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Google’s Analytics, Trends, Console and the rest of their suite of tools, in combination with Google search engine´s simplicity, have made many brand planners believe that you can come up with a great strategy by simply burying your head in a computer screen. This is what I affectionally call “The Google Planning Plague”.
The negative results of understanding Google tools as the only source for creating brand strategies are many:
-1. Planners are not trained in social and observational abilities, like connecting with strangers through empathy or reading consumers’ non verbal communication.
-2. Planners are content detecting people´s surface behaviors, they forget to dig deeper to discover the ever-evolving cognitive insights that are based in attitudes and values.
-3. Brand strategies do not touch base with consumer´s lives beyond the digital.
-4. Strategies lack a coherent narrative. There is a shortage of the most wanted word in the digital world today: Context.
-5. Planners have stopped reading novels, comics, watching movies or trying to understand our cultural past and brand genealogies. Any research that takes more than a few hours or is not already pre-digested with the hit of a button is removed from the strategic planning process.
-6. Account people and Clients are getting used to having “Strategy Decks” ready within hours.
-7. Agency Financial people and Clients are loosing the habit to sign or pay for research budgets.
By over-using Google analytical tools, some young strategist are making the same mistakes that we, the more seasoned strategists, made in the past. For several years we relied solely on another kind of “new technology” research tool: focus groups. Yeah. Focus groups were more convenient, mess-free and affordable than the “old fashioned” long walks in the street, visiting malls or consumers´ homes or the in depth interviews with experts and influencers. Focus groups were the equivalent of going to the movies: you just had to sit and watch. By over using focus groups, planners realized the hard way that they were not learning about everything that was there. Observation and one-to-one interviews need also be part of the research equation.
Planners are forgetting the art of what the great Douglas B. Holt called cultural branding: understanding the cultural context, subcultures and the genealogy of consumption myths.
Conducting direct observation ethnos should still be key in any planning strategy. As Y&R´s Global CSO Sandy Thompson usually says: “If you want to understand how a lion hunts, don´t go to the zoo. Go to the jungle.”
Long live the trips to the jungle and long live Google´s suite of research tools.
Jon Steel, the legendary strategic planning guru and author of famous brand planning bibles like Trues, Lies and Advertising and Perfect Pitch was a guest speaker in Noisy Thinking. The event, organized by the Account Planning Group (APG) UK and held in London this past July (2015), was sponsored by Flamingo, the global insight and brand consultancy.
Steel´s conference was titled “Ten Reasons to be Grumpy“. In his hour-long presentation, he described what could be called his personal “State of the Planning Community” in ten ideas. I have tried to summarize them here:
-1. Planning is no longer the research-based discipline that it used to be. Planners are inundated with data and desk research but they are not doing the real-world research by themselves, other people are.
–2. Agencies are no longer training young planners. Junior planners will not become senior planners by osmosis or hazard.
–3. Agencies and clients are no longer partners. Steel was so integrated with a client that he once even temporarily covered for a product manager in that company while he was on leave. It was a true partnership where agencies worked on client´s businesses, not only on their communication.
–4. Pitch consultants are basing their offer to clients on efficiency and economy. They are promising clients more agency work for less.
–5. Cost cutting. Planners are working in way too many accounts simultaneously. While this may be the only exit for agencies to bear the financial cuts, the strategic work quality suffers; the planning departments tend to take the share of the lion when cuts are in fashion.
-6. In-House Planners and Out-House Researchers. Regarding the issue of objectivity, agency planners tend to be better than out-house researchers/planners at recommending how to improve the creative work as non-agency staff are usually disconnected from the creative process.
-7. The Efficiency Mindset. Doing the right thing versus doing the right way. Procurement teams tend to focus on avoiding doing things wrong, instead of doing the right thing.
-8. Short-termism. CMO´s career tenure in the same company shrank from 10 to 2 years. Therefore, client briefs tend to ask for quick wins rather than goals that might take longer to accomplish.
-9. Blue-thumb effectiveness. (Referring to Facebook´s “Like” thumb icon). Social media results are nothing if we fail to measure traditional real business results like margins or usage increases, sales, market shares, etc.
-10. Where is our Conscience? Agencies should invest in Good Citizenship and Sustainability projects to change the business world for the better, from the very inside. He mentioned WPP participation in the Why? WhyNot? climate campaign.
Some of the challenges described by Jon Steel are out of planner’s hands, even at agencies CSO levels. However, I think that Steel hit the jackpot. He reminded the planning community what we should never forget while we joyfully immerse ourselves in the oceanic potential of digital strategy: If we want to learn about consumer´s perceptions, motivations and digital behaviors, we cannot forget the universal human’s fundamental truths.
We need not forget what the great Douglas B. Holt called cultural branding: understanding cultural context, subcultures and the genealogy of consumption myths, our very basic cultural truths. This, at least, is still in planner’s hands and we should strive to make good use of it.
Brand Planners. User Experience Planners. Shopper Planners. Digital Planners. Social media planners. Content Planners. Channel Planners. You-name-it planners. Many big agencies´ strategic departments are said to resemble a scary Tower of Babel: flooded with data, confronted by hyper specialized jargons and unable to create unifying brand metrics. They are criticized for working at turtle pace and for being fragmented by narrow discipline-oriented points of view.
Many creative teams complain about having to pay the toll in this situation. They are forced to spend more time trying to find an overarching theme for campaigns, which means less time to craft their storytelling productions. Many marketers too. They are left to build their brands relying almost solely on brand personality and tone of voice consistency. Their brands can’t generate true meaningful conversations, relying on a collection of key visuals or on superficial anecdotes to influence consumers’ perceptions or behaviors. Those brands end-up lacking purpose and a distinctive point of view.
This Tower of Babel Syndrome is not a new thing. Different planning disciplines have always been at war. However, this “war” should not be viewed as a bad thing, it has been the necessary evil that has helped agencies confront the challenges of each communication era.
Creatives vs Researchers
The in-house researcher era: Agencies hired research practitioners tasked with infusing creativity with the rigor of public opinion research. And so, the tensions between art and science, between images and numbers and between creatives and pollsters were born. Kellogg’s cereal brand advertising, for example, was a result of the tensions of this era.
Researches vs Creative Planners
But then some pollsters became not only efficacy controllers but also a source of inspiration. The second chapter of the strategic planning evolution was the conflict between research practitioners and creative planners. The first having strong statistical and analytical skills, the latter armed with storytelling capabilities and intuition to find the intersection between insights and creative ideas. The planning role was not only about proving the ads to be efficient anymore; it was also about inspiring the creative teams. An agency’s goal became converting the right data into actionable insights. Nike brand advertising could be an example of the conflicts of this era.
Brand Planners vs Digital planners
The digital revolution created a third type of holly grail for the planning community: the “digital first” strategy. Traditional “brand planners” and the then called “digital planners” were meant to work together in harmony. The ideal was to marry the traditional “Push” culture of brand planners with the emerging “Pull” culture of digital planners. The resulting team needed to integrate “old” and “new” abilities: On one side, synthesis, single-minded messaging and perception analysis capabilities and on the other side, consumer behavior analysis, content creation and friction-less information architecture creation capabilities. The dream was to create grounded real-time brand storytelling through brand experiences. Apple communications could be an example of this chapter´s conflict.
Storytelling Planners vs Experience Planners
Consumer’s mantra nowadays seems to be “stop telling me stories and give me an amazing free app”. For brands to stay relevant they are required to be meaningful and entertaining and also to offer useful products and services that provide an added value. Planning teams need to merge their abilities to create pervasive storytelling with the ability to design new products and come up with original business ideas. They also have to work closer to advertiser’s business models, not only to their marketing plans. An example of brand communication from this era could be Uber or Airbnb.
Planning teams vs the future
As for the future, I suspect that, not too far from today, agencies will need to curb the gap between storytelling and story-doing. In an era of generalized skepticism, brands will need to make their brand stories tangible. Planners will be asked to deliver against the old Roman Emperor’s adagio “panem et circenses” (bread and circus): Brand utility and entertaining, meaningful storytelling.
In order to roll with the times and the new conflicts that await us, strategic planning departments will need to learn how to:
-1. Focus on what we strategists share in common, instead of trying to exacerbate the full nuances of our different strategy disciplines.
-2. Find integrative metaphors and vocabulary to function as one team.
-3. Work more iteratively and not sequentially.
-4. Assume with humbleness that the one million metrics that used to calm clients (and agency leaders) cannot replace our intuition or the scary trial and error system.
-5. Embrace that strategy today is much less glamorous, it is about making infinite small tweaks and not about the romantic eureka moment of the next Big Idea.
One thing I know for certain about the planning war is that Planners of all disciplines will need to embrace conflict and friction as part of our daily reality in order to finish the construction of the Tower, unlike what happened in Babel.
A version of this article originally appeared on WARC.com under the title “5 Tips on the future of Strategic Planning”.
On the TV screen, the passionate crowd sang submerged in a sea of crimson flags. “Look Grandma, look at how beautiful our red flag is”, I cried. I was literally jumping up and down from the joy of seeing the Spanish national soccer team appearing in the grass field.
My grandmother went mad. Grabbing me violently by the shoulders, she stared at me with terrified eyes. “For the rest of your life… don´t ever, ever repeat that word again!¨, she yelled. She realized then that I was trembling. “Son, you don´t say… that R word, you want to say colored”. I was confused: colored could be any color. “Obey. You will understand when you grow up”, she said pointing at me with her index finger.
As a Spaniard, I grew up in a culture that, fifty years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, was still violent, polarized and radicalized. Coexistence and respect were not easy, even among members of the same family. My grandfather was a policeman during the Franco dictatorship. My great uncle, on the other hand, was a Republican who had lost the war against Franco’s front. He was a political prisoner, forced to waste away most of his life in the Puerto de Santa María penitentiary. He was a so-called “rojo”, a red or, as my grandmother wanted me to say, a ¨colored¨.
These past few days, we have been immersed in an important debate around the use of words and symbols in America. President Obama’s use of the N-word in an interview, in which he talked about racism and discrimination, has been controversial. For some people, the context of the conversation legitimated the use of the word. For others, the term should never be used, under any circumstance, and the President committed a terrible mistake by doing so. Another controversial conversation around the topic of symbols is the Confederate flag, still waving in the State Capitol of South Carolina. For some, this flag stands for many noble Southern traditions. For others, it’s a symbol of white supremacy and segregation. Last, the LGBT community finally getting from the Supreme Court the equal right to the most symbolic ritual in modern society: marriage.
Millions of citizens felt the urge to join the debate, especially in social and traditional media were they were trending topics. But no matter how intense and passionate these debates have been, there are still many leaders who do not take them seriously. Too many politicians, CEO´s, journalists, celebrities and opinion leaders prefer to ignore symbols.
There is the “Fanatic of reality” type of leader: people who understand that the symbolic world is dissimilar from the real world, and not intimately intertwined. These “fanatics of reality” disregard debates around symbols as anecdotal “emotional issues” that should not distract society from dealing with “real, tangible problems”. They find debates around symbols a waste of time and social energy. Americans should not be debating around flags or words, but about the economy.
Then there is the “Conspiratorial theory” type of leader, those who consider symbols as distraction weapons, used by obscure groups of interest to manipulate the masses. They understand that participating in debates around symbols is a symptom of ignorance, gregarious behavior or lack of intellectual rigor. Serious people shouldn’t be trapped in conversations around flags.
There is also the third kind of anti-symbolic leader, an even more selfish type: the politician or leader who believes that by not taking sides in the debate, by not making their opinion public, will not loose any potential ally or vote.
I have worked with words and flags, symbols and rituals and archetypes and metaphors in different countries. I have learnt that these storytelling tools are key to all cultures. Symbols are not mere embellishments or sentimental memorabilia; they are cultural fuel that embody the past and help shape the future of societies. As storytelling animals, humans need symbols in order to dream, to be able to connect with others and to work and live together. Culture, a precious connective tissue, is ever-evolving; a corpus of stories and symbols that need to be continually reshaped by people.
Therefore, these discussions around the evolution of symbols are healthy and necessary. As a society with many contrasts, America cannot afford to ignore these strategic conversations, no matter how harsh, radical or polemic they might become.
On the contrary, what I find unhealthy is the myopic or selfish reaction of some leaders, from Presidential candidates to prestigious journalist, avoiding to participate in the debates surrounding these symbols.
Given the number, frequency and high voltage of these types of debates, and how quickly they become trending topics in America, I believe that one of the overarching stories of this upcoming 2016 Presidential campaign will be the coexistence of differences in this nation and the need to update many symbols and rituals. Candidates will need to work on proposals and ideas on how to heal historical wrongs, how to foster tolerance, conviviality and inclusiveness among the varied races, religions and identities of this wonderfully multicultural nation. Those Presidential candidates with vague or elusive answers to the use of national symbols and those who try to manipulate them in their benefit are not only lacking solutions to the problems or being irresponsible; they are also making a big political mistake.
My Spanish grandmother never got to experience the freedom of speech enjoyed in this country. I learnt from her that words, flags and rituals can help to heal the wounds of a nation… or to reopen them. If the power of storytelling through symbols can accomplish so much, our political leaders should not ignore their moral duty to construct social cohesion through them. They better give symbols the importance and respect they deserve for the good of this nation.
In order to create effective storytelling strategies, brands must resist their habitual tendency to want the general consensus of the total population. They must instead be bold and put down roots in conflict. It is not about being conflictual for the sake of conflict itself, it is about illustrating a polarizing interpretation of a cultural truth.
This narrative conflict potential should be the new definition for “consumer insight,” not the old “simple universal recognizable truth.” If your consumer insight is universally considered a truth, then it lacks the potential for narrative conflict. The challenge is to find the conflict that a brand can be identified with and go to town with it.
If conflict is the new brand idea, then stories are the new creative campaigns. This is why marketing and advertising professionals tasked with finding stories should learn from research journalists, an occupation profile that needs to be incorporated into our line of work. Planners can learn from reporter’s abilities of observation and research to find scoops. Creative Directors can learn from Editor’s capacity to curate stories. The first should be “storyfinders”, the latter should work as storytellers.
“I don´t feel I have a particularly large imagination, but I do have some powers of observation. Part of it stems from training as a reporter, when you are trained to see the salient points of any situation and see them fast. I can select the one thing that will tell you the most about a character, but this is just from looking around, not from thinking it up. Recently I overheard someone say that she had given a friends of hers a ladder. The gift of a ladder. The reason was that the friend was a woman who’ d just been widowed, and her late husband had been very tall. I’m sure I made a note of that.”
The search for inspiring stories that synthesize a brand’s conflict is becoming the primary activity focus of communication agencies. Advertising agencies are becoming a hybrid between a mythology lab, able to understand conflicts; a newspaper editorial room, able to find the perfect story; and a content producer, capable of making the narration of each and every story spectacular.
You can read the full interview at The Paris Review website here.