Stephen King Planning 50 0

Dear planning. Happy 50th

This month, Stephen King’s JWT Planning Guide turns 50. And with it, writes BBH USA's head of strategy, so does the entire specialism as we know it

By Joe Burns

Planning hitting the big ‘five oh’ is more than an excuse for some cake and a party though.

Looking at the perhaps disheartening state of advertising strategy half a century on, King’s blueprint for planning is a reminder that the paradoxical contradiction that defines creative strategy is something to celebrate, not shy away from.

I flick through the 37 page pamphlet about twice a year, and each time I am struck by how delightfully it is written. The whole thing comes across more like a polite, confident, piece of persuasion rather than some exaggerating set of immutable ‘laws’ or ‘rules’. If it were a meeting, it’d be the kind you have in the pub with a few print outs rather than in a carpet-tiled office.

It’s intelligent in a reassuring tweed-suit wearing way, rather than the cloying ‘desperate to be right’ style that is becoming increasingly common. This easy brilliance is of much more than merely aesthetic importance, it’s actually fundamental to what being a good planner is.

The Paradox of Planning

The genius at the core of King’s JWT planning guide isn’t functional stuff, like how to write a brief or measure the work.

It's how he introduces then deftly navigates the central paradox of planning. He puts it front and centre, kicking off like so…

For better or worse, your job as a planner is to apply a process of systematic thinking to innovative thinking, to maximize the certainty of possibility. The old ‘give me a first of its kind idea… backed up with a case study that shows how it has worked in the past’ chestnut. 

If that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s because it doesn’t make sense at all. It’s a paradox.

If you’re into paradoxes, or casually into particle physics, you’ll know about Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle, more colloquially known as the uncertainty principle - which tells us that the more accurately we measure a particle’s momentum the less accurately we can know its position.

Innovative and systematic thinking have a remarkably similar relationship to the measurement of momentum and position of a subatomic particle. The more systematically we approach a solution, the more accurately we can predict its efficacy, but the more its efficacy is bound by our existing knowledge. Conversely, the more innovatively we think about a solution, the greater the potential of its efficacy, but the less we can have certainty of its efficacy.

I’ve made a handy visualisation.

You can’t, and really shouldn’t even try to, escape the paradox. Inhabiting it is what defines us as brand planners or creative strategists. It’s also what makes the job both so frustrating yet fun.

Now I’m of course well aware there are the dark rhetorical arts we can employ to make systematic thinking appear innovative and to make innovative thinking seem more predictable for the purposes of a pitch deck or what have you, but I’m treating this essay as a bit of real talk between us planners.

Know Your Onions, Disregard Your Onions

Reading through the 1974 Planning Guide, you get that sense of the importance of really knowing your stuff, having deep understanding, applying disciplined systematic rigor, but then ultimately accepting the limitations of, and the limiting nature of, that knowledge in the pursuit of innovation.

To be a great planner you have to really know your onions, but simultaneously you must be extremely comfortable in disregarding your knowledge of onions too.

Here’s a brilliant example that has an almost epistemological quality to it, from the section on target audience:

We need to get back to that paradoxical sweet spot.

In these past 50 years, and especially in the last 15 or so, we’ve witnessed revolutionary changes in technology, commerce and culture that have pushed both polarities of that innovative-systematic spectrum further apart.

On the systematic side of things, the capacity to target, deploy, and measure advertising has gone exponential. Our ability to make and measure highly predictable incremental efficiency gains is several orders of magnitudes more sophisticated than it was in 1974. We know a lot more stuff, and also can know more about the degree to which stuff we do is working.

On the innovative end of the spectrum, what we’re able to create and how it's able to spread has exploded the potential for impact that creativity can have. We can do more ‘hitherto unknowable’ things. I doubt anyone in 1974 would have been able to predict an idea like Red Bull Stratos (which was 12 years ago now) and trying to explain the sheer scale and integration of a campaign like last year’s Barbie movie marketing would have their mutton chop sideburn-ed heads spinning.

You’d imagine that this widening of the paradoxical realm, that we know and can predict more, and at the same time the scope of possibility in the unknown has grown, would make strategy more valuable and in demand than ever. I really believe that this should be the case. Our jobs should be more exciting, interesting, and in demand than ever. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case.

Should you delve into industry think pieces on how strategists feel about their jobs, it’s bleak. Taking a peek around on the Strategy & Planning Fishbowl is like staring into the abyss. There’s a report that says 60% of agency strategists want their next job to be anything but an agency strategist.

A stat that really jumps out at me is this one: 48% of strategists believe frameworks are a hindrance to strategy; 52% don’t. I’m extrapolating here a fair bit, but I see it as a kind of ripping faultline for the schism between innovative and systematic ideologies currently dominating advertising: half of planners bemoaning the way systematic frameworks get in the way of innovation, the rest extolling the systematic benefits of frameworks in creating structure and grounding us in the known.

This schism is playing out at a far bigger macro level too. Publicis CEO Arthur Sadoun said last summer that “Creative is not accretive to growth”, what he seems to be getting at is that within a holding company model those parts of the business with a greater focus on the more innovative ‘possibility’ are not accelerating as fast as those that deal with the more systematic ‘certainty’.

At the same time some have already dubbed 2024 as ‘the year of the creative independent agency’, and it feels like every couple of weeks there's an article in the trade press heralding the arrival of a new independent agency that promises to put creativity front and center in its proposition (That’s not to say all of these indies are creative free for alls mind you, but a trend is a trend).

Marketing is polarising between data-led organisations (e.g. the holding companies) that prioritise the systematic, the predictable, and can offer clients efficiency, process and certainty, and innovation thinking led independent shops who speak of creativity in a way that emphasises possibility.

Both Options Are Existentially Terrible For Strategists

In the more systematic world, we’re relegated to a ‘best practice advisor’, deploying data to provide highly certain marginal gains for clients.

In the more innovative world, we become ‘bloviating idea sellers’, retroactively justifying whatever ‘strategy’ best fits a cool creative idea and sounds good in a meeting.

These polarised options aren’t adding much value, they are easily automated, and most importantly they would be a monumentally tragic waste of your massive planner brains.

This existentially troublesome schism needn’t be a cause for fatalistic nihilism though, it’s actually why half a century on the JWT Planning Guide is more relevant than ever. As data-driven precision and boundless creativity drift further apart, the playing field for strategy doesn’t disappear, it grows. Revisiting King’s guide should be a reminder that to realise that opportunity we have to be at home in the paradox and fight for its relevance too. With a stronger grasp than ever on what we know, but a lighter touch when it comes to letting go of it to pursue possibility in the unknown, and a tenacious pursuit of a reasoned approach that gets the balance just right.

This is where the demeanour of the planning guide is so crucial, King lays out precisely the kind of assertive and reasonable style we should be adopting as we navigate the exponentially more paradoxical world of today. Take this snippet from the section on research and data.

I shudder to think of how many times I’ve heard planners say ‘you can’t argue with the data’ - to which I usually reply ‘if you can’t argue with it then what is it even for?’. King is reminding us that data and research can solve puzzles, but our job is the bigger task of solving mysteries. With data more abundant and seductively assuring than ever before it’s crucial to keep in mind that we aren’t dealing with certainties, we’re employing reason, we’re using our judgment.

The guide ensures things never get too heady though. When speaking to the imagination involved in thinking on where a brand might be he’s quick to anchor us in the facts and robust analysis of causes, even if we must leap beyond the logical and inevitable conclusions of the data.

The entire document is infused with the very quality that makes a strategist great, a confident and comfortable ease inside this strange paradoxical netherworld between the systematic and the innovative, certainty and possibility, commerce and creativity.

As that territory grows we shouldn’t let the polar regions pull apart, instead we should relish the ever growing space for our thinking to flourish, and make bolder claims to stake out our value within the industry.

I’m going to finish this one with a toast, my favorite paragraph in the guide:

Joe Burns is the Head of Strategy at BBH USA


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