Strategy is much more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns… The inherent unpredictability of human affairs, due to the chance events as well as the efforts of opponents and the missteps of friends, provides strategy with its challenge and drama. Strategy is often expected to start with a description of a desired end state, but in practice there is rarely an orderly movement to goals set in advance. Instead, the process evolves through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy, including ultimate objectives. The picture of strategy… is one that is fluid and flexible, governed by the starting point and not the end point.”
Source: Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History
[Strategy] is about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest. It is the art of creating power.”
Source: Lawrence Freedman: Strategy: A History
“It is very difficult to study history-in-the making, but what is occurring right now is the most powerful influence on the economy, the consumer and brand marketing since the Industrial Revolution. We are witnessing The Great Marketing Revolution. Our job is to be aware of it, its pattern and its destination so we can take sure, methodical steps to capitalize on it”
William T. Moran, 1956
[You don’t have to read this. It is an edited and slightly improved version of an older and longer post, written for the 50th anniversary edition of Admap. I reproduce it here only in so much as this place is also my notebook. The anniversary edition of Admap by contrast, IS very much worth reading in its entirety]
Has everything changed? Have all the old lessons and practices been rendered obsolete? Is marketing as we knew it really dead? And is it possible to move beyond rhetoric and ground the necessary speculation in at least a semblance of empirical evidence?
Yes… and no.
But let’s start with a simple framework for enquiry, something that gives us a starting point for thinking about how brands are built.
The levers of growth
It’s over a decade old, but that provided by the marketing consultant and former adman William Moran – a version of the 4Ps model – gives us a 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 a change in perceived utilities (attributes), and a change in relative price.
Presence Moran regards as “the lubricator which simply facilitates sales by reducing the mental friction in the consumer’s decision-making process.”
Moran distinguished between physical presence (being visible and easily buyable) and mental presence (being easily thought of).
Thanks to the the work of Les Binet, Peter Field, and the IPA we can identify some vital multiplying factors, namely time, investment and creativity.
We know that advertising’s ability to create value is most keenly felt in the long-term. Time, in other words is vital to success.
We know that the most profitable campaigns are those that drive both volume and pricing.
We know that campaigns require time for their effects to be felt, for while volume increases are relatively easy to achieve in the short-term, price increases take longer.
And we know that longer-term goals such as share growth or reduction of price sensitivity demand sustained brand building.
The creation of memory, brands, and sustainable business growth in other words 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.
Nor is this to suggest that short-term activity is without value. As Binet and Field note, the data suggests that the optimum balance of long-term brand building and short-term activation expenditure is on average around 60:40.
But simply delivering short-term activity does not lead to success in the long term, and long-term effects are not simply an accumulation of short-term effects. They are different kinds of effects.
Coupled with time, investment levels are a vital multiplying factor.
We know that the critical metric that determines the level of a brand’s market share growth is the degree to which its share of voice exceeds its market share (excess share of voice, or ESOV).
We know that an average of 0.5% points of share growth can be expected per 10% points of ESOV.
We also know of course that new, ‘earned’ methods of distribution marketing content have allowed marketers to extract new efficiencies.
But there is little evidence to suggest that the paid media investment and business results have been completely and irrevocably decoupled.
As Binet and Field conclude: “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.”
So to some degree, market share can be bought. However, we know that the unfair advantage that any marketer can choose to leverage is the power of creativity.
We know this from the IPA’s analysis of the 257 IPA Effectiveness cases studies for which Gunn Report scores were all available.
Creatively-awarded campaigns generate on average 5.7 points of share growth per 10 points of ESOV, compared with just 0.5 points of share growth for non-awarded campaigns.
So if the levers of brand building have been utility, price, and presence, and their multipliers have been time, investment, and creativity, where do we find ourselves today, in this, our digital age?
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.
The access, interactivity and immediacy that technology now affords us means we are able to directly involve consumers in the creation, iteration, and indeed running, of products and services.
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.
Of course more intangible utility has not gone away. We all live and work – 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.
But we are also are seeing new forms of utility. We are seeing new business models, new businesses, and new brands. And we are seeing product functionality being used to build and sustain the meaning and emotional component of brands.
So perhaps this new world of utility is teaching us marketing to value the sausage as much as the sizzle. And in as much as what people really need from marketers is not communications, but better products and services, it suggests that far from being ‘dead’, marketing’s original mission is very much alive and well.
New avenues of availability
Sharp, like Moran, has rightly underscored the importance of physical availability: “Being easy to notice and buy is essential, because buyers do not have strong preferences even for the brands they are loyal to.”
There was a time of course when physical shelf space and availability was the crucial factor in the quest to make brands easy to buy.
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 are seeing 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.
We are 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 of course, 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 seeing brands customize their content for different consumer segments.
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 models 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.”
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.
We’re seeing some brands test dynamic pricing.
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.
Back to the future
Even a cursory survey such as this brings home the scope depth, and velocity of change we are surrounded by. These are indeed exhilarating times. But viewed through the lens of Moran’s simple model, they remind us of two essential things.
First, 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 (good, self-serving, and idiotic) and opinion need not despair. Look beneath the veneer of rhetoric, and one sees that the old imperatives still hold true.
But this is not an excuse for complacency. 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. Though our choice of how is, of course, always contingent. On the nature of the task, the competition, the audience, and the brand.
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 abilities to acquire and add to the old ones. For both the individual, and the corporation.
But lest we take too much comfort from this, Moran’s model also provides us with another vital reminder. One might even call it a wakeup call. Namely that 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, product design can be a means of meaning manufacture, distribution can be baked into the product, physical products are assuming a digital life, social channels are becoming means of delivering customer services, pricing models are being used as distribution mechanics, marketing content is no longer a dead end and is becoming just the beginning of a customer journey, the gap between publicity and purchase can be compressed, the consumer is a distribution channel, and the consumer can no longer be held at arm’s length, it really is time to let go of the antiquated (and ill-founded) 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 – story versus code, advertising versus product, utility versus image, etc.
Perhaps if we all thought of ourselves in the business of creating connections - in the mind, between people, companies and brands, and between people and other people – then we’d find ourselves better adapted to the new environments and possibilities of our age.
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.
“Only connect”, as E.M. Forster wrote.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 works. And 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.
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.
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.
The need for more (and better) problems
When did creativity become a pseudonym for producing advertising? And when did strategy become a means to a message?
At a time when technology enables boundless creativity, when digital interactions are blurring the line between product, product experience, and marketing communications, and changing how people search, choose, and buy, we are all – clients and agencies alike – in danger of limiting the scope and potential of creativity. As Lawrence Green has put it:
The task of any imaginative agency, any creative company, is to understand and serve it client’s business problems. 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.”
Elsewhere, away from adland, others have argued that we need to be ‘growth hackers’. Josh Elman has described growth hacking as describing “a new process for acquiring and engaging users combining traditional marketing and analytical skills with product development skills.” According to Elman:
In the past, marketing and product development departments were often at odds where marketing groups would be spending significant amounts of money to acquire users but couldn’t get any development resources to build something as simple as new custom landing pages. And on the other side, product development teams would often build what they think users want and will attract users without deeply measuring and understanding the impact of their changes. This concept of “growth hacking” is a recognition that when you focus on understanding your users and how they discover and adopt your products, you can build features that help you acquire and retain more users, rather than just spending marketing dollars.”
Of course what Elman is describing is not new at all. It is simply good marketing. It just probably doesn’t happen as often as it should.
So all this begs some questions:
How can we look beyond what advertising can solve?
How exactly do we expand the scope and value of creativity?
How can we identify opportunities for growth?
How can marketing properly shape itself around the consumer?
How can marketing define itself by what it solves, rather than by what it makes?
How can product development and marketing be reunited once more?
In all of this, theory and rhetoric will not help us. We need something more practical.
I am no a fan of templates and processes. We create after all, bespoke solutions for the unique challenges faced by each client. But I am a fan of anything that gets us asking better questions. And it is at this point that we must step back to the future. For Stephen King gave us just the sort of questions we need. They are oddly neglected in the compendium of his best work – A Masterclass in Brand Planning, and are worth revisiting.
King’s Consumer Buying System
King’s model – the ‘consumer buying system’ – appeared in his Manual of Tools of the Trade for Advertising Planners that he developed for JWT in the late 1980s.
It is by no means a panacea. And it certainly cannot solve the systemic dysfunctions of both agencies and client organizations that prevent us from a broader application of creativity. Nonetheless, it can encourage the well-intentioned and the ambitious to ask new, and better questions.
King had developed his model principally as a means of shaping and guiding a communications plan. His focus was largely on both the role and the choice of communications channels.
However, in as much as his model was largely a means of understanding consumer behaviour, its application and value goes far beyond that. As King wrote in his introduction to the model:
The objective is to take your brand, examine the stages in the [Consumer Buying System] and ask, ‘How can we move the consumer through the process?’”
I make no claim for uniqueness in any of what follows. There is many a good marketer who employs their own version of King’s model.
(That said, and by way of a pedantic aside, King’s model predates McKinsey’s model by decades. Thus demonstrating that those who are unaware of history are doomed to repeat it).
Below are the phases of the model, as described by King.
It is worth noting that King was a big opponent of the one-size-fits-all approach, and recognized that the path to purchase varied depending on the category. Buying a bar of chocolate is different from buying a Picasso, or breakfast cereal, or a pair of trainers, or a holiday, or a car.
And so, by way of a preface, it’s worth bearing in mind, as he wrote:
The time frame for this process will vary enormously from category to category, for example, buying a car could take the consumer a year, whereas buying a box of cereal, from running out of the previous box to the next purchase, could take just hours. Thus some stages are less relevant to some categories, and not all consumers within one specific category may pass through all the stages. For example, when “buying” a new long-distance phone service, some consumers are simply stimulated to change their phone company by an advertised offer, whereas others will collect and evaluate information on long-distance providers to improve their comfort level with the company.”
At each stage we should be asking – what exactly is happening?
New questions, new solutions
If we must, we can call it a framework for ‘growth hacking’. Certainly the sort of thinking, questions, and the types of solutions that King’s model encourages is instructive. As soon as we start unpacking people’s behaviours, we start inventing all manner of stuff that isn’t advertising:
If we in adland only ever see ad-shaped problems, we’ll only create ad-shaped solutions. But if we see people, all manner of new and exciting stuff starts to happen. As ever in marketing, progress lies in asking better questions and more imaginatively examining the lives, habits, needs, wants, desires, frustrations and dissatisfactions in people’s lives.
As King said of his model:
Since all marketing activities are aiming to reinforce or modify people’s sequence of ideas and actions, the buying system really is the starting point for all marketing and planning activity.”
That said, client organizations and their marketing departments too must assume their share of responsibility. Often, it seems, they are divorced from product development, isolated from IT, embroiled in turf war standoffs with other functions, unwilling or simply unable to provide agency partners with real business issues to solve, and more comfortable passing off ad requests and ‘insight’ babble as bona fide client briefs.
King, ever prescient, identified the need and opportunity for thinking more broadly about brand building:
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”
If we can only grasp the necessity of beginning our thinking with real consumer issues and needs, rather than what type of creative product (social, viral, advertising, content, POS, etc., etc.) we will make, or what line of fashionable rhetoric we will subscribe to, then we might stand a better chance of unleashing the true potential of our collective creativity.
Indeed we might at last start actually living up to the theory, claims, and promise of marketing.
Judie Lannon & Merry Baskin, eds., A Masterclass in Brand Planning: The Timeless Works of Stephen King
Josh Elman, ‘What Is “growth hacking” really?’
McKinsey & Company, The consumer decision journey