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’ve been having a think about the job, namely – what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. In terms of what’s the same, I think craft skills (the ability to synthesise lots of information, to have a regimented focus on effectiveness and be something of a creative inspirer) haven’t changed much, and should never, ever leave the discipline, in spite of the onset of ‘google planning‘. Whether I’ve been a planner in an ad agency, a PR shop or a marketing agency, these craft skills have stayed with me.

What really fascinates me is how much the discipline of planning has changed over the last few years. I’d directly attribute this to how comms gets produced and brought to life. 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  do a lot of the day to day that producers do, I’m sure). But I do think there’s a useful lesson from production that has influenced planning a lot over the last few years.

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 require agencies to go beyond both the means of production and the strategic approach they’ve 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 craft 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, given how quickly people can appropriate your messaging or discuss it. Building and supplementing just didn’t happen six years ago, not to the same degree as I’ve seen recently. Planning stopped with theory – an interesting point of view and positioning within broader culture.

Where planning’s really changed is at the point where getting shit done starts. The most exciting work I’m involved with rarely relies solely on positioning a brand. It blends production with planning.  A fixed, unyielding, theoretical positioning doesn’t always help in a media landscape where people who actually give enough of a shit to get involved 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 engage with your ad.

Producers don’t solve problems with one company on their books. No, they talk to as many companies as possible to try and get to the best solution possible – solutions that often go far beyond what’s been initially agreed or discussed. I think if more planners behaved like this, they’d have a better chance of solving modern comms problem, turning the theoretical into the possible. Positionings could be proven and strengthened.

Imagine, for a 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, in my book, the task of the modern planner, once the traditional due diligence has been done and there’s been assessment of where the brand lives in broader culture, has to be to understand 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 branded ‘engagement’ on social media to see how most can’t do it alone. No, I don’t want to be your friend, yellow fat brand. You’re relevant to me because I either 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. Without him, Live Aid would have been the Boomtown Rats with a setlist consisting of ‘I don’t like Mondays’ on repeat. Unlikely to get you to donate to charity.

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 very little 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 the 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 doesn’t ring true  – or even the marketplace changes overnight, 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. I’d be lying if I didn’t believe this will require a change in the way planners approach the planning process – but I believe that partnering provides a genuine method for brand initiatives to live on beyond a straight campaign lifecycle that hopes the positioning will endure.

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. Planners should be able to assess and react when the positioning is out of step  – using a little black book to solve problems, rather than ‘google planning’, a brand onion and a lot of Keynote.