As media has fragmented so has the practice of overall communications planning, says Faris Yakob. With a whole landscape of specialist agencies and tools vying for attention and dollars, comms planning is due a rebirth.

Way back in the prehistoric 1990s, the advertising industry was torn apart. As the media landscape began to fragment, the increased complexity triggered the separation of media from creative, ultimately in the formation of standalone media agencies. This was only the beginning.

Strategy split in two – with account or brand planning on one side and media planning on the other. This led to practical and conceptual challenges. Can an advertising idea exist absent of its expression? Which comes first? If the idea informs the channel, what if the channels required aren’t ones consumed by the target audience? If media comes first, is the idea constrained to the pre-determined units that have been purchased.

This was happening at a time when the options available for brands seemed to be multiplying. The web had come online and the industry was only just beginning to grapple with it. Guerrilla advertising was exploring new opportunities on the streets, in pubs, at events and beyond. To capitalize, new agencies that specialized in one of these new areas sprang into existence.

Eventually, all these agencies began to field strategists, sending them upstream to the client, armed with rationales for why the budget should be allocated to their discipline. This strategic fragmentation became a major headache for marketers. On one side, the traditional agencies seemed most comfortable inside the five main commercial media [TV, cinema, print, radio, outdoor]. On the other, new opportunities appeared apace without any muscle memory for how to use them, when, for what and how much.

Thus, the conditions were ripe for a new, reintegrated offering. Naked Communications launched in 2000 and developed communication strategy as a discipline that straddled the gap that had opened up between creative and media, providing ideas that fit into new spaces and strategy that embraced communication as broadly as possible. Based on the idea that “everything communicates”, they could make objective recommendations because they were not biased towards outputs, only outcomes. Thus they could advise clients on how to brief and manage their agencies, enabling better integration and collaboration. They would even suggest taking money out of the advertising and media budgets and allocating it to the customer experience or product if that was deemed the right approach.

Then Naked was acquired, large agencies expanded their offerings, creating broader tools and techniques, and the niche Naked occupied was gradually swallowed up. It ceased to be a viable entity in 2017. Every type of agency planner was now a strategist and standalone communication strategy was no more.

However, in the last few years, we’ve begun to see signals that it is returning, from our clients and more broadly, because conditions once again suggest it. We’ve seen new competitive threats enter the marcomms market: in-housing, influencers, consultancies, design companies and media company studios. Managing the complexity of these content supply chains has once again become one of the biggest client issues.

This Great Blur means lots of formerly discrete companies seem to offer similar services in content and comms. We worked with a global creative network on their communication strategy approach as they looked to challenge media agencies, and then with a media agency on their creative process. We saw Ogilvy collapsing its sub-brands to provide holistic strategy, not competitive P&Ls. 

Then, this year, we worked with one of the world’s largest CPG brands on building an internal communication strategy approach, function and tools. The client in question has a swathe of agencies of all types, as so many big global clients do. They initially asked all of them to collaborate on an integrated process, but grew frustrated when every agency response was obviously biased to its own tools, process and bottom line. In the WARC Future of Strategy report, this was echoed by Frank Reitgassl, Director of Brand Strategy & Creative at Mondelēz:

“You see that media has left the agency world; channel planning has come back in. You see some clients buying media themselves. So you see how the lines are blurring and everything will become more fluid. But does it matter?”

Who decides who does what, when and were, has always been a key question. In this new competitive environment, conditions seem ripe for a rebirth of comms.

For more on this - check out the recent WARC webinar The Rebirth of Comms.