Communications Planning in 2013

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The good people at WARC are keen to encourage people to start thinking early about planning themes for 2013 and so have asked me (along with a few other ad bloggers around the world) to put down a few thoughts on the subject. 

Tough to do justice to such a broad and forever shifting entity in 500 words so this is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some (inevitably interlocking) themes that I think will be areas of focus and agents for change in the practice of comms planning over the next year:

1. Robots and humans.

The balance in our industry between the art and the science, the human and the automated, continues to be an ever-changing, fascinating one. The march of automation (particularly in trading through real-time bidding and optimisation) is inevitable. But I think there’s some interesting work happening around the attribution of value that could impact planning quite significantly. Until now of-course, much media spend has been based on a comparatively limited understanding of the value of individual parts to a customer journey. Digital tools enable us to use data in more sophisticated ways to attribute value to the constituent parts of a broad spectrum of activity and develop a far better understanding of how they can work together.

The scale of this opportunity is like moving from being in the trombone section of an orchestra (I’m reminded of that Richard Strauss quote: “Never look at the trombones. You’ll only encourage them”) to becoming the conductor. My argument here is not that planners are equivalent to the brass section, but that they are the only ones who, along with the client, are now positioned to be the conductor for the entire orchestra. The key here of-course will be in joining up disparate data sources in order to derive decent insights, and in assessing the speed, scale and type of response. As well as algorithm and automation, that process requires very human traits of interpretation, judgment and understanding. Success in media will be measured through the art of balancing multiple metrics in order to drive uplift in the one that really matters.

2. Convergence of Paid, Owned and Earned media.

The POE model has become the default way of looking at the media world but I’ve always thought and said that the most interesting aspects are how they work together, and the blurred boundaries/spaces in-between. Part of this is (as McKinsey have said) about how paid media generates earned and serves as a feeder to owned. Part of it is about how agencies can get more involved in creating and designing amazing owned media experiences. Part of it is about how content flows seamlessly between all three (the atomisation of content for re-application, or through using APIs for example). The growth in importance in owned and earned media is really important for comms planning. It means different approaches – smart combinations of distributed thinking (getting your idea/content out there embedded in the fabric of the web and what people do) and classic destination thinking (the place that aggregates, augments, facilitates and, dare I say it, engages). It means different knowledge – experience design, UX, analytics, using measurement and data to derive insight for not just short campaigns but for ongoing creative development. It means a different relationship with the client – in order to gain full insight you need to work with the kind of data that traditionally has sat behind client firewalls. You need to see the whole picture, not just half of it. Planners are at the sharp end of this change.

Nike are most often used as the exemplar of great integrated thinking and for good reason – whilst their overall marketing and media spend has gone up, the proportion of that spend that comprises traditional paid media has gone down, and instead Nike have focused on highly participative and spreadable content and product driven initiatives that create communities and ecosystems with the product at their heart. Not every brand can be Nike, but I think what they’re doing is instructive for the kind of approaches that will matter far more in comms planning.

3. Slow, fast and spiky planning.

One of the biggest challenges within this convergence is maximising the opportunity to combine the short-term ‘spikes’ of activity characterised by a campaigning mindset and approaches with the longer-term always-on platforms that digital is also exceptionally good at. Matt Locke has talked about the changing patterns of attention and the idea of ‘slow, fast and spiky’ culture – how some elements of culture accrue attention over long periods of time whereas others rapidly synchronise attention in a short period of time before it quickly moves on. At the recent Google Firestarters he took this further into how we now need to design in a different way, for new attention patterns, new behaviours and for circulation rather than distribution. Ideas and stories have always been distributed (through mass media), but they are now circulated between people, which compels planners to plan for shareability and what Matt called ‘transgression’. The key dynamic here is how to optimise both short-term campaigning and long-term platforms, make them work seamlessly together, and ensure that short-term is always bringing value back to always-on (and that could mean eyeballs, interaction, participation, content, followers, data capture).

Part of that is about how a series of smaller ideas can over time become a ‘long idea” (Gareth Kay calls this “ideas as unfolding stories, a stream of iterations and interactions that invite people into the process”). A whole other part is about being able to identify spikes of attention and interaction quickly, and have the capability and resource to be able to amplify and capitalise on them. I think it’s fascinating that we’re starting to see specialist roles such as the real-time planning director start to emerge, whose job it is to use not only customer data, but patterns derived from near real-time search behaviours and social media conversation to derive insight and benefit in far faster, and more nimble ways.

This brings into sharp focus the question of planning cycles and resource allocation. As I’ve said before, we need to move on from the rigidity imposed by annual planning cycles and budget in far more agile ways to allow for more experimentation and optimisation. If how we budget doesn’t change, nothing will. A 70,20,10 model for resource allocation makes far more sense in the modern media world, and allows planners the elbow room they need to really do a great job for the client.

4. Content strategy and marketing

Suddenly everyone’s talking about content marketing. It’s not hard to see why – the shift towards content-hungry always-on platforms requires brands to use content in very different ways. If brands are becoming publishers then they need to act, think and plan like publishers. The opportunity here is for planners to work with clients to effectively combine the stock (the durable stuff) with the flow (the feed, “pieces of content, produced rapidly and at a low cost“) of content. There is lots of potential here to develop new areas of expertise and utilise/develop new tools and models around the three pillars of content curation.

5. Mobile, mobile, mobile

It feels slightly disingenuous for me to talk about mobile as a separate point as I believe the critical thing about mobile is to treat it as a device, not a channel. So the real opportunity is clearly in how to use the inherent characteristics and behaviours associated with it to augment existing ideas. Spend has obviously lagged consumer behaviour considerably, and continues to do so, but perhaps we’re finally starting to see the real shift happening. The opportunity gap that exists between the amount of time people spend on mobiles and the proportion of budgets allocated to it creates an opportunity gap for planners to incorporate mobile not only through existing channels such as search and display, but through compelling content, commerce and technology-driven ideas. The potential is huge. Second-screening and location-based services are just the start.

So there you have it. That’s ended up being somewhat more than 500 words (oops) but as I said at the start, whilst this is not an exhaustive list, it reflects the areas I think will matter. There is plenty more around how I see the role of agencies developing around data, technology, skills and culture in the Progression of Agency Value research and report I did earlier this year.

As always, I’m interested to also know what you think. But for now, here’s one final thought on this – what an amazing time it is to be a planner.

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