Planning needs to go back to basics if we’re to rediscover exciting and challenging advertising

I spend most of my time doing what ad folk would call planning, figuring out what are the core challenges and goals for a future campaign.

Sometimes these are pretty heavy duty jobs – I’ve worked on an airline closure and relaunch for example – and they can also be lower level jobs for a new ad campaign.

I believe the upfront thinking is critical as it informs everyone involved on what they are trying to tackle and, if done well, can also provide the answer. A good example of the latter was the development of MORE TH>N for RSA. The thinking and strategy solutions spat out the brand name way before any detailed implementation work began.

I’m beginning to wonder though if the purpose of ‘planning’ has lost its way over time because I keep bumping in to thinking which starts at the wrong place; it often leaps to execution before the task has been defined properly.

The origin of planning was a UK initiative formed somewhere between JWT and BMP back in the 1970s. Among the people who were early thought leaders were people like John Bartle (pictured) of BBH fame. That generation were brought up on what I regard as necessary due diligence that resulted from understanding the business issues. John and I both worked for Cadbury-Schweppes in our early careers and we were expected to be totally knowledgeable about the metrics of the brands we were in charge of. We had to know the fine details of issues such as distribution, rate of sale, etc., etc., as did the agencies we worked with. It was obligatory for the ad agency teams to attend Nielsen presentations for example.

The benefit of these disciplines was thinking rooted in fact and the quality of the intelligence was impeccable.

These days I find myself sitting in meetings with clients and agencies where the basic foundations of a strategy are simply not there. I hear a lot about social media, search, click-through and so on but the question I always end up asking is “what are you trying to do and why?” Usually a few moments of silence and then random answers ensue, not related to the question.

Here’s the basic start point. In 99 per cent of cases the client wants to sell more and increase profit. So some elementary questions; is it about growing the market or increasing brand share? Is it about getting current buyers to buy more often or attract new buyers? Is it about getting more distribution, etc? Once these elementary questions are answered then moving to the ‘how’ is when social media might have a role to play, or not.

Another favourite question of mine is “what are the barriers to achieving the agreed goals?” They can be many and varied but they need identifying otherwise the resulting strategy may well be pointing in the wrong direction or trying to achieve the impossible.

Some years ago my agency was asked to pitch for an instant coffee, Red Mountain, and the client team were obsessed with the humour in the excellent, original advertising campaign. This had nothing to do with the challenges the brand faced. Only after a call to the marketing director did we discover the real problem – they were in danger of being de-listed by grocery multiples because sales were in decline. That was the big challenge but the client team were looking in the wrong place and were negligent in their due diligence as it was explained to the agencies pitching for the business.

Great initiatives result from smart thinking and nobody has a monopoly of wisdom on the subject. I’ve seen flashes of inspired thinking come from all kinds of people and in the ad agency world it can often be the creatives, in particular writers, as their job is to distill the ten page briefing document to a 30-second TV spot or a 96 sheet poster. As someone said to me years ago “you can’t run a 30 slide powerpoint presentation on TV.”

I am from the camp of facts as the source of all strategic thinking. Some years ago Robert Senior and I pitched for the pan-European Fuji account. One of the random facts we uncovered in talking to Fuji’s technical staff was that 70 per cent plus of 35mm film (old technology) sent in for processing from professional photographers at football matches was Fuji film. Our mission was to increase share and challenge Kodak. We checked out a thought based on this fact: “seven out of ten professional photographers choose Fuji film, shouldn’t you?” 100 per cent of the people we canvassed said they would switch brands. We won the account but sadly Fuji decided not to go head-to head with Kodak, shame. It was a great fact that appeared to be a winner in the real world.

In the London Times yesterday (March 29) there was a piece on the ad breaks in the new series of Mad Men in the UK which featured old work such as Milk Tray’s ‘Man in Black’. The writer goes on the feature famous ads from the past and his headline is ‘When the ads were better than the programmes.’ I do believe there was a golden period of creative work, which is now behind us, and the question I hear people ask is ‘why?’ I don’t believe there are nostalgic rose tinted spectacles at work here.

I would suggest there are two contemporary dynamics at play. The first is the difference between the 1970s/80s and today. Back then life was much less cluttered in terms of media channels so the UK adworld had the choice of just two TV channels, outdoor, print and radio (limited). So the focus was much more concentrated than today; all of that creative energy was competing for a limited set of options. Today that energy is dispersed across hundreds of possibilities so inevitably focus is lost.

It seems to me we have more and more jacks of all trades and fewer claiming to be masters of one. Just looking at agency websites I haven’t seen one brave enough to say our specialisation is broadcast advertising, we love television and are pretty good at posters too.

Secondly the dominance of the global networks works a bit like the car market. As most mass market cars are designed and tested by the same people (just different names from the same owners) they all end up looking like each other – globalisation detests difference as it costs money. How many times have you picked up a rental car and not known what make it is when you are behind the wheel?

It is much the same with the big networks, albeit for different but similar reasons. Give or take a few percentage points, they are not risk takers as too much is at stake. So the middle ground is where they all head to. There’s no room for maverick creative directors or challenging planning directors.

Like Britain’s political parties they are becoming interchangeable, all chasing middle England, or is it muddle England?

I work alongside a planner who could be seen to be ‘old school’ but he is a delight to work with. He is impatient, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and pushes to get to the root of a problem. I’ve heard him mutter many times ‘what a load of old bollocks’ after some waffly presentation that manages to avoid coming to any conclusions. He has that rare ability to tease apart the important from the unimportant which leads to to highly focussed answers.

We have many successes under our belt and the common denominator is working for clients who value and want ‘rifle shot’ answers.

Great thinking is still worth buckets of gold bars but sloppy planning is a curse of these times.

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.