Reclaiming planning’s radicalism

 

I was recently invited by the APG of Sweden to talk about ‘the future of planning’.  This is the text of that talk - a personal perspective on whether account planning indeed has a future at all. My thanks to all at the APG for the opportunity of catharsis. 

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The political activist Marcus Garvey once said:

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture, is like a tree without roots.”

Now ours is not an industry much given to contemplating the past. And it is easy to take the existence of account planning for granted.  After all, it has functioned now as a distinct agency discipline for almost half a century. In that time been exported, institutionalized, taught, iterated, segmented, and even celebrated. The story of account planning is a success story.

But if we are to shape the next fifty years, then we must rediscover our radicalism. For we are in danger of being that tree without roots, and it is only by rediscovering our past that can we hope to play a part in shaping the future.

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The story of account planning story begins in 1968.  While the streets of Paris were convulsing with the idealism and missiles of the student riots, in Swinging London, Stanley Pollitt and Stephen King began reengineering their agencies to accommodate what came to be known as ‘account planning’.

This much we all know.  But it is easy to forget that at its inception, account planning offered the industry a truly radical philosophy. For the impetus for the creation of planning was an over-dependence on copy-testing persuasion scores, the abuse of rigid qualitative research methodologies, and a shortage of decent market data.

Account planning in other words, was borne of a frustration at the way research was being used in agencies. King and Pollitt were driven by the desire to create a way of working where the primary use of research was consumer understanding in the service, as Paul Feldwick has put it, of “intelligent strategy and creative communication”.

It aimed to expose and dismantle stifling and unhelpful research methodologies. 

It devoted itself to developing a real and rounded understanding of the consumer, rather than simply selecting and polishing selling propositions. 

It sought to place thinking about the response of the consumer at the heart of strategic and creative thinking.

It shifted the focus of advertising development from finding ways of selling people stuff, to finding ways of making stuff buyable.

And it placed the quest for effectiveness above all other agendas, both internal and external.

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So where, forty-six years later, does account planning find itself today?

In parts of our industry it 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.  

Now I am not suggesting that everybody in this room is guilty of all of this. The fact that you here are all members of the APG is a pretty good indication that your hearts and priorities are in the right place. Nonetheless, there are bad habits and behaviours, and there are plenty of planners outside this room that are guilty of indulging in them. They discredit the discipline, make it weaker, and jeopardize the possibility of great work.

And that is (to indulge in understatement) a pity, for the world brims with opportunity. New consumers are beginning to find the fruits of the marketplace within their reach and means for the first time.  Technology is turbocharging, amplifying, and accelerating our Stone Age instincts,   It is rewiring how businesses do business, and how they connect with consumers.  New industries are emerging, entirely new business models are being created, and new players are disrupting and even obliterating old businesses. As it has always done, the world teems and swirls with the complexity  and opportunity that always attends creative destruction.

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.

Without radicalism – without the desire and tenacity to ask the smart, challenging, hard, good, fundamental and penetrating questions, without the interest, ability and fearlessness to get to the root of things – we cannot hope to produce intelligent strategy and effective creative communication. No amount of lateral thinking, digital savviness, powerpoint, eloquent brief writing, and hanging out with creatives can make up for that.

So some thoughts with on what radical planning takes seriously.

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In a world characterized by constant change and innovation, planning will be knowledgeable about the fundamental principles of marketing and communications. 

It is breathtaking how little planning knows about how businesses actually make money, and how brands grow and are sustained. It is equally depressing how uninterested many planners appear to be in any of this today. Planners who find this stuff too tedious, or beneath them, would probably be better off advising production companies, than advising clients on how to address their business issues.

In contrast, radical planning will take a keen interest in how our clients actually make money – in the business behind our clients’ brands. 

It will know about the relative profitability of increasing volume or price, the difference between short- and long-term effects, and the economics of promotions. 

It will understand the fundamental patterns of buying behaviour so that it can translate business objectives into realistic marketing objectives.

And it will understand the relative contribution of penetration and loyalty to brand growth.

It will understand how people really make decisions, and it will understand how people influence each others’ decisions.

It will understand the different ways that people process communications, from low to high attention processing, and the strengths and weaknesses of each.  

It will understand how people respond to the same communications in different contexts (and on different devices), and why they will screen them out in some contexts and pay close attention in others. 

And while the body of knowledge so far is not extensive, it will try and understand how communications affect people in ways that are not explicit. 

Engagement, participation, loyalty, segmentation, differentiation… Marketing is full of myths, received wisdom, old wives’ tales, superstition, and zombie ideas (ideas that should have been killed by evidence, but which refuse to die).  Too much of this is simply being accepted uncritically and unexamined, swallowed wholesale, and mindlessly regurgitated. So while enthusiasm for the new is one of the things that makes our industry such an endlessly stimulating one to work in, radical planning will understand that thoughtful examination is the necessary partner of enthusiasm, not its enemy.

Of course people don’t really need communications. They need brands and products that contribute to their lives. And so planning will seek to understand how people actually use and experience products and services – both the physical and the digital, how that makes them feel, and how this helps form habits that shape future behaviour.  Indeed it will spend more time trying to understand how habits are formed than thinking about ‘loyalty’ or some other form of deep ‘engagement’.

We work at the ‘show-business’ end of business, not the business end of show-business. If we want a future in which we add value and are valued, we’d better start being interested in and knowledgeable about what keeps the wheels of business turning. 

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Secondly – though surely it should be unnecessary to demand – planning will be knowledgeable about how ordinary people live.

95% of all that’s awful about the output of our industry stems I’d argue, from the fact that it operates as ‘Adland’. Because to operate in the tiny world of ‘Adland’ is to live and work in splendid isolation from all that surrounds us. It is to see ‘consumers’ not people; to worry more about the accolade of one’s peers than people in the real world; to be out of step with culture, both fast and slow; to create work according to ‘rules’ that have no foundation other than corporate solipsism; to breathe in an environment filled with the exhaust fumes of our own rhetoric; to find inspiration only in the output of ‘Adland’; and to judge our work against other advertising, rather than all other things that interest and excite people.

Now the notion of the planner as “voice of the consumer” has fallen for good reason into disrepute. It had come to legitimize marketing’s slavish following of consumer research. But we are in danger of replacing it with ‘the voice of adland’, which is just as terrifying.

Radical planning will not have forgotten that its role is to bring a knowledge of the outside world into creative process.

In providing that window onto the world outside adland, it will know the basic stuff about demographics, lifestyles, incomes, etc. But it will go beyond this, and occupy itself as much to understanding societal and cultural change, as it currently does to understanding the shifting technological landscape.

And it will understand that the real world can be very different from the cloistered confines of adland. 

Now I’m old enough to remember when when planners moderated their own focus groups. If this did nothing else it confronted us with the fact that most people lived very different lives from ours. Today, for all our glut of data and for all our ‘listening tools’, a great many planners are spectacularly and completely out of touch with ordinary people.

Radical planning will recognize that the lives of the people it seeks to influence can often be very different from our own. In reconnecting itself with reality, it will seek to dismantle the insulating assumptions, rhetoric, borders and behaviours that isolate ‘adland’ from the real world.

And in doing so, it will finally accommodate itself to the fact that for most of the time, most people are not terribly interested in brands, and that our primary task is not the nurturing enthusiasm of the few, but overcoming the indifference of the many.

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The landscape is evolving and changing rapidly, but planning will have a good working knowledge of people’s media behaviours.

When I started in advertising, the media choices would be between TV, outdoor, print, and maybe if you were feeling adventurous, a bit of radio. Communications planning since then has of course changed dramatically. Marketers today are faced with a truly dizzying array of options, choices, and potential media combinations. Indeed almost anything can be a medium.

This complexity is compounded by the  the explosion in the number of brands vying for consumers’ attention, and the endless tsunami of compelling, distracting, useful, or entertaining content that now surrounds us.

In this environment, gaining and sustaining competitive edge demands that imagination be married with a new degree of rigour and objectivity. As Kate Cox has observed, once upon a time media recommendations invariably began with the objective of “build rapid reach and frequency to raise awareness”.  Today, the endless flexibility of digital interactions demands that we think through what each point of consumer contact does for a client’s brand and business.

However, there is in some parts of the planning community an almost wholesale ignorance as to the media diets and behaviours of different consumer segments. To some degree we can blame separation of the media function from the creative  one. But it is not an excuse.

While it will not know more than the specialists, radical planning will have an understanding of the relationship people have with different media (in the broadest sense of the world)  so that it can have useful and intelligent conversations with those experts.

It know the basics of what different channels, platforms, and devices can deliver – in terms of experience, audience, scale – as well as value to a brand and business.

For example, we talk about ‘second screening’, but exactly how many people do it, how much time do they spend doing it, when do they do it, and what are they doing on that second screen? Radical planning will know the answers because it will have got over the collective allergy or lack of interest in data that bedevils us today.

It will be able to distinguish intelligently between ‘wide’ channels that deliver reach and frequency and ‘deep’ channels that offer a more immersed consumer experience. And it will have the breadth of vision to appreciate that both can play a role.

And in contrast to our frequently naive response to media data and factoids, radical planning will be able to exercise a sense of proportion. It will be able to distinguish between apples and pears, and not fall for example, for comparing the audience delivered by a one-off broadcast with a video that has taken months and months to aggregate its views.

And it will be able to critique the sales patter of salespeople from, for example, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, etc. Certainly it would not have gushed quite so much at the 100m+ views that a certain three minute film garnered online.  It would have known that this is tiny for a global phenomenon, and equates to about a 200 TVR campaign just in the UK. There’s really not much point us banging on about ‘big data’ if we cannot cope with this much smaller data.

And finally, radical planning will know the relationship between media investment and market share growth, and be able to have an informed voice in the setting of task-appropriate budgets.

Our ideas are nothing if they are not experienced by consumers, and mediating technology is increasingly part of the idea, rather than merely a delivery system for it. Planning must climb out of its pit of ignorance and begin to ask all the questions that communications and media planners have been asking for decades.

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And finally, planning will be able to actually evaluate the effectiveness of the ideas it helps develop.

Our purpose is to help in the creation of work that worksAnd yet investigating how it worked in the marketplace is neglected by too many planners. How can we hope to have clients take creativity seriously – to encourage it, invest in it, and pay us for it – if we ourselves have absolutely no idea what its contribution to their business was?

Radical planning will take seriously evaluating the business impact of creativity. 

Now evaluating communications responses – whether people saw it, remember it, liked it, etc. – is relatively easy. And of course people’s digital interactions give us even more things we can measure – searches, downloads, uploads, clicks, views, tweets, shares, likes, visits – the list goes on and on. All these things are easy to monitor and easy to count. They tend to move quickly, and they’re relatively easy to link to marketing activity. But despite our industry’s collective and frequently naive fixation with mindlessly counting these numbers, communications effects and media efficiencies are not evidence of effectiveness. Even if others do not, radical planning will grasp this distinction and understand that the end goal for clients is money and profit.

Properly radical planning will have a working knowledge of how to evaluate the effectiveness of our ideas.

It will know that short-and long-term effects are different kinds of communications responses, and it will know that they must be measured differently, over different time periods.

It will be aware that creativity is in all cases only one of the many factors, external and intrinsic, which may have driven sales or created a change in behaviour. So it will have an appreciation of how (I borrow here from the advice for entrants submitting cases to the Cannes Effectiveness Lions) distribution, pricing, competitive failure, share of voice, superior product performance, market monopoly, seasonality, price promotion, macro-economic pressure, cultural bias, legislation, average temperature, rainfall, force majeure, popular culture, fashion, politics are all potential factors in the fortunes of companies and the performance of brands, and that the influences on buying behaviour of consumers is almost infinite.

In working to identify the specific contribution of communications, it will know how to manually discount these factors.

It will have at least a working knowledge of the principles of econometrics.

And of course it will know that creativity makes money in different ways, whether that’s driving top-line sales, securing new distribution, supporting a price premium, reversing reputational damage, reducing the cost of sale, and so on.

If we really want to demonstrate to our clients that investing in creativity is good business (rather than just talk about it), then we must all take seriously the task of evaluating its business impact.

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So, the fundamental principles of marketing and communications… how ordinary people live… media behaviours… and effectiveness. None of this is merely ‘nice-to-have’ theoretical knowledge – it has a direct bearing on what we choose to create. It shapes objectives, targeting, timing, channel and platform choices, investment levels, creative solution, and performance metrics. The fundamentals of what makes for good, effective planning have not changed.

Indeed the need for properly radical planning, for planning that has the intelligence, conviction, determination, and skills to involve itself in, ask, and address the fundamental questions is arguably more urgent than ever.

For while planning has long been obsessed with simplicity and reductionism, as Tracey Follows has noted, what clients really want is not so much help in coping with complexity, but certainty.  Uncertainty can paralyze a business (think about all those corporations that have been amassing vast cash reserves) and surprise can jeopardize it.

Uncertainty is of course, a perennial challenge in business planning.  But it’s probably fair to say that our world is volatile, complex and interconnected like never before.

Uncertainty of course cannot be eliminated. Risk is always the inescapable partner of return.  But if planning is to help clients manage risk, then it must be radical.

So rather than be content with breezy confidence, a dollop of marketing buzzwords, some observations about the Zeitgeist, some references to Nike+, Zappos or other case study du jour, and some pretty powerpoint, it must commit itself getting to the very heart of things.

Now this is not to insist that the development of ideas is a linear and entirely rational process in which each step logically leads to the next. Nor is this to argue that rigour and radicalism are the only requirements for effective planning.

As Stephen King himself noted:

The whole process of advertising is not a safe, cautious, step-by-step build-up, because that would inevitably lead to me-too advertising for me-too brands.”  

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. 

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We should never forget that the emergence of planning as a discipline was driven by anger and indignation. 

Anger at stifling and bogus research techniques. 

Anger at spurious assumptions about how communications worked. 

Anger at poor quality data that yielded no insight. 

Anger at a research and marketing infrastructure that got in the way of work that worked. 

The work and our clients today deserve this same degree of energy and fearless intelligence.

This same independence of thought.

This same commitment to cut through the self-serving rhetoric and rigour-free bullshit.

This same determination to look beyond the easy platitudes and lazy thinking.

This same relentlessly questioning spirit.

Planning is radical, or it is nothing.

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Of hedgehogs and foxes

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People talk. More than ever. We have reached an era in which people redistribute other people’s thinking and build their reputation on it…. They are running around saying super smart things like “Make is the new think” – and make nothing. It’s like talk is the new make… We just sit there, all agitated and willing, and throw around a whole lot of “we should”.”

So wrote Folker Wrage, in a recent article aptly entitled ‘Shut up and play your guitar: Why creativity needs to take over’.

I must confess it gave me a sleepless night (we planners are good at talking after all) and it put me in mind of the famous 1953 essay ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ by the philosopher and political theorist Isaiah Berlin.

(I know. But work with me here).

In it he ponders a line from the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Berlin argued that these words mark one of the deepest differences which divide human beings.

As he wrote:

There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory… These last lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.”

Not only is there a lot of talk, but it strikes me that there is also an ever greater number of hedgehogs in our business these days, insisting that creativity to be related to a single central vision, to one system.

Perhaps this is merely symptomatic of the unending plenitude of creative choices available to us.

And we do need guidance.

We do need to develop our understanding.

After all unshackled from the old constraints imposed by medium, we can, theoretically, make whatever we want.

And we do most certainly need to overcome resistance, ignorance, and the Luddite tendency.

But, let it be said, hedgehogs are not friends of creativity.

In their desire for coherence and tidiness, in their desire to be right, to be in charge, to be seen as advant-garde, to build up their personal brand, or to sell their services and specialism… they demand that creativity bow down and subjugate itself to their vision, their ideology, their rules.

They wring diversity out of creativity.

They’re more interested in legislating than making.

They would have creativity be a prêt-à-porter business, not a bespoke service.

They chase the coat trains of fashion.

Brands must be social / mobile / always on / lightweight interactions / content producers / participative / agile / in the now / media channels / interactive… the list of things we are told we “have” to do goes on and on and on.

So here’s a thought that may strike some (particularly hedgehogs) as somewhat novel.

The more you talk – the more you tell people what they “should” do – the more you betray the fact that you have next to no idea of how creativity happens.

You suck the oxygen of possibility, serendipity and madness from the room.

You shrink the palette to monochrome.

You chase away the instinct for risk.

You stifle the willingness to fail.

You hurry what must take time.

This is not a request to shut the fuck up.

Not entirely, at least.

By all means point to possibilities.

By all means expand the space in which to play.

By all means fan the glimmers of potential.

“Could” is a great word.

This is is not about encouraging the infantalization of creative minds.

Nor is this an argument in favour of reason, and strategy, exiting the room.

But creativity is a fragile endeavour.

And it cannot be legislated, mandated, or hectored into existence.

At least not if you want something remarkable.

The great poet Ted Hughes wrote about this brilliantly in his 1957 poem ‘The Thought Fox’:

Thought Fox.001

“Brilliantly, concentratedly, coming about its own business” we must let an idea approach us.

And be gentle.

And patient.

For as Jeremy Bullmore once wrote:

Advertising is, or should be, all about ideas, wheezes, hypotheses and improvisations: why don’t we…? what about…? let’s try…… Good advertising makes difficult things happen – and almost everything that’s going to be suggested, at least in its initial expression, will be patently flawed.”

And as such, it needs oxygen, space, and time.

It needs to expand and explore before it is crafted and refined.

It must know that failure carries no penalty.

And if we struggle to put our faith in some purposeful and well-timed chaos, we are frankly, struggling to put our faith in creativity.

The future of our industry depends on having more foxes.

On those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory.

Not more hedgehogs.

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 Sources

Jeremy Bullmore, Campaign, 1st October 2010

Folker Wrage, ‘Shut up and play your guitar: Why creativity needs to take over

 

Brand building in a digital age: Old thinking for new times

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A good question

Last year Admap set the marketing community a rather excellent essay question – ‘How brands are built in the digital age’.

(Given that most of what follows is not my original thinking , contains content from previous posts, and is twice the designated word limit, I chose not to submit it).

It is a great question, not least because it refocuses our minds on brands.  Guy Murphy has put it well: “I like this question. It rightly assumes that brands will remain important in future, and doesn’t invite any silliness about them being a quaint marketing concept that can’t survive the rise of technology. The question also raises the current industry debate up from ‘communication engagement’ to ‘brand-building’.”

However in truth it is really a question with two parts.

For it first demands a perspective on how brands have been hitherto built, before the offering of any opinion and hypothesis as to what (if anything) is different in our digital age.

The temptation with Admap’s question is of course to concentrate on looking for differences what is different today. And indeed if we are not to stumble into the future walking backwards, then understanding what has changed and is changing is  a necessary and important exercise.

But it cannot be the only one. For as Shane Parrish (of farnhamstreetblog.com fame) has recently written:

When we look at situations we’re always looking for what’s unique. We should, however, give more thought to similarities. This time is different could be the 4 most costly words ever spoken. It’s not the words that are costly so much as the conclusions they encourage us to draw. We incorrectly think that differences are more valuable than seeing similarities. After all, anyone can see what’s the same but it takes true insight to see what’s different. We’re all so busy trying to find the differences that we forget to pay attention to what’s the same….  If you catch yourself reasoning based on “this time is different” remember that you are probably speculating. While you may be right, odds are, this time is not different. You just haven’t looked for the similarities.”

It seems perhaps only fair then,  that I should get the caveat and the apology out of the way before you, dear reader, find yourself having wasted your time.

No great revelations are to be found in what follows. Nor will the reader find any grand universal theory of How Everything Changed. No predictions and diagnoses are made for seismic changes in the consumer landscape and the marketing industry. No obituaries for any discipline or practice are offered up. Nobody will come away feeling that they have been handed some golden key of new and privileged insight. And there will be not a whiff of currency, coolness, Zeitgiest or marketing avant-gard-ness about any of it.

For all these reasons, I hesitated to even write this this piece. We are afterall – and understandably perhaps – fixated as an industry on what’s new.

Then I stumbled upon an old post from Helen Edwards. She writes:

The ‘everything-has-changed brigade has garnered a cache of stories to bolster its cause.

They might point to the waiting lists achieved by Lancôme, which seeded its DreamTone serum with influential bloggers to foment “must-have” desire. Or to Ford, which loaned pre-launch Fiestas to 100 fashionable young drivers for six months, to earn the kind of buzz advertising can’t. Or Kellogg, which has built a teen fanbase for its Krave cereal through a series of quirky videos from YouTube vloggers. At this point, doubters could be forgiven for capitulation: if even the straight-laced marketers from Battle Creek are embracing the trend, perhaps it’s time to get on board.

Not so fast. When euphoria meets anecdote, that is precisely the moment when sane marketers need to hold their nerve and insist on answers to some very basic questions.”

“When euphoria meets anecdote”.

Helen’s words convinced me that there is some worth to going back to basics. What follows is as much an effort to work out my own thoughts as anything else.

And there are surely few more basic questions than – what do we know about how brands brand built?

My answer and argument is simple. The fundamental processes that build and sustain brands have not changed.

It’s just that everything else has.

A framework for inquiry

In his 1990 paper ‘Brand Presence and the Perceptual Frame’, marketing consultant and former adman William Moran provides us with pragmatic and commercially-attuned starting point for thinking about brands are built:

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Moran’s framework is in truth nothing more that a slightly more sophisticated rendering of the very familiar ‘3Ps’ of marketing.

Except that (echoing the four Ps advocated  by McCarthy back in 1960) to the familiar three Ps of Product, Price and Promotion, Moran added a third – Presence.

Wearingly familiar, isn’t it?

Perhaps.

Except that marketers of every hue are now on the receiving end of all kinds of misconceived advice. The kind of advice that suggests that ‘growth hacking’ means marketing is dead. Or that the existence of consumer reviews and sharing means that paid for publicity is done for.

Familiar it might be. But Moran’s framework gives us a robust framework for evaluating marketing’s outputs, and for thinking about how marketing has changed, is changing, and must change.

For Moran the two fundamental processes which can produce change in sales,  are a change in perceived Value and a change in Presence.

Change in Value he argued, can come about from either of two subprocesses:

A change in perceived utilities (attributes) as the result of the brand’s actions or those of a competitor.”

and

A change in relative price, either briefly or longer.”

Presence Moran defined as being “constituted by all marketing actions which produce changes in sales without any change in perceived value. Presence is the lubricator which simply facilitates sales by reducing the mental friction in the consumer’s decision-making process.”

Moran distinguished between physical and mental presence:

Distribution, shelf space, and displays can be termed physical presence because the physical product is a necessary part of the marketing action”

Mental presence is created by communications… Salience… is the degree to which a given brand comes to minds in the context of a particular purchase occasion or consumption occasion.”

So for Moran, Value (utility + price) + Presence (physical + mental) = sustainable profit.

Which is after all, the whole point of branding.

As I said, all very wearingly familiar.

Thanks to the the work of Les Binet and Peter Field in analyzing the IPA’s DataBank, we can add some other vital multiplying factors for successful branding.

Namely time, investment, emotion, and creativity.

The necessity of time

In The Long And The Short Of It: Balancing Short- And Long-Term Marketing Strategies, Les Binet and Peter Field report on their of analysis of the IPA Effectiveness Databank. The data held therein is the product of 30 years of the IPA effectiveness Awards – numbering some 996 campaigns, for 700 brands in over 80 categories.

Their analysis makes it clear that (contrast to our culture of immediacy) advertising’s ability to create value is most keenly felt in the long-term:

The total number of business effects rises steadily as the campaign length increases… This is largely as one would expect: the longer a campaign runs, the more investment has been put behind it and the more time it has to generate effects.”

This picture is replicated with the profit metric, though with a notably greater increase between 1 and 2-year campaigns.”

Most profitable of all are campaigns that drive both volume and pricing… Their principle characteristic is that incremental volume is achieved whilst strengthening margin.”

No 3-month campaigns report major pricing effects.”

Volume effects are quick to achieve but pricing effects take much longer.”

The creation of memory, brands, and business growth takes time. And as such it is, like it or not, at odds with one of the defining characteristics of our age – immediacy.

This is not to deny the value of brands being responsive in the here and now. Or the value of a brand demonstrating its currency, of surfing the ever-changing waves, fads and currents of popular culture. Or of providing short-term bursts of interest and fame.

Nor is this to suggest that there is no value in short-term activity. As Binet and Field comment:

The IPA data suggests that the optimum balance of brand and activation expenditure is on average around 60:40, though this may vary by category and is driven by how category expenditure divides (typically 60:40): the objective is to achieve equal share of voice within brand and activation.”

Direct campaigns [campaigns that use immediate behavioral triggers] work most efficiently over short time frames…  They are essential for short-term sales efficiency. But direct campaigns are not efficient drivers of long-term growth (over 3+ years).”

That said, simply delivering short-term activity does not lead to success in the long term. As Binet and Field observe:

The way in which long-term effects are generated is fundamentally different from how most short-term effects are produced. Although long-term effects always produce some short-term effects, the reverse is not true and long-term effects are not simply an accumulation of short-term effects.”

So however much it may be the spirit (for better and for worse) of our times, we cannot allow our expectation of immediate delivery and satisfaction undermine our ability to deliver value. As Binet and Field put it:

Without brand building (measured as major brand equity shifts – awareness, image and so on) there are no price elasticity improvements. The correlation between improved price elasticity and enhanced brand standing is strikingly linear. No amount of short-term sales activity will produce the broad brand strengthening necessary to enable firmer pricing. Brand-building activity may be slow but it is essential for the optimum profitability of most brands.”

The need for investment

The IPA 2009 report ‘How share of voice wins market share: New findings from Nielsen and the IPA databank’ contains two critical pieces of advice for those pursuing growth.

First:

The critical metric that determines the level of a brand’s market share growth is its excess share of voice (ESOV), defined as share of voice (SOV) minus share of market (SOM).”

In other words, if you want to grow your market share you need to over invest.

The second piece of advice it offers is this:

The corollary of this is that no agency or marketing client can guarantee to continue to deliver the same level of business performance for a brand is ESOV is falling as a result of underinvestment in media and marketing communications.”

In other words if you are under-investing, you can expect your market share to decline.

The Nielsen analysis included two years’ of media and sales data over the period ending August 2008, for 123 brands in 30 FMCG categories,

Nielsen investigated the impact of brands’ SOV in the first year on sales over the two-year period and used ‘base sales’ to exclude the effects of distribution changes, price promotions, and other in-store activity.

The key findings from the Nielsen analysis were:

    1. The relationship between ESOV and share growth was confirmed.
    2. An average of 0.5% points of share growth can be expected per 10% points of ESOV. Thus, a brand with a market share of 20.5% and ESOV of 10% points would expect to grow over a year to 21%.
    3. The levels of growth achieved per point of ESOV vary according to brand size

Binet and Field conclude (this really is the last time I will quote them) thus:

It is often asserted that share of voice is irrelevant in the digital era: this is not true. The correlation of SOV with market share growth is getting stronger and the returns on investing in SOV are also increasing as the level of brand choice continues to grow and the internet becomes more crowded with commercial activity.”

The power of creativity

So to some degree, market share can be bought.

However, the unfair advantage that any marketer can choose to leverage is the power of creativity.

In its report The link between creativity and effectiveness, the IPA has some fantastically valuable analysis of the relationship between creatively-awarded work and effectiveness.

The sample used for this study were the 257 IPA Effectiveness cases studies for which Gunn Report scores were all available.

As an aside, given that 257 represents less than 1% of UK advertisers, and around 1 in 7000 pick up the minimum major creative awards needed to be recorded in the Gunn Report each year, the fact that no fewer than 46 (18%) of the sample of IPA campaigns appear in the Gunn Report database already suggests that there is some kind of relationship between creativity and effectiveness.

Obviously this isn’t proof and so this study examined whether this 18% of creatively-awarded campaigns outperformed the 82% of non-awarded campaigns in hard business terms.

The short answer, is yes.

The IPA’s analysis reveals that that non-awarded campaigns, on average generate 0.5 points of share growth per 10 points of ESOV. Which is obviously very much in line with the findings from Nielsen’s analysis.

In sharp contrast, creatively-awarded campaigns generate on average 5.7 points of share growth per 10 points of ESOV.

In other words creatively-awarded campaigns generate around 11 times  (that’s right, 11 times) more share growth per 10 points of ESOV than creatively-non-awarded campaigns.

The levers of brand building

So at the risk of sounding as if I think I’ve cracked the code and am delivering some grandiose universal theory of marketing, it is nevertheless possible to make some confident generalizations.

The levers of brand building have been:

Utility

Price

Presence

And their multipliers have been:

Time

Investment

Creativity

Which brings us on the the second part of the essay question.

What, in this ‘digital age’, has changed?

Have the walls of marketing’s Jericho come tumblin’ down?

What do we seeing happening?

I should hasten to addd that what follows is intended merely a ‘taster’ – and certainly not as an exhaustive overview. That would be folly and arrogance beyond words. And I am sure that errors will be found that require calling out and correcting.

New forms of utility

‘Utility’ is a bit of an unhelpful moniker, as to many it might suggest only tangible, functional utility, when many of the satisfactions consumers seek (and which justify a price premium) are symbolic, emotional, and social in nature.

So let’s be clear that by utility we mean both the tangible and intangible.

Nonetheless  (and rather obviously), new technology allows for new forms of utility.

We are seeing the malleability of software allowing for marketers to evolve, iterate and improve the product experience in response to consumer interactions in the real world, not the laboratory.

In some markets we are seeing the emergence of new models of product ownership, in which access to goods and services is rented, rather than outright ownership of goods given over to consumers.

Services such as  Peugeot’s rental offering Mu and Zipcar  provide urban consumers with access to personal transportation without having to incur the burden of ownership.

The direct links between customers and products and the ability to track their usage that all things ‘digital’ enable, means we are able to involve consumers involved in the development and day-to-day running of products and services.

Waze for example, has built up a databank of maps and traffic reports through crowdsourcing. By tracking the GPS coordinates of its users and monitoring their traffic reports, it is able to divert users away from congestion.

We are seeing utility being used as a vehicle for publicity and promotion. Whereas product development and publicity occupied very distinct silos, marketing is now being “baked into” products and services.

For example, by placing a ‘Get free space button’ on their front page and offering users an additional get 500 megabytes of free space for every friend they invited and got to sign up, Dropbox managed to dramatically sign ups and achieve the critical mass it had been missing. Today, 35% of Dropbox’s customers still come to it via referral.

Of course more intangible utility has not gone away. We do not live in a world where our experience is limited to simply what we see. We all live and work – many of us skilfully and effortlessly – within two worlds; the world of objects and the world of meanings. And we need this imagined world to give our identities, lives and experiences depth, significance and meaning.

We are seeing “the power of reality” as Guy Murphy has put it, to build and sustain the meaning and emotional component of brands.

So we are seeing new forms of utility. And with it, new business models, new businesses, and new brands. It’s a new and exciting frontier.

And perhaps this new world of utility is teaching the marketing world something. Perhaps it is teaching us to value the sausage as much as the sizzle. As Jim Carroll has written recently written:

Tech brands spend the vast majority of their time and energy in the pursuit of innovation; creating astounding products is their main obsession. There is always something new to say, whether it’s a big breakthrough or a modest upgrade. Which is why their communications are so firmly rooted in product truth. This might be considered old-fashioned in a world of purpose-led brand building. But it provides a refreshing break from the pseudo-insights, hyperbole and overly-elaborate ideas which fill much of today’s communications landscape.”

So utility is very much alive and well.

Which serves only to underscore the rank stupidity (or shameless self-promoting) of anyone proclaiming marketing to be dead.

Perhaps they should read the words of Helen Edwards:

Look back at the classic definition of marketing, from the father of the discipline, Theodore Levitt. Its central tenet is that marketing must ‘work back from consumer needs’ Consumers don’t really ‘need’ communications; it is a commercial, rather than a customer, imperative. What consumers need is better products, improved service, easier lives, a cleaner world, and more health and happiness. The proper job of marketers is to identify, or better still, anticipate, these needs, and imagine ways to fulfill them that might lead to sustainable returns.”

New forms of availability

Byron Sharp has rightly underscored the importance of physical availability:

Physical availability means making a brand as easy to notice and buy as possible, for as many consumers as possible, across as wide a range of buying situations as possible… being easy to notice and buy is essential, because buyers do not have strong preferences even for the brands they are loyal to; they are happy to but alternatives from within their personal repertoires (and they regularly do).”

There was a time of course when  – apart from service brands – physical shelf space and availability was all that mattered in the quest to make brands easy to buy.

Needless to say, digital connections and interactions mean that physical structures are not the only way to win in the battle for availability.

Today we are seeing digital availability being used to enhance physical availability, and we are seeing digital availability being used to replace or bypass physical availability.

We all know the story of Blockbuster. And Barnes & Noble.

(Though we should beware of overstating the case. Take the UK, for example. While online spending is growing year-on year, the vast majority  – 90% – of retail sales still come from people doing their shopping in the physical world).

We are seeing – thanks to our new powers of surveillance – brands responding to and anticipating people’s need or interest.

We are seeing brands connect directly with customers, rather than via third parties.

We are seeing brands exploiting the interconnectedness of all things digital to create shelf space and make it easy for people to buy.

Airbnb for example, expanded its digital shelf space by gaining free distribution on Craigslist.

Spotify expanded its shelf space by being integrated into Facebook.

We are of course seeing an explosion in the ways in which brands can create memory and meaning. Creativity is now properly unbounded, no longer constrained by media formats.

We are able to give consumers the opportunity to interact in all manner of ways from the undemanding and lightweight to the participative and immersive.

We are certainly seeing brands relentlessly stalk consumers as they travel across the internet

We are able to employ consumers as advocates, ambassadors, co-creators, publicists, and media channels.

And increasingly, we are able to customize the content, timing, and targeting of our content.

New modes of pricing

The economics of digital goods are allowing brands to offer consumers goods and services for free.

As Chris Anderson first wrote in Wired magazine:

It’s now clear that practically everything Web technology touches starts down the path to gratis, at least as far as we consumers are concerned. Storage now joins bandwidth (YouTube: free) and processing power (Google: free) in the race to the bottom. Basic economics tells us that in a competitive market, price falls to the marginal cost. There’s never been a more competitive market than the Internet, and every day the marginal cost of digital information comes closer to nothing.”

We’re seeing brands able to employ the minority of paying users to support the majority of non-paying users, because the cost of serving that majority is close enough to zero to call it nothing.

We’re seeing brands employ ‘freemium’ pricing models in which they offer free version of their product or service as a vehicle for recruiting users, and charging for advanced features, functionality, virtual goods, or an ad-free experience.

Thus we see that in seven of the Apple App Store’s 10 largest categories, the majority of revenue comes from in-app purchases in free apps.

We’re seeing some brands test dynamic pricing.  And (as Amazon did) in doing so, occasionally test the goodwill of their customers.

We’re seeing brands such as ebay and Priceline allowing consumers to bid on items.

Mobile technology has of course liberated consumers from having their choice limited by what’s in front of them on shelf. Consumers are now able to treat physical stories as showrooms in which they search for a cheaper option online.

With all that in mind, let’s go back to Moran’s model and ‘traditional’ levers of brand building.

Back to the future

Whatever pattern of changes, evolutions and disruptions we might trace, it’s fairly clear that brand building still requires the delivery of value, and the creation of presence.

And it still benefits from the the multipliers of time, investment, and creativity.

So Moran’s model serves to remind us of two things.

First, it reminds us that the fundamental brand building mechanics of value and presence, the subprocesses of utility, pricing, and the creation of physical and mental presence, together with the necessity of time, investment, and creativity have not evaporated.

Marketers struggling to keep up with and make sense of the blizzard of change, evolution, disruption, advice, and opinion need not despair.

It may not make for sexy headlines (or even win essay competitions), but the fact of the matter is that the old imperatives still hold.

Which exposes the hollow, self-serving, unevidenced, link-baiting, self-aggrandising rhetoric of ‘marketing is dead’ to be precisely what it is. Total and utter bullshit.

Yet while the fundamental outputs of marketing have not been rendered obsolete, how marketers deliver value and presence is most certainly being reworked.

Connectivity, interactivity, immediacy, sociability, transparency, collaboration, prediction, responsiveness, targeting, automation, disintermediation, customization, mobility… all of these phenomenon (and more) are fundamentally remaking how brands connect with consumers.

(That said, our choice of how is always contingent. On the nature of the task, the resources available, the competition, the audience, and the brand. Without that knowledge, it is impossible to legislate what is right and appropriate. Declaring it’s the age of this or the age of that, makes for fun headlines.  But it’s a long way short of being sound, pragmatic business advice).

There is then, as much to unlearn as there is to relearn.

And as technology and code continue to remake our lives, there are inevitably, new skills to acquire and add to the old ones. For both the individual, and the corporation.

Blowing up the silos

Moran’s model provides us with another useful reminder.

Marketing is not and has never been synonymous with advertising – its remit and output is far broader and more far-reaching than merely the development of communications.

So when publicity can be baked into the product…

When product design can be a means of meaning manufacture…

When distribution can be baked into the product…

When physical products are assuming a digital life…

When social channels are becoming means of delivering customer services…

When pricing models are being used as distribution mechanics…

When marketing content is no longer a dead end and is becoming just the beginning of a customer journey…

When the gap between publicity and purchase can be compressed…

When the consumer is a distribution channel…

When the consumer can no longer be held at arm’s length…

Then it really is time to let go  of the antiquated notion that marketing is synonymous with ‘messaging’.

And it is high time that we blow up the mental and organisational silos that still bedevil us.

Perhaps if we all thought of ourselves in the business of creating connections, then we’d find ourselves better adapted to the new environments and possibilities of our age.

If we wish to be effective, we are about creating connections in the mind, we create connections between people, companies and brands, and we help create connections between people and other people.

I’ve said it before – in an age defined by its connectedness – people to people, people to things, and things to other things – that seems a far more accurate and useful perspective on what we all do.

So as digital continues blurs the old distinctions between product, publicity and distribution, marketers that insist on thinking in silos will fail to prosper.

Or simply fail.

As Laurence Green has recently written, “That our siloes, meanwhile, remain somehow untouched, integrated seamlessly behind a genuinely common agenda only by the brilliant or in times of crisis, is an ongoing source both of mystery and irritation.”

With all this in in mind, it is worth revisiting words from twenty five years ago. From the father of account planning Stephen King. In his essay ‘The anatomy of account planning’, he posed a challenge to agencies and clients alike. Never have his words seemed to prescient:

Marketing companies today… recognize that rapid response in the marketplace needs to be matched with a clear strategic vision. The need for well-planned brand-building is very pressing. At the same time they see changes in ways of communicating with their more diverse audiences. They’re increasingly experimenting with non-advertising methods. Some are uneasily aware that these different methods are being managed by different people in the organisation to different principles; they may well be presenting conflicting impressions of the company and its brands. It all needs to be pulled together. I think that an increasing number of them would like some outside help in tackling these problems, and some have already demonstrated that they’re prepared to pay respectable sums for it. The job seems ideally suited to the strategic end of the best account planning skills. The question is whether these clients will want to get such help from an advertising agency.

What agencies, and the account planners in them, would have to do is above all, demonstrate that they have the breadth of vision and objectivity to do the job; apply ‘how marketing communications work’ thinking and R&D to a much wider area; probably bring in more outside talent, from marketing companies or other fields of communication; make more efforts to ‘go to the top’ in client contact (the one great advantage of the various specialists); and make sure that they get paid handsomely for the work. I very much hope that this can happen – I wouldn’t like to think of the best strategic planners leaving for the other sorts of company or of agency planners shifting wholly to advert-tweaking.”

The question is (still) whether clients want to get such help from an agency, and whether agencies for their part have the desire and ability to demonstrate that they have the breadth of vision and objectivity to do the job.

Old thinking for new times

If we want to live up to King’s hope and vision, then we could do worse than not lose sight of some seriously good ol’ fashioned Ps.

It’s not cool, it’s not radical, it doesn’t make for great headlines, and it predates the internet.

But as a means of staying sane amidst the flux and uncertainty, of staying focused on what matters, and of assessing how to make best and most profitable use of all that is new, I think we could do a lot worse.

And if we were to think more often about all the Ps, we might just do a lot better.

***

Postcript

Admap is essential reading. If you don’t, I suggest you do  - in bridging the gulf between academia and practitioners, it’s pretty much required reading. I’m looking forward to reading the winning essays.

***

Sources

Chris Anderson, ‘Free! Why $0.00 is the future of business

Les Binet & Peter Field , ‘Brand success in the digital age’, Market Leader, Quarter 4, 2013

Les Binet & Peter Field, The Long and the Short of it: Balancing Short and Long-Term marketing Strategies

Jim Carroll, ‘Talk like a tech brand’

Laurence Green, ‘Precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true’, Contagious. 28th January 2014

Helen Edwards, ‘Too many marketers ignore their primary task’

Helen Edwards., ‘Amid social media euphoria marketers ask basic questions’

IPA, The Link Between Creativity and Effectiveness: New Findings from the Gunn Report and the IPA Databank

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Stephen King - The Anatomy of Account Planning, 1989

‘Freemium is the most profitable pricing strategy for apps’, Mashable, December 20th 2013

Patricia McDonald, ‘The winter of our discontent’

William T. Moran, ‘Brand presence and the perceptual frame’, Journal of Advertising Research, October/November 1990

Guy Murphy, ‘Brands in the digital age: The opt-in age of brands’, Admap, December 2013

Shane Parrish, ‘This time is different’

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow