a great strategy demands knowing what kind of idea has the power to financially transform a business.

To embrace the new vision, planners need be comfortable with the stuff of business and finance – balance sheets, analyst calls and reports, industry-specific language and KPIs. They need to know what a business currently does to make money and, importantly, what else it could be doing to make money.

In a growth-challenged world, big and brave ideas are needed more than ever. Planners need to take responsibility to convince their clients that these ideas are not only powerful, engaging and provocative for consumers, they also need to be able to show, that, if realized, they will make the clients more money than they could have made without them.

Planners need to drag themselves out of the minutiae and embrace their role as champions and explorers of human understanding at a time of rapid cultural, political and societal change. They need to have the imagination and confidence, curiosity, tenacity and charisma to be the architects of bold thinking that challenges the status quo.

In many respects, this is simply a return to planning’s original vision. The difference today is that, for a planner’s thinking to have a significant impact, it has to go beyond consumer understanding and imaginative leaps to provide platforms for business growth. And these platforms have to be based on a fundamental understanding of existing and potential sources of revenue and profit.

If planners can rerurn to the disciplines original vision and add on top of it a dose of business acumen, they will not only realize their fullest potential, but they will become the architects of their agency’s and their clients’ future growth.