Planning is dead. Long live brand planning.

The discipline must fundamentally change to continue to be essential, says Hill Holliday's chief strategy officer.

Heralded as the best thing to happen to the U.S. advertising industry just over 20 years ago, what do now we call this thing we used to call account planning? Strategic planning? Brand strategy? Creative strategy? And how can it stay relevant in our ever-changing industry? 

While the question of the department name has been asked at each agency I’ve been at over the last two decades, the answer has always differed slightly, depending on the agency’s areas of focus and expertise.

Titles may differ, but what always remains true is that the discipline must fundamentally change to continue to be essential for the success of any agency business. Planning has never been more critical, as our industry continues to become more and more fragmented, aggressive and competitive, as media essentially becomes the newest definition of "creative." If you were at Cannes this year, you know exactly what I am talking about. 

Years ago, we used to do a bit of research, write a brief, brief creative and hopefully inspire them, wait for creative, and when the idea was approved we exited that assignment and started the process over again on something new. Back then, planning played a much more ethereal role. But today, the single most common reason I have ever had to remove any planner from a client’s business or worse, from the agency itself, is because of their failure to "land the plane." Today, planners not only need to land the plane, but also need to ensure that it successfully gets to its gate and flawlessly offloads its passengers. 

It is critical that planners live at the intersection of brand development, media planning, consumer research, analytics, digital strategy and experience design, working closely with the specialists in each of these areas. Modern brand planners cannot simply be ‘T- shaped.’ They must be star-shaped people with a diverse range of expertise and knowledge, that can connect the dots between specialist disciplines, to avoid fragmentation, duplication and most importantly, to help the whole team create a complete picture of consumers’ mindset, attitudes and behaviors. To that end, the role is beyond critical at any modern agency.

As the very definition of "brand" has changed to including the need to create consistent, diverse brand experiences across a wide spectrum of points of engagement, brand planners are also at the center of all our customer journey mapping. As a result, they gain a unique and deep understanding of business issues and opportunities to engage consumers, as well as points where consumers can be intercepted with relevant and timely messaging.

In addition, while still a critical component of the planning role, we planners have moved far beyond simply providing inspiration and information for creatives. The complex nature of our business means that while we often successfully partner with brand consulting firms, good agency brand planners equipped with these diverse skills are as capable of leading brand development as any great brand consultant. 

How is a good creative agency planner different from a consulting firm? From a brand perspective, it’s smaller scale. The foundational elements of research and brand development are similar, but there is one big difference. An agency planner who has a history and relationship with the brand can help clients develop useable and inspiring brand assets such as brand architecture, purpose, vision and positioning, in the context of the whole brand experience, including creative execution, digital strategy, customer experience and channel planning. And it’s much more efficient when all those folks are in the same building, led by creative ideas that are designed to win the daily share battle. Talk to any big brand managers and you’ll see the need for smart, creative planners is there. 

In summary, if your planning department is "failing to land the plane" then it’s important to teach more diverse skills, as our relationship with the consumer becomes more complex and fragile. It’s important to hire outside of the traditional discipline too. Star-shaped people are born from training and exposure to those with diverse experience in media planning, digital strategy and customer experience, among others. This exposure and experience future proofs them in an industry that is becoming more challenging by the minute. 

So yes, the world of the planner has changed almost beyond recognition. Is the role still important? Without question. It is easier? Not at all. Is it exciting? Hell, yes!

Lesley Bielby is Chief Strategy Officer and Head of HHBrandAble, Hill Holliday.

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