Future of Planning

Future of Planning

Why Planners are the new Masters of Consequence

Wunderman Thompson chief strategy officer explains why he renamed the agency strategy department ‘planning’

By Sid McGrath

Last year I renamed the agency strategy department ‘planning’ because I noticed that strategy was being sold in tiny pieces – ‘I need an afternoon of strategy’, ‘I need a strategist for 3 hours’, ‘I just need the upfront strat bit’. This didn’t feel right because, to do a truly good job, whoever comes up with the strategy needs to be there to see its eventual outcome, to make the result as good as possible and to ensure it’s worked. Essentially they need to come up with a plan for success, hence, in my simple mind, they are better named ‘planners’ as it means they are there for the duration. It also captures something which I think people often overlook, which is that planners need to be there to understand the consequence of what happens.

This is important because all brand actions nowadays are truly connected – for bad as well as good – where a person is as likely to be disappointed by a broken, fractured experience as they are delighted by a complete, whole one. The increased visibility and scrutiny of a brand's actions also means every decision and action is seen and experienced seemingly by everyone. And as these brand behaviours and experiences are scrutinised, filed and stored, it’s only a matter of time before the dots are joined, conclusions are reached, and judgements made.

So, for every brand action, it’s now possible to identify a reaction, but it’s also necessary to identify the consequence – the action as a result of the action if you like. Having worked with challenger brands for years, clients would often ask to go up against the category leader. ‘What will you do when you’re successful?’ I’d ask, ‘what’s your plan for when the leader comes back fighting?’. Rarely would anyone consider this. It seemed the job to be done was to get an idea into market, but never to really prepare for the consequential backlash. This is where I think planners can be invaluable – understanding the consequence of any brand activity to prepare for the inevitable ‘what ever next?’.

Now though, this is more important than ever as we face into the climate emergency and a brand’s strategy around sustainability. The level of harm a brand and business can inflict on our environment, whether it’s through the exploitation of finite resources, creating the insatiable desire to buy, or the resulting often permanent waste by-products, is a truly horrid consequence. Or, terrifyingly, our role in all of this, where the better at our jobs we are, the more desire we create, and the more desire we create the more we sell, and the more we sell the more and more and more people buy. This is how we all measure success, but at what cost? Sadly, I think people have become immune to these consequences.

Back in the nineteenth century, the French economist Frédéric Bastiat said, ‘when a man is impressed by the effort that is seen and has not yet learned to discern the effects that are not seen, he indulges in deplorable habits, not only through inclination, but deliberately’. 200 years later, we’ve yet to properly wake up to and see the consequence of our actions.

This is why I think that planners are the new Masters of Consequence. Not only has it been what we do when at our very best, when helping clients to understand ‘what next?’, but it has to be the new role we step into, helping clients understand ‘what ever next’ and also ‘what shouldn’t happen next’. This is as much about our own actions as those of the brands we work with, so it won’t be an easy transition to make. But as the people charged with the responsibility to own outcomes and to see the whole picture, and to have some form of better plan, I believe it’s essential part of the evolution of planning to ensure a more sustainable future.

Sid McGrath is chief strategy officer at Wunderman Thompson


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