Agency planners have done pretty well for themselves over the last few decades. They have won the trust of clients and the respect of their industry peers. But has the rise of the planner come at too great a cost for agencies and their clients?
Back in the days of the three-martini lunch, it was the charismatic suits and the mercurial creative directors who clients wanted to spend time with. Now marketers seem to gravitate towards planners. Not the Madmen, but the sadmen; the boys and girls who live in the world of the brand pyramid and the Net Promoter Score rather than the wine list and the casting call.
In some countries, it's always been this way. A few years ago, I did a short stint in Paris. There the planner truly is the rock star, the super-intellectual who debates post-structuralism with the client's CEO over lunch while the creatives crack on with the menial task of shooting the nude woman in the shower (which is the default French creative solution for every brief from tyres to life insurance, no matter what insights the planner comes up with).
However, I suspect that in the UK, the explanation for the irresistible rise of the planner is somewhat different. There are fewer PLCs with a marketer on the executive board than there were ten years ago. The need to present a closely-reasoned case for marketing expenditure is greater than ever.
Planners help make the argument for marketing communications; in a threat-laden world, we provide our marketing clients with a bodyguard of logic. And more often than not, that logic is neatly presented in business language every bit as impressive as that of the management consultants and IT vendors whom C-suite decision-makers are used to dealing with. Thus, to repeat an ugly phrase that, shamefully, has crossed my lips more than once, planners help marketing strategy 'gain traction internally'.
Though I and my ilk benefit from this trend towards the primacy of planning, there are aspects of it that worry me. Planners can add great value to a client's business. But only when they are part of an equally talented agency team that works well together and feels culturally empowered to challenge the planner's thinking.
A recent survey by the international client/agency intermediary Grupo Consultores has shown that in every market around the world, the prime quality clients seek from their agencies is still stand-out creative work.
So it seems strange to me that many times these days the creatives are relegated to a secondary role. Great planners have a deep capacity for inductive reasoning, for making creative leaps. But I'm troubled when planners move so far downstream into the creative process that it's they who end up owning the creative idea. This is criminally disempowering for creative people. As one wag has put it: 'Planners and creatives drink from the same well of inspiration. The difference is the planners get to piss in it first'.
The poet Keats wrote of something he called 'negative capability'. This is probably a gross over-simplification, but I understand negative capability as the ability to remove oneself from a problem, to see it isolation of the pressures of time and the constraints of previous experience. Good creatives have negative capability in spades. Great creatives have it and still meet deadlines.
By contrast, in a world that celebrates what has become known as 'fast strategy', planners are often driven either by a need, or a natural desire, to get to the solution quickly. A problem is something to be overcome. The creative temperament is much more comfortable with uncertainty. A problem is something to play with.
A dose of negative capability is especially important on accounts that have been hanging around an agency for a while. Adam Morgan, the authority on challenger brands, once said something to the effect that planners risk becoming useless around three months after an account has been won. A kind of Stockholm syndrome sets in: the planner stops thinking like an agent provocateur and more like a client insider.
One possible strategic countermeasure to a planner's tendency to lose that precious five minute window of naivety on a piece of business has been proposed by David Hackworthy, Planning Director of The Red Brick Road. He has challenged what he calls the 'Brand Cardigan' model; the idea that one planner alone can perform every strategic function on a piece of business.
No one planner, however brilliant, can be a master of brand strategy, CRM, UX, analytics and social media. Now more than ever, a plurality of strategic skills is essential. More importantly from the point of view of my argument, it also has the advantage of adding diversity to the 'meme pool' of strategic thinking.
Of course, there must be a controlling intelligence who creates a strategic agenda for the client. But that person needs to be a conductor, not a soloist. It could be a planning director. Though it could also be an account director.
Which brings me to my last point. No single agency discipline has been allowed to atrophy more in the last decade than that of account direction. Many good account people have hopped over the wall to enjoy what appears the greener grass of planning. Many more, surrendering to the advance of planning, have retreated from their role of directing the account to that of 'managing the relationship', whatever that means.
Since its inception in the seventies, planning has made an invaluable contribution to clients' businesses. However, the question needs to be asked whether the advance of planning has been at the expense of other equally vital disciplines. Perhaps it's time for a new plan for Planning.
Rare roast beef on good bread, Plymouth Gin, thunderstorms, Autumn, a long sea voyage.