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.


Anonymous said...

Good debate, many thanks to all involved for a lovely evening even though I was hoping for a little more blood on the walls. In the pre match exchanges it looked like the big divide was shaping up to be around different definitions of planning; how important data, rigour and facts are versus inspiration and creative ideas from wherever. I expected a Planning 2.0 reworking of Stephen King’s old Grand Strategists versus Ad Tweakers spectrum.

I was surprised but pleased that both Johns seemed to agree on a definition of planning as rigorous analysis plus inspiration. John G who was billed as the champion of the ‘who needs boring old data?’ camp revealed that he’s been miscast in that role and has posted plenty of forensic analysis of Honda’s European sales figures.

If everyone’s broadly agreed that data is crucial then the question becomes; ‘so why isn’t there more rigorous planning analysis being discussed on the plannersphere?’

I suspect the answer is twofold:

1. Client confidentiality. It’s clear in the original posts that John L is dying to dish the dirt on Dirt Is Good but he can’t reveal P&G’s proprietary data to do so. If planners posted stuff they were working on and clients got to hear about it then they’d probably be in all kinds of trouble.
Even discussing real time strategy without revealing any hard data can be extremely dangerous. There’s the cautionary tale of the planner who sent a breezy all agency memo inviting suggestions for a positioning for his mobile phone client and prizes for the best ideas. The memo was leaked to Campaign and the client got angry at being treated cavalierly. Meanwhile Charles Vallance and Rooney Carruthers saw the memo, developed a positioning, contacted the client, nicked the account and launched their agency on the back of this brand they called O2.

2. The second reason there isn’t more rigorous planning analysis of data on the plannersphere maybe stems from how most planners use the blogosphere. As good planners we should be looking at it from the users’ point of view. What’s the role of the medium?

Yes there is a gap in the market for a proper planning school of the web - perhaps it could be run as a shop window for fuller training courses by one of the main providers, APG or IPA.
But in the absence of any rigorous research let’s make a working assumption that for most planners most of the time the plannersphere is displacement activity isn’t it? You’re up to your ears in data, hit the wall, need a break for a bit of outside stimulation and that’s when you surf your favourite blogs, looking to be diverted by some cool stuff, big ideas, not more data. The plannersphere meets that need beautifully. I’m trying to remember what we did to distract ourselves before blogging. It seems to me that Blogging may or may not be killing Planning but it’s certainly killing Solitaire and Tetris.

John L said...

Can I just underline the fact that JG lost 21% (and I know that's a projection) of his support during the course of the debate.

Yours, A Bitter Loser.

Rob said...

What struck me during the debate was that there was a clear need for some guidance on how blogging could/should be used as a 'complementary tool' but not just blogging, we should also include other collaborative tools such as wikis, you tube and whatever else as part of that discussion. There seemed a shift in mood amongst the audience, who must have felt chastened, following JL's well constrcuted argument built around the importance of data as a foundation for all planning. As someone who has worked in both traditional and digital sectors this is something I would agree with. Digital is so data rich that it is often surprising that it can be commomplace to witness so many thin, light-weight strategies. Richard Huntingdon and I discussed the need for a 'new way forward' that helps advise planners on how to use the best of old and new. An ideological aligmnet of two strong planning cultures brought togther or put another way East (digital) meets West (advertiisng). A workshop on this may be a popular outcome from what I thought was a thought provoking evening. Now let's see if we can create something positive and world beating from the UK planning community. Finally, it would be interesting to hear what you think about the idea of a workshop: good or bad?

richard h said...

World beating is spot on Rob,

While the marketing blogos are dominated by american offerings and US A-listers the plannersphere is dominated by Brits. Blogging is helping a renaissance in UK planning's influence worldwide. And hurrah for that.

Anonymous said...

I thought that the way the two speakers made their arguments was instructive. John L's was meticulously constructed, well thought through, precisely argued. John G's was unprepared, shoot from the hip stuff. Enough said.

Neil Goodlad said...

Blogging is interesting and it's obviously here to stay - John L was always going to be up against it to win the argument. But much blogging is about ego and I do wonder if the planning propensity to blog is linked to a long standing sense of being under-exposed and under-appreciated. If suits get the PR and creatives get the prizes, maybe pontificating online is our last ditch attempt at getting noticed?

Anonymous said...

I'm a blogger who attended the debate and, for the record, Lowery's argument walked all over John Grant.

A little less time telling the audience that you went to Cambridge, had a science degree, had won an effectiveness award etc, and a little more time constructing a reasoned argument might have helped, Grant.

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