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The Power of Planning

The Power of Planning

IMJ caught up with our very own Jane Madden, Director of Strategy in the January 2020 issue.

It may be a cliché to say that if you fail to plan, you should plan to fail but at the end of the day, all clichés are true. For marketers trying to gain cut-through in a cluttered and noisy advertising market, this is particularly true. With marketing and advertising budgets always keenly fought for in most organisations, never before has the need for good strategic planning been so important.

With nearly 20 years’ working in planning, with agencies like Vizeum, Publicis Dublin, McCann Erickson, Brand Architecture International, Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco and now as director of strategy with In the Company of Huskies, Jane Madden is one of the industry’s most experienced strategic planners and has witnessed the evolution of planning first hand. Now, more than ever, it boils down to strategy and understanding its importance to a client’s business

Q. How, in your view, has planning as a discipline changed over the last number of years?

We all know consumers expectations, experiences and engagement with brands have transformed. As a result, the planning function has experienced a greater expansion of skills and requirements than almost any other department across the industry over the last number of years. Within any planning department now, you will find a range of disciplines from culture mavens, to digital strategists, to consumer journey experts to business strategists to change agents to brand planners and on and on.

But at its core, the real skill of a planner is to understand strategy. Being strategic means having focus, removing information and editing. Not trying to do lots of things. That can all sound obvious but I have found that clarity of thinking is rare. Clean thinking takes work. It means being concise, it means spending time identifying the right problem to solve. It means striving for simplicity and not relying on complexity or confusion.

In this always-on and noisy marketing landscape, it can be a challenge for a brand to get cut-through and that’s why the role of planning is more critical than ever.

Q. What has been driving these changes?

When it comes to consumption, consumer behaviour has changed over the last ten years which makes the new economy purchase journey almost unrecognisable. But most of the changes we see are driven by media and tech. We are all used to the fact that the point of consideration and the point of purchase have converged in many sectors. As the make-up of any campaign or marketing agenda changes and as the remit of agencies expands, you need people to put some structure on this new complexity. Someone has to have an overview as well as a point of view on the strategic direction the brand is taking in communications and utility. I think that person is the planner.

Q. How do you envisage planning will evolve in the future?

A planner is not merely someone who ensures the consumer voice is heard or the creative work is going in a particular direction. The role a planner can play, in the process of driving growth for a brand, is that of a strategist.

To be honest, I don’t really like the term planning as it feels a bit dated and a hangover from a time long-gone when the planner was, at best, a researcher or at worst a professor. Planning used to be seen as a semi-academic discipline confined to musings and hypotheses. Planners were considered the philosophical types who would spend days and weeks researching, pondering and musing. ‘Curiosity’ was considered to be the defining feature of a great planner, but that description always struck me as lazy. Citing curiosity as the most important attribute of a great planner suggests that if planners just research enough, read enough articles and reports and if we just examine consumers enough, if we just really really get to know them – they will tell us what to do. They won’t.

Great planners can change conversations in entire categories, they can shift the fate of business, they can position a brand for success, they can find new solutions to old problems and they can do all of that by being great communicators, by being collaborative, decisive, passionate, creative, resilient, flexible, ambitious and obsessed with producing great work. There are lots of brilliant planners in this market; Sinead Cosgrove, Karen Hand, Casey Smyth, Emer Howard, Margaret Gilsenan, Amy Mitchell, Anna Ryan and Mark Nolan to name but a few. However, when the recession hit, planning suffered a serious lack of investment and as a result I feel like we are missing a whole generation of planners. But I am starting to see the emergence of new talent and I’m really excited to see what they can bring.

Q. Where should planning live – within media/creative/across all of these including clients/marketing departments?

Planning lives in creative agencies. You have to understand creativity, how ideas are born and the culture and the environment where ideas flourish. I am obviously biased, but I think the best people to do that still live in creative agencies.

At Huskies, a planner will be involved on each project from brief to production. Every team in the agency is purpose-built to bring multidisciplinary strategy and creative thinking to each stage of engagement and across the entire customer experience. We’re finding this combination is the most effective way to unlock brand growth.

Q. Do you think clients attach enough importance and value to good planning and strategy?

Yes, I think most good clients understand the value of strategic thinking. As a client, it is more important than ever to have people working on your business who have a long term view of your brand and can plan for growth and success. With all the changes in the market, brands need people who are not reactionary or susceptible to every change in the media landscape or tech update.

Q. The role of data in planning: is it over-hyped or is it all about using the right data?

Most of the conversations I hear about data are focused on how it can be used to target people better; whether that’s developing a single view of a consumer in media or using data to ‘personalise’ messaging. But I am yet to be convinced of the role of data as a tool to solve brand problems.

For planners, ‘data’ is not new and planning has always used data to help identify problems and gain insight. But having lots of information is not the same as great thinking. Data will not tell you the answer, you have to figure that out yourself. I don’t see that changing.

Q. Given the direction in which digital advertising is headed in terms of overall market share, the growth in programmatic etc, what are the hurdles to overcome for the industry in general and for (a) media and (b) planners/strategists?

The power of digital, as both a platform and a channel, is undeniable. And the opportunities it affords, to create new kinds of impactful engaging work, are very exciting. But at the moment, I think the biggest hurdle we have to overcome is understanding the difference between creative collateral and a creative idea. For example, a lot of the stuff that is pumped out as dynamic advertising, while possibly effective, is not ‘idea-based’ work.

Without getting into the whole argument about brand building v’s tactical work, in the rush to personalise every single message, we have yet to have the discussion about whether personalisation is really as motivating as we are being led to believe. As a consumer, do I want to see a piece of communication that knows how often I buy coffee or do I want to see the same piece of communication that everyone else sees that is entertaining, engaging, smart, funny, makes me happy, makes me sad, makes me laugh, makes me think? I’m on the fence about personalisation. Rather than feeling intimate, I think it can feel a bit boring and ultimately I want to be in the ideas business not in the targeting business.