Saturday, December 01, 2012

Planning x Production...

Sort of like this man. The one on the right.

Come next March, and I'll have been a planner for six years. And, given that, I thought it was worth thinking about the job, and what's changed, and what's stayed the same. There are certain craft skills (the ability to synthesise lots of information, to have a regimented focus on effectiveness and be something of a creative inspirer) that will never,  ever leave the discipline, that's for sure. Whether I've been a planner in an ad agency, a PR shop or a marketing agency, those skills have stayed with me.

What fascinates me is how much the discipline has changed over the last few years. I think that this is partly down to the change in production methods. Not having served a long account handling apprenticeship, the more practical parts of the comms business interest me, given that I didn't ever believe it played to my strengths - or, indeed, what a planner has been expected to do.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not about to jack planning in and become a producer any time soon (I honestly don't have the wherewithal to supply the right materials or do a lot of the day to day that producers do, I'm sure). But I do think there are some useful lessons that the best producers know instinctively, and ones that apply pretty firmly to planning.

Think about it; we live in a world where a lot of big-budget, assembly line ads and animatics are created year on year and are directly competing against community funded/created piece/s of work. Both of these can now fall under the remit of ad/comms agencies, and both require very different methods of production - and different strategic approaches to what planning's been expected to provide.

Now more than ever, creating strategy for ads needs to ensure that the work has a culturally relevant point of view, given a lack (generally) of a fixed audience. For the initial creation, it's all about the core planning skills, of looking at all of the data with a hypothesis, and testing it. However, once that's been done, planning needs to have a sense about what's resonating in culture, and having a think about what you can build or supplement the ads with in order to make it happen. The last point just didn't happen six years ago, not to the same degree. You could rely on mass media spend and product parity, as well as an interesting purpose and positioning within broader culture.

Where planning's really changed is at the point where theory stops, and getting shit done starts. The most exciting work I'm involved with rarely relies solely on a positioning - planning doesn't stop there.  Not in a media landscape where people who actually give enough of a shit to contribute to something are as likely to set up a Kickstarter to solve it themselves as they are to get involved with your new UGC focused campaign or watch your ad.

I think the answer to a lot of modern comms problems can be found in something far more simple, and possibly far more traditional than most think. Bluntly, I believe that partnerships are the future of planning.

Imagine, for the moment, that you are a yellow fat manufacturer. Historically, beyond the odd promotion and the shiny telly ad, you've not got a particularly radical approach. You can't outspend the competition, and you can't make any kind of product claim that's sufficiently interesting to differentiate yourself from the competition.

Now, the task of the modern planner, once the traditional due diligence has been done, is to be aware of how the brand might partner, profit share or generally behave in an entrepreneurial manner in order to change perceptions of it. No brand is an island, after all - planning's always known that theoretically, but given the transparent and changeable marketplace, more real world partnerships need to be brokered in order to strengthen the level of competitive intelligence and attract new buyers and users. Our theoretical yellow fat brand cannot do it on its own.

You only have to look at the bunny boiler efforts of most brands 'engaging' on social media. No, I don't want to be your friend, butter brand. You're relevant to me because I either historically trust you, believe your claims, or because you were on special offer. You don't offer more than that in real life.

It's at this point that I'd like to share an example with you. Some years ago, when social media was still relatively shiny and new, I remember having a chat with an old boss about this. She told me about Harvey Goldsmith. For those of you who don't know and can't be bothered to click on the link, he's a concert/gig promoter, the man who, with Bob Geldof, put on Live Aid. He also, with Geldof, got musicians together for the Christmas charity track, 'Do they know it's Christmas?'.

He's still active at putting on gigs, and organising/bringing people together - he was the man who helped bring Cirque Du Soleil to the UK. He's a remarkable man; someone who not only recognises an opportunity but is able to bring it to life.

I think he's a brilliant example for modern planning/planners. Without partnering and persuading the right people, he could never have put on the events and created the brands and events he did. It would have been very easy for the thought to be had but nothing to happen.

Given the changes in digital participation and the availability of web tools, It's not like modern planning can't help bring people together or make something happen online. Take Kickstarter. If a business or a brand believed passionately in something, and could find a way of explaining it, they could easily find additional funding to make something new.

And, at its most basic level, planners shouldn't be worried about picking up the phone and talking to other brands and businesses that could strengthen the brands they work on, moving beyond random, short-term partnerships that pop up when there's some spare media money. Partnerships should be about the long-term;  whether it's the ability to build something, host something, or even just share data capabilities - it should be mutually beneficial.

It's a fallacy to assume that the brand you work on will be able to bring your brand positioning to life on its own, however correct it is - every brand has limits in the minds of the consumer - and this is as true for social media as it is for ads. If the product's crap or the positioning just doesn't work, a quick google search will destroy whatever saliency you've built up.

Focusing on partnerships means, of course, planners being more cavalier and entrepreneurial than historically planning would have been expected to be, and this will require a change in the way planners approach the process - but I believe that partnering provides a way for brand initiatives to live on beyond a straight campaign lifecycle.

After all, vast amounts of 'content' created by most brands is utter nonsense, and over-stretches what the brand is/can legitimately do. If planners are truly aware of the options available to the brand they work on, it can only strengthen the creative work, and this means acting more like a realistic, switched on producer.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Better Problems...

One problem looks like the right one...

I'm a bit of a stickler for the basics. In fact, I'm constantly worried that I've forgotten what's gone before me; whether it's reminding myself that Gossage knew it all some 40/50 years ago, or wanting to brush up on my effectiveness chops (I still feel guilty that I'm yet to turn my hand to writing a fully fledged IPA paper, in truth), I try to keep the basics in mind all of the time when I'm working at my day job.

I wonder, what with all the spurious data and emerging technology (that no-one, client or agency has any idea of quite what it'll do to their business, short of musing over the odd Mary Meeker chart), whether we're missing the point somewhat.

One of the nice things that shows like Mad Men (or even biopics about old admen) do is to emphasise the necessity of solving a proper problem. Allow me to caveat that somewhat; it's not about 'raising awareness', or even, sometimes about pure selling (just look at the fallacy of the Stella Grand Prix winning paper, where it was assumed you could discount and continue to charge a price premium - which ultimately undid the brand's sales). No, it's about understanding the current context for the brand and business fully in order to induce long term sales.

Because of the apparent need to service a wealth of channels, I don't think we spend enough time truly questioning and working with our clients to define just what the problem is. We rush in to thinking about placing messaging in these channels without determining what the strategic base for this might be. Whilst the best work comes from an agency solving an problem the client didn't know it had, or by using new technology to talk in a deeper, more involving way, it often seems like educated guesswork.

I think it'd be a great deal more beneficial (and less of a waste of resources - than pouring your money into  a Facebook status shuffling exercise, or spunking a wodge of cash on an unnecessary rebrand) if more time was allowed to question and refine the problem at the start of the process.

This might sound like wishful thinking, but I honestly don't think it's outlandish. Actually being told how the business makes money from a particular product or service (rather than an agency assumption) or finding out what shareholders are expecting would help a great deal when refining the problem. It would save lots and lots of agency guesswork that ultimately doesn't help the client.

Part of this, of course, is down to Marketing departments not always being able to infiltrate the upper echelons of the boardroom, but if the problem to be solved looks fully at the brand and business context, any comms created will help to get marketers back into the collective consciousness of the broader business.

And, hopefully this process will help stop diktats to agencies. They, no matter how good the work in the short term, always end up weakening the relationship (and therefore, the business) in the long term; assumptions begin to be made, whether it's that 'the client will do the research' or 'the agency will help bring my idea to life'.

After all, if agencies are serious about being paid for consultancy/less for mindless hour clocking, then defining just what it is they should help solve is paramount. Clients and agencies should be partners. Not, in a worst case scenario, an expensive time-saver for both sides. The job of a partner is to keep you in check; to tell you when a direction might not work, and, ultimately, to try and come to a better solution.
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