How campaign planning actually works in the 21st century

The atomisation of the media landscape has transformed the way in which people perceive brand messaging. It's time the industry caught up, writes Will Harris.

was lucky enough to have a front-row seat during the creation of the Orange mobile network brand in the UK. Once famous, the  brand fell under the stewardship of people who didn’t understand what they had bought, and stagnated for four critical years. The very things that had attracted the new owner, France Télécom – the things that made the brand famous (wit, innovation, challenger mentality, optimism) – were all left to wither on the vine. 

As it languished, a few of us who had worked on Orange went and did it all again with O2, and re-occupied the space once reserved for Orange. O2 subsequently enjoyed a short and happy time as a public company, until new owners emerged from Spain.

Astutely, a month after Telefónica became the proprietor of O2, chief executive Peter Erskine commissioned a study to understand why France Télécom had inadvertently strangled its prize possession, in order that history would not repeat itself. The fact that O2 remains the stand-out creative brand in that category, 14 years after launch, is testament to the wisdom of that move. We’ll have to see how Hutchison fares in this regard as the new custodian of the O2 brand.

Lost in translation

These days, the only time you are likely to see Orange is if you have the misfortune to attempt the Herculean task of securing a mobile phone contract in France. The 45 pages of small print thrust upon you as you leave the shop are per-fectly in line with the Orange brand guidelines, but somehow, something has been lost in translation. Quite literally.

That process of laying out the messaging like a trail of breadcrumbs was at the heart of it

One of the secrets of early Orange success was its campaign planning. When I worked on the account, we used to sit around with a long list of customer benefits, assembled in order of priority. Sometimes we ranked them by consumer demand, others by what was most likely to irk our competitors and elicit a response.

Then we would plot out the campaign using the available media (pretty limited, by today’s standards), cross-referenced with the messaging. Over this, we would layer a creative idea and a budget framework, and hey presto: there’s another four months of advertising planned, ready to be sold in to an eager client.

That process of laying out the messaging like a trail of breadcrumbs was at the heart of it. The critical element of presenting the campaign from tease through to reveal (what we referred to as the "Reason to Believe"), and from there onward into a long tail of "Reasons to Buy", was central to our success.

In this, I think we were pioneers, treating the consumers as grown-ups who could reassemble parts of the jigsaw for themselves, rather than just hit them over the head repeatedly with one simple message, as everyone else seemed to do at that time.

Scroll forward 20 years, and in a brief, hugely enjoyable sojourn back to the frontline of campaign planning, I have discovered some fascinating new aspects to this world. That the number of media outlets has increased beyond comprehension is not news; neither is that the planning cycle has sped up and the cost of production plunged. All that, I have written about before and it is widely observed.

A new angle

What I have found really interesting is that the age-old triangle of agency, client, consumer has become corrupted. The sophistication of consumers has grown to such a degree that you no longer need to signpost the messaging in such a disciplined way. Where once we gave them a jigsaw with a great big picture to refer to and allowed them to assemble the puzzle, now they seem to be happy with the pieces and no picture. 

In some senses, this is spawned of necessity (how can we presume to control what people see when the media landscape is as atomised as it is?), but the overarching feeling I get from the frontline of marketing is that consumers are more comfortable than we are with a fragmented messaging approach to match their media landscape. 

The aged cliché rhetorically posed in pitches used to be: "If I throw four balls at you, how many will you catch? That’s how we need to treat our messaging; throw one ball at a time." 

That seems so dated now. Throw six balls at consumers today, and they’ll catch them all, throw two back at you (expecting a response) and contentedly juggle with the remaining four, while you look on bewildered.

So often, the greatest point of weakness in this triangle is the client, who has yet to catch up on the way the world works these days, and is unconsciously imposing a dated model on their audience. They, in turn, may be unenlightened – or, more often, simply trapped by their organisation, which has a right and wrong way to do this sort of thing; caught up in a time warp.

This adds a new level of fun and complexity to an already fluid scenario. If you are sceptical, climb down from your ivory tower, and spend an evening sitting anonymously in a few focus groups. There, you’ll discover quite how little in control of your brand you really are, and how smart the people who buy your product are. 

I haven’t yet heard of anyone being recruited from a research group, but it’s only a matter of time. Get along to the viewing facility tonight – you might find yourself a new CMO. 

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