Friday 30 March 2007

IPA Strategy Debate: Is Blogging Killing Planning?

Last night witnessed a much anticipated showdown. John Lowery proposed the motion that blogging was killing planning and John Grant opposed it.

Being asked to write up the notes from this debate is, for me, rather like asking the bloke in the dock to keep the court record of a trial – a bit of a mindfuck. Anyway I will try, in true planner fashion, to be as objective as possible.

The IPA Strategy Group’s very own Robert Kilroy Silk, Guy Murphy, kicked off proceedings by conducting a pre-stage quant study on the motion to establish a robust benchmark.

A full seven people believed that Blogging was a threat to all that is noble and good about planning, 52 thought not and 16 people hadn’t got a clue either way.

Undaunted by the odds, Lowery laid into the plannersphere with tenacious ferocity.

His accusation was that the version of planning that is being presented online is a gross distortion of reality. This wouldn’t matter, John maintained, if the blogs were not so influential in shaping young planners’ minds. He feared a generation of “blog-shaped planners” would be the result and this was a threat to the very brand of planning itself, its role and the respect that it is accorded.

John reminded us of the apprenticeship that good planners go through that ties them back to the founders of the discipline and their vision for the role that planners should play as truth seekers in a sea of conjecture and uninformed opinion.

However, a tour through the plannersphere had convinced John that blogging planners are deserting their responsibility for truth, their obsession with effectiveness and their pride in the craft skills that the essential trademarks of a good planner.

Lowery then went for the jugular characterising the ‘training’ available online as “a bunch of people who don’t know what they are talking about setting tasks for and judging the efforts of a bunch of people who don’t know what they are talking about”.

“Introspection in, introspection out” as John would say.

This kind of non-rigorous planning has always existed, maintained John, but before web 2.0 it had a limited ability to infect the minds of the wider planning community. Now it was spreading like wildfire.

For John planning blogs in their current form are malignancies that are slowly but surely killing planning.

John summed up by telling us that he hadn’t come to destroy the plannersphere but to cure it with a dose of much needed “human chemotherapy”.

Strong stuff, and a tough act for John Grant to follow.

Grant was bemused, how could we judge a new medium after only year or two? It was far too early to tell what the effect of this new planning activity would have. Sure the picture that Lowery painted was bleak but where was the evidence that planning was in anything other than rude health?

For Grant, Lowery’s entire case suffered from the woolly thinking and lack of hard facts that he was seeking to defend in the discipline.

Moreover, John suggested, if we were to vote in favour of the motion we were to think hard about the signals that we as a discipline, industry and nation were sending out. Blogging, social media and web 2.0 are facts of modern life, how could the IPA, endorse a motion that suggested that it wanted to turn back a tide of technology and behaviour that everyone else in society was embracing with alacrity.

John was also concerned about the way in which the planning elite were using this debate to squash the enthusiasm and energy of young planners, sure some of the stuff young planners were doing online was naïve but it was ever thus, said John recalling the output of his own IPA 2 course in 1989.

And finally, he made the point that judging the state of planning from the plannersphere is like judging the state of the advertising industry by reading Campaign magazine. Both offer a particular version of the business without representing it in its entirety.

If that wasn’t polarised enough, the debate from the floor drove a further wedge between the camps; this wasn’t going to be one of those lacklustre events that ends with everyone in ‘violent agreement’.

Many younger planners voiced the concern that they were looking to the online community for more of the bread and butter stuff that Lowery was talking about and not just the clever stuff and as a result, its absence was frustrating.

Other contributions from the floor pointed out that the blogging debate was a smokescreen for what now appear utterly opposed versions of what good planning is – facts or ideas.

And one interloper from outside the industry drew an analogy between planning and medicine. There were now two traditions that were accepted in medical circles – orthodox and complementary medicine – wasn’t this similar to the two styles of planning in evidence.

While back on the podium, Lowery suggested ways to improve blogging and increase the quality of the contributions, while Grant insisted that it was folly to try and legislate for planning online “you can’t write a broadcasting act to control blogging” Grant sniped.

At the final vote it was a walkover for John Grant who thoroughly defeated the motion 41 votes to 20 with 12 abstaining. However, Lowery’s withering criticism of the plannersphere was so compelling he almost tripled his count in the course of the evening.

And from my point of view? Well of course I think it is fanciful to suggest that blogging is killing planning. It is now an essential part of our toolkit. But Lowery offers us strategists a timely reminder about the need to maintain standards of rigour, proof and certainty in what we do.

Friday 23 March 2007

Objectives are for wimps.

What should be my objective of this post? To fulfil a deadline, to entertain you, to get you to read till the very end (where there is a fantastic joke), to encourage debate? Or maybe I should just start writing and work it out at the end?

In the words of the Pub Landlord, the point is this; why do we spend so little time thinking about the objective for communication? And why, instead, do we plunge so quickly into strategy?

We go to lots of strategy meetings and we read (or intend to read) lots of strategy documents. We might even want to join the IPA Strategy Group (who are an excellent bunch of strategists). But when was the last time we got invited to a meeting about objectives? The answer is, rarely. It even sounds a bit odd; ‘a brand objectives awayday’.

Strategy, by definition, is not an end in itself. People often talk about this with reference to the downstream, executional end that strategy must serve. ‘A great strategy must inspire great creative work’. Indeed it must. However, the real end that strategy serves is upstream. Strategy serves objective; doh. So having an objective for communication must precede strategy. Having an objective tells us how to evaluate strategy. It also tells us how to judge levels of success. But most fundamentally, having the right objective means you have properly defined the problem and are therefore more likely to be successful.

I will always remember the tale of the tomato farmer whose tomato farming machinery was too big to pick the tomatoes. But instead of defining the problem as having the wrong machinery (and having to spend millions to upgrade), he defined the problem as not growing big enough tomatoes (needing only minor investment). A problem well defined is an objective well understood.

So, if it is so important, why do we not talk much about objectives?

Because we believe that objectives are easy to define, and the sooner we can get on with the hard graft of strategy the better.

The truth is that defining the right objectives for communication is a tough job. Of all the many wonderful things (e.g. awareness, positioning, word of mouth) that communication can do for brands, which are needed for the brand in hand? Conversely, what are the things that we should not ask communication to do because they are best achieved by other business levers (e.g. distribution, npd, price). And within campaigns we have to very clear about the objectives for the individual media channels that are used, and how they relate to each other.

One of the dangers in objective-setting is that people often dwell in the land of interim measures and that’s why they seem easy to write.

By way of analogy, if the objective set by Dick Fosbury in the high jump was to complete a perfectly executed Western Roll we would not have heard of him. A Western Roll is an interim measure of success. Instead, he set himself the objective of ‘jumping as high as possible’. Enter the Fosbury Flop. Not only did getting the objective right achieve a better result, it released creativity and freedom into the strategy.

I’ve seen many objectives for communication that are the equivalent of asking for a Western Roll. Indeed some are quite literally interim research measures. ‘The communication objective is to get good pre-testing scores’, or, ‘create impact’ or, ‘be viral’ (when it is perfectly possible for successful communication to be the exact opposite of all those things).

We must spend more time interrogating objectives. They must have a solid route back to the commercial ambitions for a brand. Otherwise we are in danger of shooting at the wrong goal.

More disturbingly, there is perhaps an image problem getting in the way. Strategy is seen as a higher value input than objectives. Strategy trumps objectives. Indeed, Google returns 150 million results for searching the word ‘objectives’, but 305 million for ‘strategy’. So, in fact, strategy is twice as valuable as objectives.

Objectives are described rather plainly as ‘straightforward’ or ‘simple’. Whereas, strategy is ‘insightful’, ‘brilliant’, or even ‘genius’. Objectives get ‘checked’, strategy is ‘analysed’.

Objectives are easy, but not very deep or mysterious. Objectives are, in fact, for wimps. They are a bit sissy. No-one got hired for coming up with some great objectives.

Strategy, on the other hand, requires enormous mental effort to unravel its complexities. Strategy is for winners. It has military connotations. It is macho. Hollywood would make a movie about strategy.

Anyway, back to my objective of writing this piece. It is to encourage you to read the new IPA Best Practice Guide to Communication Strategy within which the importance of objective-setting is a prominent section.

And for those who read till the end for the joke, I achieved my objective.

Wednesday 21 March 2007

Eurovision Strategy Contest

The country has made its mind up about the UK's entry into this year Eurovision Song Contest. Scooch will fly our flag in Helsinki.

But beneath the tittering that this event inevitably invites, there is a solid lesson to be learned about the value of getting the strategy right. We should see the event as a pitch, with the UK public as the potential Client.

Three main competitors, three different strategies.

Brain Harvey (East 17) pitched innovation. He demonstrated that Eurovision is a laughing stock and we should bring some respectability to this market. I can see his charts talking about the need to rewrite the rules. Britain will famously change Eurovision forever and turn it into a proper celebration of solid song writing.

Justin Hawkins' (Darkness) pitch was about trends. He pointed out who won last year (that insane rock band) and how we should now follow hard on the heels on Europe's newfound taste for metal. It was only one data point but what the heck.

Scooch went for core values. "I think people are ready for a return for pure pop" said Barnes, Scooch's camp steward. He reminded us that Eurovision is an institution of superficiality, and we need a return to what made it great.

So, trend-based strategy is dead. Strategic innovation is a turn-off. And the core values approach wins. That's made our lives a lot simpler.

Friday 16 March 2007

Best Business Building Idea

Entries have been arriving for the IPA Best Business Building Idea competition. A lot more entries have arrived since we announced the inclusion of 5 free Club Med holidays for 2 people to Marrakesh for the winners. This seems to have eclipsed the prize of a free place on IPA 5 (the mini-MBA). What should we make of this?

Is training less important to strategists than time off? Maybe we are actually better at our jobs if we just leave them for a while. In the 1940s, James Webb Young said the best way to have great ideas was to walk away from trying to conceive them. Your brain would make some progress without you making any effort.

The deadline for the competition is March 23rd.

Guidance for Entry

Entries will be judged by the IPA Strategy Group on the basis of the information provided on not more than one A4 sheet of paper.

  • What was the business issue/opportunity that you wanted to address? (Describe this in no more than 100 words)
  • What was your idea? (Describe this in no more than 100 words)
  • What was the hard bit about making it happen? (Describe this in no more than 50 words)
  • What were the results? (Describe this in no more than 100 words)
Please provide us with your name, job title and direct line as well as company name and client.

Further details are available here.

P.S. Will Guinness Marmite enter?

Wednesday 14 March 2007

Latest Debate: Is Blogging KIlling Planning?

So we have another Head to Head debate shortly to determine whether 'blogging is killing Planning'. My thanks to Richard Huntingdon for surfacing the debate on-line and giving us all the punchy title.

I can remember seeing presentations in the past entitled,'is Planning dead?'. Of all the things that I imagined might kill Planning off I didn't ever conceive it might be Planners themselves. Clearly we have some kind of death-wish.

But I can't help wondering what the wider community of strategists make of all this death stuff. Most media companies are desperate to get some Planning, ditto digital agencies etc. How come Planning can be seen as critical to the future at one set of agencies but at death's door at the other? Let's hope we get a good cross-section of the people who do strategy to see where the wider perspective takes us.

Also I shall be fascinated by what happens when you take a debate from on-line to live audience. Will the verbal posts be any less dramatic? Will the tone be more or less aggressive? Will The John's pull their punches?

The debate will take place on Thursday 29th March 2007 from 6pm-9pm at the SCI, 14-15 Belgrave Square.

Tickets cost £15+ VAT for members and £30 +VAT for non-members. For further information and to buy tickets please contact Adah Parris on or on 020 7201 8239.

Further information is available from the IPA.

Monday 12 March 2007

IPA Strategy Debate: Who owns Consumer Insight?

Who’d have thought that the latest heavyweight bout in the Times Media sponsored IPA Strategy Group debates would end in such violent agreement?

The dispute was over ‘Who owns consumer insight, creative or media?’. In the creative corner was Orlando Hooper-Greenhill, Planning Director at BBH. For media we had Simon Jenkins, MD at OMD Europe. And our referee was Bridget Angear, Planning Director at AMV, but claiming no bias for the creative challenger.

Orlando was first up and most of the fights he picked were with the premise of the debate itself. He argued terms like ‘own’ are used too freely these days, insight is ‘earned’ not ‘owned’. He questioned the creative / media distinction too, insisting creativity is neither the preserve of the traditional creative ‘department’, nor even of the creative agency and that we should all be striving for more creative insight, wherever we work. Finally he emphasised that the best insights aren’t always born of consumers; business, brand, product, design, cultural and channel insight is often more important.

With Simon, the gloves came off. He pointed to three reasons why media agencies are more insightful. Resource: their investment in research dwarves that of their creative peers, as does the breadth and depth of their client lists. Impartiality: where a creative agency will ignore the insight that gets in the way of a good creative idea or TV solution, the media agency sticks to the best consumer answer. And talent: why would the brilliant insight hound settle for being lower down the pecking order at a creative agency when they can be top dog at a media one?

Questions from the floor included where the media owner fits in – surely they have the most informed insight about their respective medium, yet why can they get an audience with a media agency but not with a creative one? And are media agencies really as objective as they claim, or will they sometimes allow a good media idea or proven media tool to obscure a deeper insight?

In the end we agreed to agree: insight is down to individual talent, talent which lives in both creative and media agencies and beyond. And the most powerful insights are often collaboratively arrived at and developed – it’s no accident that creatives and planners of every agency and stripe want to kiss and make-up and that the full-service agency is increasingly back in vogue.