Oliver Egan

the future of planning

The future of planning is… looking beyond algorithms for answers

You won't find breakthrough strategy on AI or Google, argues the co-head of The&Partnership's Global Strategy Practice

By Oli Egan

Back in 2021, in a long and rambling post on an obscure message board, one IlluminatiPirate posited that between 2016 and 2017, humans on the internet were entirely crowded out by bots; whose frequently repetitive and entirely formulaic content became ubiquitous.

While the author’s contention that this was evidence of the US government engaging in “an artificial intelligence powered gaslighting of the entire world population” seems unlikely; like many conspiracy theories, its power lies in a grain of plausibility. As evidence for his ‘Dead Internet Theory’, IlluminatiPirate points to “the same threads, the same pics, and the same replies reposted over and over across the years”…something, one suspects, we can all relate to.

But this lack of distinction isn’t limited to threads, pics and replies. Contrary to the promise of the long tail of the internet: a utopia of individual self-expression unchecked by traditional gatekeepers, things are feeling eerily familiar. From Airspace to Instagram face, Spotify and TikTok’s homogenising effect on music and the never-ending procession of movie sequels and reboots, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest our algorithmically-driven culture is becoming monolithic.

And what’s true in culture at large is increasingly true when it comes to brand-building. We bid on the same SEO terms, adopt the same UX best practices, land on the same trends, jump on the same memes and adopt the same pastel colour pallets, hip lifestyle photography and sans serif fonts. We’re also neglecting brand distinctiveness: chopping and changing brand assets on a whim and failing to invest in proven tactics like characters and sonic devices. It’s perhaps no wonder that 85 per cent of advertising fails to command the 2.5 seconds of attention required to enhance mental availability (Source: Amplified Intelligence).

…and all this before generative ai, a technology predicated on mimicking what already exists, has become fully embedded in the creative development process.

So are we staring down the barrel of ‘dead brand theory’? Not if us planners have anything to do with it! Whilst bleak, this situation argues more than ever for the role of great strategy. Our superpower has always been to look past the prosaic and peer beneath the surface to understand the conventions and dynamics at play in any given category or community. And though, increasingly pressed for time, we may be tempted to just ask Chat GPT, we must also recognise that it (along with syndicated data and widely circulated ‘vibe shift’ reports) is ubiquitous. These tools may get us to a 6-out-of-ten answer, but breakthrough strategy isn’t googleable.

Rather, we must build a more varied toolbox that combines abundant 3rd party data with proprietary 1st party data, approaches from the social sciences and (vitally) with taking the time to observe and talk in depth to consumers to help us build up a deep understanding of their needs, expectations and motivations – what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called ‘thick description’.

Ultimately, to raise our heads above the cultural sea of sameness and build truly distinctive brands, we must look beyond algorithmically generated ‘insights’ to understand not just where consumers are clicking, but what they’re thinking and feeling and how this relates to the cultural context in which they and our clients' brands live.

Oli Egan is co-head of The&Partnership’s Global Strategy Practice


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