Back to the Future

The Only Guide We Ever Needed

From the need for mess to the unmanageable nature of human behaviour, AMV's Martin Weigel writes of Stephen King's seminal Planning Guide

By Martin Weigel

Since the words that follow are about a 50-year-old advertising artefact, it feels necessary to note that this will not be yet another exercise in self-flagellating nostalgia bias. The golden years of advertising are nothing more than mirage. The proportion of great work made 50 years ago was as minuscule as it is today. Racism and sexism were blatant. Nobody cared about secondary smoking. And the fashion was monstrous.

I use the terms ‘planning’ and ‘strategy’ interchangeably here. The name 'account planning’, was coined by Tony Stead at a JWT away-day in 1968, attended by media planners and account people from the marketing department. He simply merged the two titles together as Stephen King’s new department was to comprise a hybrid - selected folk from both disciplines. The title ‘account planner’ was a quirk of history, a convenience, a content-free pragmatic solution in the absence of any better ideas that contained no ethical vision or bigger philosophy - nothing more, nothing less. The term ‘planning’ was not intended to distinguish it from ‘strategy’, and I wish industry journalists would just stop asking planners/strategists what the difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘planning’ is and read up on their damn history instead.

Plus Ça Change

March 1974. Britain was in its first post-war recession, there were only three TV channels, no smartphones, the internet was the niche preserve of academic and research organizations, contraceptive advice and supplies were not yet free to all, the miners’ strike had ended and with it the Three-Day Week, the Birmingham City centre forward Bob Latchford, had become Britain's most expensive footballer in a £350,000 move to Everton, BBC 1’s children's TV series Bagpuss was in its first month, the British Government had re-established direct rule over Northern Ireland after declaring a state of emergency, BOAC, BEA, Cambrian Airways and Northeast Airlines had been rolled into a new unified brand called British Airways, and the Planning Department of a storied advertising agency once called J. Walter Thompson had received their copy of Stephen King’s Planning Guide.

The past might well be a foreign country where people do things differently, yet for all that some things do not change, and I’m with Paul Feldwick when he writes of King’s Guide: “fifty years on, there’s not a lot that needs to be changed or added”. At a time when we’re fond of telling each other that we’re living in “unprecedented times” (as if I dunno, an estimated 4.5 to 8 million people hadn’t died in the Thirty Years War that ravaged Europe for well thirty years, mass migration hadn’t accounted for about 40 per cent of the total population growth of the United States in the late 19th Century, or the steam engine hadn’t unleashed an utter tsunami wave of social and cultural change...) the idea of continuity and continued relevance, or something not needing to change can feel alien. Or worse, downright and willfully reactionary. But The Planning Guide doesn’t need changing or updating because while a great many other things have changed and continue to evolve (often at pace) the fundamental nature of strategy which King articulated in its modest thirty-seven pages has not changed.

Verbiage, ignorance, obfuscation, greedy self-serving appropriation, and careless overuse have all ensured that the word ‘strategy’ word has been almost fracked to death, leaving as historian Hew Strachan has argued “only banalities”. Our own industry’s strategic discipline is sheepish or confused about the apparently “elusive and rather slippery subject” topic of what strategy is. And yet at the heart of the Guide on Page 16 (of 37) lies King’s ‘Framework for Planning Advertising’. It consists of a simple (of course) and practical set of questions:

  • Where are we?

  • Why are we there?

  • Where could we be?

  • How could we get there?

  • Are we getting there?

Forty-four years after King had issued his Guide, the great military theorist Colin Gray, pithily articulated the essential and unchanging nature of strategy thus: “Strategy can be considered a simple machine that consists of just four working parts: Ends, Ways, Means, and Assumptions”. For Gray, Ends were the goals, Ways the actions taken, Means were the resources deployed, and Assumptions were the necessary leaps, imaginative forays, and guesses. In other words, ‘all’ King was proposing is that we actually do strategy.

Human psychology might incline us to privilege the present and encourage us to believe that today is a time of exceptional significance and that everything is different from how it was in yesteryear. But the fact of the matter is that nothing that’s happened (or will happen) in commerce, culture (both fast and slow), technology, or politics has changed (or will change) the fundamental nature of strategy that King articulates. Which is why King’s Planning Guide will continue to have enduring relevance and value. If only we could all (not just planners/strategists) be bothered to know of it and read it.

That it exists in the public domain solely as a scanned personal copy (uploaded in 2008 by former JWT colleague William Charnock), a piece of internet flotsam unclaimed by its originating agency when that agency still had an identity, speaks volumes about our neglect of and indifference towards what the past might have to teach us. For there is so much wise, practical goodness in the pages of King’s Planning Guide. Reading it again, I am struck by his clear-sighted and plain- speaking pragmatism. His concern above all was as he put it, "advertising’s contribution to the marketing of a brand.” And indeed that practical concern is writ large across all his other papers on the matter, now happily collected and published as A Master Class in Brand Planning: The Timeless Works of Stephen King (for once content that lives up to its title).

Yet for all its undoubted practical application, arguably the deeper value of King’s Guide is as a philosophy on what it takes to get to effective work, albeit rendered in such plain-speaking and humble vernacular as to shame most of our self-appointed gurus. The themes comprising that philosophy feel as relevant and as urgent as they were in 1974.

The Necessity Of Imagination

King’s Framework - what became known as the ‘planning cycle’- reminds us that the development of strategy entails the application of clear-sighted analysis and rigour - married with vision and imagination. In doing so he skewers any notion that strategy is the merely the logical, rational, deductive, evidenced thinking that precedes the actual creative thinking. King was utterly emphatic:

“It is not a deductive process. Strategy does not spring logically and inevitably from the data. No analysis will directly reveal opportunities.”

“Working out strategy is just as much a creative act as making the advertisements.”

The necessity of imagination has vital consequences and implications not just for how we work, but who we hire to do the work. For we now find ourselves in a culture that as the cultural critic Henry Giroux has argued, is drowning, “in a new love affair with empiricism and data collecting” and that dismisses or marginalises imagination. If a cultural critic isn’t convincing, then take it from Roger Martin one of the most influential business thinkers of our time, and who argues that the business world has been fully captured by science- and analysis-obsessed technocrats who “[favour] analysis of the known over any other kind of thought or work”.

Colin Gray has argued (writing in, of all places, Military Strategy Magazine) that “the imagination needed for strategy cannot reliably be taught.” I’m not so sure. Certainly, Sir Ken Robinson would have taken issue with the assertion. “Imagination”, he argued “is the source of every form of human achievement. And it’s the one thing that I believe we are systematically jeopardising in the way we educate our children and ourselves.” But until an educational revolution happens, one wonders whether the imaginative minds of the future - those (to borrow the words of Julian Cope) switched-on, forward-thinking motherfuckers - will be found outside the formal systems and institutions that increasingly privilege the vocational and the empirical.

The Necessity Of Mess

For all his concern with the application of rigour and all the detail he provides on the the searching questions needed to be asked and answered, King was very much alive to the messy truth of the creative process:

“How people create new things and new ideas is, and may always remain, a rather mysterious process. It is rather uncomfortable to think that the central operation of an advertising agency is mysterious: it gives us a nasty feeling that we cannot either cause it or control it. So we always tend, when presenting the results of creativity, to neaten what actually happened and to suggest that it has been a sensible, logical, step-by-step process - because that seems a more responsible and professional way of working.”

He’s got a point. Let it stay a baffling, messy mystery if we must. What matters is demonstrating how our ideas are fit for purpose, not reporting on how we got to them.

The Indivisibility Of Strategy And Creative

And when it came to that necessarily messy process, King was clear that planning as a way of thinking about people, brands and communications (we forget at our peril that it is a philosophy on how to create effective work before it is a department) had to be an active participant in the development of creative solutions. Planning for him was not a warm-up act, fluffing service, or policing function: “Any systematic approach to planning advertising has to do more than simply provide controls and disciplines. It must actively stimulate imagination and creativity.”

His Guide is emphatic on this point:

“We cannot have a situation in which one lot of people is setting the strategy, handing it over to another lot as holy writ and going away. There should be a continuous process of learning, modifying and improving – both for the strategy and the creative work. The account group must work together in a close and overlapping way. This is not only to help the continuity of the process. It is also because the project group can provide much of the random stimulus, the interaction of ideas and the collision of minds that prompts the emergence of ideas. If everyone sticks to his rigidly demarcated area of skill, this interaction simply won’t happen”.

Being the only creative industry that has institutionalized the idea of a creative ‘Department’ and which still dedicates itself to policing its borders, we would do well to reflect on that.

The working environment since King wrote those words has changed dramatically, thanks to the pandemic, with (according to the IPA’s 2023 Census data) the vast majority of agencies continue to use a three-day office/two-day remote model for their workers. The human benefits and advantages of ‘hybrid working’ (not least of all mitigating the often staggeringly vast financial burden of the commute or work- proximate housing) have been well documented and rehearsed. But King’s words should make one wonder about the impact a creative process mediated by the video call has on nurturing the “interaction of ideas and the collision of minds that prompts the emergence of ideas.” Personally, I remain ambivalent, and unwilling to legislate either way.

The Unmanageable Nature Of People

Foundational to King’s philosophy of planning is that people cannot be controlled. His Guide puts it thus (the gendered language which I reproduce here is probably the only aspect of it that fails the test of time):

“The receiver may hear and understand what is said. But this is not to say that he will accept the attitude or information as his own, or that he will follow any advice implied by it. It all depends on how he responds to the communication. In fact, communication should not be thought of as the sending and receiving (or not receiving) of a message; it is more the sending of a stimulus – a combination of what is said and who said it – and the making of a response. Often the response is very different from the nature of the intentions of the stimulus. What people get out of a communication is by no means always what went into it.”

In a marketing environment still reluctant (after more than half a century!) to let go of the ‘message transmission/message takeout’ model of how communication works, and in which the algorithm shapes not just what we code and make but how we view the world, remembering that human nature is not an engineering problem to be solved and cannot be so easily subjected to a If-This-Then-That formula feels a necessary corrective to our direction of cultural drift.

Quite apart from its demand for ruthless, forensic, searching, practical rigour, King’s Planning Guide is shot through with a deep understanding and appreciation of the true nature of the creative ‘process’ and how ideas really come about that embraces rather than fears its chaos and mess. And without so much of a trace of psycho-babble (or its more recent incarnation, ‘culture’-babble) it offers up a very human perspective on those whom King calls not ‘consumers’ but people - one that knows the difference between the illusion of control and the rather more real possibility of influence. For that alone, if you haven’t already, it’s worth taking the vanishingly small amount of time it to takes discover and read it.

Martin Weigel is chief strategy officer at AMV BBDO


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