Sue Unerman

the future of planning

Welcome to the Age of Relevance

MediaCom's chief transformation officer says planners need more skills than ever before

By Sue Unerman

An account planner, a media planner, a data planner and a comms planner of the future walk into a bar and buy a drink. The bartender pours one vodka martini. Because they are all the same person. Does this mean there will be fewer planners in future? Not necessarily but every future planner (whatever the job title) has to have all of the required skills.

Effective Planning is about getting to useful insights about the problem, and using those insights to solve it.

This is as true today as it ever was, but we have entered a new era: The age of relevance where data drives media and creative to deliver communications that work in new ways. There must be a singularity of approach where context and creative must be driven by effective planning to deliver relevant communications that cut through and are accountable.

Any planning in the age of relevance needs to understand:

a. The brand truth

b. The zeitgeist of the moment

c. The consumer or customer truth

d. The truth of the employees of the brand

e. The nature of the comms channels/media/platforms/context

f. Working fast and slow: Some things change very slowly; some things change very fast – (that’s why you need a strong long term strategy, and brilliant tactical plans.)

g. How to be accountable.

a. The brand truth

This will sit with the brand stakeholders, but what people say and think about the brand in the real world is as important as the views of those who run it professionally. Great brands understand this and communicate on that basis. Pot Noodle’s brand position is a great example of this. Burger King’s Impossible Combo plays with it to great advantage. You have to know the brand before you write a plan.

b. The zeitgeist of the moment.

Word of mouth is unlikely to drive brand communications unless those comms tap into the cultural trends of the moment. Ryan Reynolds stated in Cannes this year that his agency Maximum Effort makes its business to capitalise on this. It's hard to fit this into a safe and predictable process, so confidence and instinct are intrinsic to doing this well. When Visit England’s tweet about the England Italy Euros game went viral back in 2012 it was because it perfectly represented the then footballing zeitgeist.

c. The consumer or customer truth.

Brands don’t fully own their brands. What their customers think or say about them is at least as important, if not more so, than what they say about themselves. On a “ethnographic” visit to BHS two elderly women were overheard to say : “I thought they’d already closed”. However adamant the brand owners were about how the stores had been revitalised the real truth of the brand’s prospects lay in the customer truth.

Understanding the rich data signals that every good planner navigates is vital, and here it is essential to work with AI (don’t fear the robots.)

Some customer truths remain everlasting. There’s a University of Ohio study that defines 16 human desires, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs remains everlasting. Using these to understand the real truth of audiences to create communications that shift commercial advantage is essential. Interpreting data signals using human insights is the best basis for strategy, using empathy and understanding and welcoming differences.

d) Employee truth.

The Edelman trust barometer states that the view of staff of the employer brand is vital for creating growth. For large organisations their employees are part of the local communities in which they operate. If they have one message for customers and another for their own employees then no amount of positive advertising can fix this. It is important for planners to get an understanding of how the brand is viewed by the people that work for the business

e) The nature of the channels

The medium is the message is more true today than it has ever been. There is no shortage of media channels to communicate with. There is a huge and unprecedented shift in how those channels must be used for brands. You cannot create comms for one mainstream medium and expect it to play to maximum advantage on other, especially newer, media. You don’t win TikTok with ads. You don’t maximise your impact with influencers with heritage brand architecture. Assuming advertising is the answer, or even the start point, is anachronistic. Eos use of influencers drove a spike in sales of body cream. Dulux bringing back Changing Rooms to TV step changed consideration amongst viewers.

f) Working fast and slow.

There’s only 2 forms of good communications planning: Comms that drive desire (building memory structures in Byronese) and comms that harvest demand. They work together. Building desire should be lasting, harvesting demand should deliver immediate performance outcomes. Planning is important for both. It just looks and feels different in terms of process and outcomes. UX has to be part of the planning, for both outcomes. And an expertise in behavioural economics must be part of UX. Read the great IPA Effectiveness award entries for examples of delivering this.

In terms of how you work, collaboration across teams, agency partners, media owners and marketing is necessary. Elaborate process can slow things down. Try working in Agile, develop an MVP, I know of nothing that cannot be improved with a design sprint. Individuals interacting well beats process and tools.

g) Be accountable: For the short term, for the medium term for the long term and for the very long term. You cannot measure the planning of the 2020s using the metrics of the last century.

As Dave Trott reminded me, the great planner Jon Steele wrote: “The most crucial function a planner must have is to be useful”. Future planners, be useful, help everyone do their best work, grow the brand.

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom


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