Subbu’s Blog: Tomorrow is overdue

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Strategic planning is a lot like the proverbial elephant that flummoxed the blind men into thinking it was something else. Everyone’s got a view on what planning is, or should be. Thankfully, so do the planners.

To a lot of people in account management, those in planning are involved in something delightfully obscure like culture, research and PowerPoint jockeying that seem to find favour with clients.

Creative folks, in general, think that guys in planning talk a bit much, provide some stray thought starters and have a complex vocabulary that doesn’t help greatly in ideation.

Clients, on the other hand, seem to have some appreciation for a planner’s role. They believe that planners represent the voice of the consumers and bring valuable knowledge to the table.

Clearly, not many of those views present a flattering picture of the role of strategic planning. It rests with those in planning to define their role better. And look within them to make planning what it needs to be in the 21st century.

My first task would be to set a context for planning. That involves taking a holistic view of the world in which we live and the world of business and brands in it, and then envisioning a new dynamic role for planning.

An ever-expanding universe of human interaction in a turbo-charged technological world, means that today, there are more people to meet, more places to go to, more things to do, more dreams to dream and more experiences to discover than at any other point in human history. To make a realistic and significant contribution, planning needs to take cognisance of this.

Besides, improved communications and diverse media are constantly shaping the perceptions of the world and even the identity of consumers. Tomorrow it is guaranteed that smart devices and high-speed connectivity will have become pervasive among almost all consumer groups, and media consumption will have continued to fragment, turning today’s remaining mass audiences into a set of smaller, more atomized and more on-demand groups.

The simple reality is that every brand will be a media brand, requiring everyone to consider how they produce, distribute and manage their content ecosystems. Informing, educating and entertaining audiences will happen through channels that are controlled by the brands themselves, rather than channels they pay to advertise on.

I believe civilization has entered the age of marketing, where everyone and everything communicates with a marketing filter, mimicking brands. Brands need to be super human, delivering extraordinary fiction, performance and control.

Strategic planners, to my mind, are best placed to be the gateway to this new world. Not surprising, considering planners are virtually ‘human software’ specialists with a deep understanding of human motivations, fears, anxieties, dreams and desires. Planners are unique in that they can access human creativity and imagination for the cause of business.

If one were to look at the brief history of planning, it essentially started out as a discipline, being a sort of representative of the consumer union, as well as being metrics driven by virtue of its linear and research-centric approach. It then evolved into a specialist subject, setting out the science of the brand and what a brand could or couldn’t do and say. And today, this highly specialised field has transitioned into a more instinctual type of planning that has both art and science embedded into it.
In a fast changing world, where a lot of variables are unpredictable, the old models on how to compute and logic the brand have created stifling brand bureaucracy and have now become either confusing and contradictory or completely defunct.

Traditional planning or planners who are masters of filling the spaces between things, to connect the dots through deductive logic will find it hard to play in the new consumer republic. They may not like change but they are going to like irrelevance even less.

And the threat to planning looms large today. It’s not from within the industry. Consultants have mushroomed everywhere. There is no drought of trend spotters. Media does a great job of tracking and reporting trends much faster than agencies can. Besides, there is enough and more information available on the ubiquitous web. Then there are the media contextual planners and research planners, and companies that blog, connecting directly with consumers. Even creative today functions on its own many times.

If that is one end of the problem, the other more serious one is about how do we attract those bright-eyed, ambitious, hoping to change the world high-octane young guns into joining planning, or even advertising for that matter against compelling experiences like Google, facebook, Apple, Ideo, Uber or another brave start-up?

The prognosis is clear. Separate the planning function with a bang.

The new-age planning will require a shifting of the mind to shift focus. Planners have to be EXPLORERS. More than the qualifications, it is the qualities of the planner that will matter. They need to possess x-ray vision, sonic ears, imagination, instinct, curiosity and an open mind. They need to be motherly and yet be an explorer, team player, hunter, lover and a chameleon. Planners need to expand their skill sets to include design thinking, strategic content creation, media behaviour analysis, business ideation/ consulting, trend spotting, work-shopping and creative research. And all unrestricted by channels, mediums, forms or formats. Rather than create rules and laws, great planning lies in imagination, innovation and creativity. Increasingly, it will help clients choose and believe in an entirely new future for their brands.

As the inspiration engines of the future, Planners need to move beyond – from being a servant of the creative product to being the leader of the new agenda for brands/businesses. From being an analyst to an innovator. From methods and means to being a catalyst for the creative community. From defining the next step to creating new fertile grounds for brands to play in. From insight to foresight. From promotion to the other 3Ps of marketing (Even the coolest integrated, digital, social media thingy isn’t as cool as creating a Nike + Fuelband idea). And finally, from being a planning manager to being a planning entrepreneur.

The really tough question that all planners must ask going forward is: should we be paid to oversee the research, hold the brand manager’s hand on positioning and write the brief anymore? And even if it is so, should any self-respecting planner do just that? Because planning isn’t a job. It’s a belief. Without belief, you’ll never be great.

The time is right for a radical new idea. To move from being a planning department to a Planning AOR.

If the AOR for media can be separated and command greater premium over the years by adding new value, why not a separate AOR for integrated strategic planning? The truth is that when the buyer pays for something separately, he respects its value and could even demand more of it. At the same time, the seller is also motivated to deliver greater value.

What a Planning AOR does is that at one level, it will raise the level of perceived expertise and self-worth for planners as professionals. Two, as an agency offering, it will raise the quality and scope of contribution, and thereby command a higher price. Three, it liberates planners from the shackles, self-imposed or otherwise, of approaching outside projects, conflicting businesses for pure-play planning (without the advertising part).

Lastly I would conclude by saying that a Planning AOR gives a splendid opportunity to make a dent in the strategic planning universe by pulling planning out of a rut, expand its definition, build a much wider and varied expertise and actually be the gateway between the marketer and all other agencies like advertising, media, activation, PR, Direct, digital and whatever else that may crop up in a highly unpredictable but exciting future.

As they say it, we cannot discover new oceans unless we have the courage to lose sight of the shore.

(This article was first published in Campaign India magazine. The views expressed by the author are personal.)