So what is planning and strategy now we’re all digital?

9 Dec

There seems to be a lot of debate going on about the role and value of planning and strategy within agencies.

Planners and strategists sometimes like to ask why and reframe questions multiple times, but if we’re to avoid risking the old recursive logic loop/analysis paralysis/navel-gaving problem, I think in this case it may be good to question what we’re really debating?

I don’t think it is just the role of planning.

From the Redscout and PSFK content stream to comment pieces like this, these debates actually seem to me to point to being about more than planning.

I think they’re about the role of agencies in a digital world, a world where one day there won’t be “digital” agencies or departments, just agencies that produce great ideas with a digital DNA.

It is in this context that I’ve been exploring the idea that agencies need to help brands to function as both enabler (of services, content, utility, entertainment) and filter (of noise, relevance, need) for people in order to have a role beyond passive loyalty. Brands not only need a position within a market/category but must also have a clear point of view their role in the world and as a contributer to the culture of their purchasers. This way agencies can evolve to help our clients to solve business problems in a culturally and practically positive way.

Strategy and Planning is in the ideal position to lead this process.

Planning and strategy needs to be more about doing. It needs to be involved in collaborative agile scrums with creatives or technologists to help shape the structure and effectiveness of a response, not just had over a brief.

Insight generation seems to be built all too frequently around the barriers to communication but it could be more about potential benefits, understanding, utility and cultural opportunities if strategic planning were to spread upstream in the process and even get involved in client NPD.

But spreading influence up and downstream should not mean diluting deeper analysis and thought to become a Jack of all trades.

It is vital that the deep dive, research methodology of good strategic planning and insight generation is maintained.

We can do this by exploring the culture and narrative around the challenge we are exploring and building a robust understanding of people in terms of their actions (What they do), the social context (Who they do the action with) and motivation (What they think or feel).

By definition insight occurs when people recognise relationships or make associations between objects and actions that can help them solve new problems. Insight generation is about recognising relationships that are already there or that can be created when two disparate facts/conditions come together. It is similar to the way the famous Telegraph cartoonist Matt described his art as, “putting two unconnected news stories together” to come up with something entertaining that makes you think about both the stories in new ways.

In this context strategy and planning is a creative act.

So instead of working alone, perhaps planners could adopt the partnership or team structure used in creative departments to combine different skillsets or areas of expertise (data/financial modeling paired with behavioural & technology insight)?

Admittedly some of this may sound like the protestations of a reformed sinner – having returned* to strategy/planning about a year and a half ago after 9 years as a hybrid creative and digital strategist I still have my little creative strops – but I think it is the external perspective on what planners do that is important.

We need to be the most effective people in the room, not the most intelligent.

So why is there a picture of Space Invaders at the top of this post? Because it is a great image (from a T-Shirt on Threadless, go and beg them to reprint more!) and because I think it is a great metaphor for planning and strategy – creating unexpected value by looking at the world from a deeper and different angle.


* Thanks to Trevor Wright the Planning Director at IMC who took me on many moons ago as a fresh faced, mop-topped grad, and gave me a position as a “Strategic Planner and New Media Manager” (big title with a small but gratefully accepted paycheck) before kicking me off to the creative/tech department after a couple of years when he realised that the agency “could plan anything but it wouldn’t matter if you can’t deliver it”. You can find him at Westminster Business School these days and I definitely recommend it.

14 Responses to “So what is planning and strategy now we’re all digital?”

  1. Paul December 9, 2009 at 4:06 pm #

    I don’t think its necessarily about digital departments ‘not existing’ in the future; its just more about clients needing to see how conventional marketing needs to be encompassing and unified on all platforms and not just channeled into one.

    Check out this neat little animation explaining the concept of integrated marketing at

  2. Aaron Savage December 9, 2009 at 10:25 pm #

    The biggest shift that needs to happen is to move away from a broadcast model where ‘the idea’ was king and move to a model where the customer is the central figure and a ourney is planned together as part of an overall joined up digital marketing strategy as a whole solution to clients.

    We have had digital marketing around now for nearly fifteen years (I count 95 as the birth of the industry and it was also the year I entered it as well). Since that time various boutiques have grown up as markets peaked and dived, so we have web design, email and eCRM, Social Media, Display advertising, Search etc. All of these are fine as tactical solutions but that isn’t what clients are asking for. Clients are asking for someone to come along and start with a bunch of people who have never heard of Brand X and create a journey using digital media (all of it) that moves them along to first purchase, regular purchase, retention and referral. That requirement is for a magent, not a megaphone.

    Social Media is a part of that, but it is only a part and it is a tactical part not a strategic part. The strategy is to win more customers, or retain more customers, or win more referrals, or increase customer spend and regularity of purchase.

    We launched our digital marketing agency with this very aim in mind a year ago and at the time I used to look out at blank faces as I tried to explain why clients needed a complete solution and not just a ‘web guy’, but as the year has gone on more and more people now look back at me with understanding and agreement on their face, so I am definitely hoping that this is the year that digital finally grows up and stops being led by fads.

  3. Anjali Ramachandran December 10, 2009 at 12:42 pm #

    Hi David,

    A few good thoughts floating around this post. For me, the key ones are how planning needs to be more about doing – shifting the role of the planner from pre-idea to a complete circle that only ends with the finished product – and even then it may not end, because we need to generate ideas to continue the audience’s engagement with the product/brand.

    The other thing I think is important and very much a part of our roles as planners now: is “recognising relationships that are already there or that can be created when two disparate facts/conditions come together”, as you say. It’s the most fun aspect of what I do, and something I notice isn’t easy to find in too many people. Making those connections is important, it’s the way we can help a client distinguish themselves from others due to our unique contribution. The connections I make between two distinct things is likely to be very different from the connections someone else makes, and so the ultimate product may be quite different depending on which planner works on the project. So yes, maintaining “the deep dive, research methodology of good strategic planning and insight generation” as you say is important.

    I don’t think we should worry about the definition of strategy and planning: each person’s definition is likely to be different depending on what kind of planning they do (research/insight, consumer, connections, engagement, propagation etc etc). The ultimate aim is that we are the ideas people – and the role of an ideas person never ends really. As a human being, I still make connections between random things I see when I walk around – it doesn’t necessarily relate to what my day job is. The idea could be digital, or it may not. Its a reflection of the way we as a society are evolving that it is often digital.

  4. jreckseidler December 10, 2009 at 9:55 pm #

    Today’s marketing problems are solved by people who possess “what if” mindsets and business acumen. If that is your creative team, cool. If that is your planner, so be it. But get someone in there who isn’t simply creatively talented.

    Because a killer design doesn’t open bank accounts, sell more milkshakes, etc.

    Its been my experience that digital shops, before they became too “Web site / online ad” focused, approached clients with an open, free of pre-determined solution, mindset. They usually approach a client engagement with strategy, user experience and architecture folks who didn’t see a web site, they saw a solution to a business problem.

    And for that a planner’s role in the new normal should be to ensure that a tactic isn’t considered unless it accomplishes the objective of the client. Instead of hearing, or even briefing “I need a TV spot” it should be “the client needs to sell 300,000 more shoes this quarter. and then be part of the solution team to figure out how that could happen.

    Some agencies have become high-level consellers, joining the ranks of the McKinsey’s and Accentures of the world. And those shops, like BBH Labs, Farenehit 212 and Naked, even Interbrand, are all planning and strategy driven firms, who open the world to all sorts of possibilities.

    • davidjcarr December 10, 2009 at 11:21 pm #

      True Jeff,

      Back when I was a Creative Director I used to say that the best interactive creatives were the ones that could instinctively answer a brief but then ask “wouldn’t it be fun if?”.

      People that ask “what if” and have a playful feel for “things that are good enough to share”, they seem to produce the best work – as long as it delivers against a real business (not necessarily a comms) need.

      People like this are hard to find as individuals, they’re even harder to find as whole agencies.

      These days I think that this should really be the collaborative DNA of an agency, and especially the strategy department who can hopefully see the challenge from the widest perspective across the silos. This is how we can add true value and get access to the top decision-markers who influence the direction of client organisations.

      Then we can help create real change and results.

  5. eskimon December 12, 2009 at 7:25 am #

    Thanks for this David, and for sharing your comments over on eskimon too.

    I fully support your emphasis on doing – it’s clear that planning needs to adopt the mantra of less talk, more action.

    However, the one challenge I’d make – and it echoes a point that Anjali makes in her comments above – is that we need to stop thinking in terms of ‘digital’, or any other channel silo for that matter.

    Channels exist purely in the world of advertising. They confine our thinking to a ‘media menu’ that restricts our ability to connect with the people we want to engage and influence (more on that here).

    Instead, we need to begin all our planning in the world of our audiences, and make sure that our subsequent ideas stay true to that world. Non-advertising people don’t delineate their world into what they do on- or offline – to them, it’s all just part of their life – and we need to see things that way too.

    If we want to connect with people, we need to engage them on their terms: speak their language, do things they can understand quickly and easily, and wherever possible, show them that we’re on their side. Our greatest opportunity is to find out where the things we want to share with people are most relevant, and then decide how to share them in that context. If that means developing an entirely new ‘medium’, then we need to be open to that. TV, press, digital etc. are simply means to an end, and they’re not the only choices we have.

    In a similar way, I think another key challenge for planning is to align itself more closely with creative teams and their processes. As you so rightly point out, our ideas mean nothing unless they actually come to life, and even though planning plays a vital role in making brand communications more effective, we’ve got to communicate better with our internal audiences first if we want to see those ideas have any impact. Our contribution to those creative teams should be focused on offering them new opportunities to bring their ideas to life too – through new connection points and new contexts.

    I think your closing comments capture the essence of that beautifully:

    “We need to be the most effective people in the room, not the most intelligent.”

    • davidjcarr December 14, 2009 at 4:50 pm #

      Thanks Eskimon,

      I totally agree with what you and Anjali say about thinking in terms of digital or channels. I probably should have made it more clear but I’m definitely arguing for a non-silo approach where digital isn’t a separate channel, it is just part of what we do (if it needs to be).

      I’ve been doing some trends work for 2010 recently and arguing that it’s not social media any more, it’s certainly not new media (!) any more, and it isn’t even digital any more. It’s just ideas, experiences, engagement and conversations.

      Real people don’t know what “media” really is or the granular differences between online and offline media, user generated or publisher content.

      Almost one in three Britons listen to the radio online, according to Rajar, if you ask them what they’re doing they’ll just say “listening to the radio”, just like all those “timeshifting online video watchers” will say “Err, I’m watching TV” as they use BBC iPlayer.

      People don’t care what your platform is, whether it is online or offline, Facebook or Ning, open-source or proprietory, they just care what it does and how well it does it.

      It’s not digital to them, it’s just life.

  6. Rohn Jay Miller December 12, 2009 at 6:52 pm #

    Totally agree. I meeting with clients and agencies now pushing the point that communication is now a central functional component of products and services, and that the most important marketing strategy is the product strategy.

    I wrote this week on this, in a post called “I’ve got a new job…and so do you:”

    I was working for an “interactive agency” that now wants to become more of a “marketing agency.” I disagree, and quit this week.

    It’s time to find the first companies–Amerprise, Autodesk and others are starting the journey–and get to work.

    Thanks for the great piece, I’ll quote and credit liberally–RJM

  7. Caleb August 18, 2010 at 1:20 am #


    here’s my quick take. it seems that a lot of agencies find themselves in a state of analysis paralysis, or simply old fashion indecision. information reduces uncertainty but often does not extinguish it. a balance between thinking and doing will always be necessary, whether as an individual or as a large organization. this is true for brands trying to be situationally/culturally relevant. perhaps realizing time as a constraint, a design material, will help planners strategically decide between thinking and doing. clearly, both need to happen.


  8. Yahya Hassan February 12, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

    The truth of the matter is that there are certain people who function only to study formulated equations and complex sciences, others exist for the sole purpose of manual labour and physical implementation either crafted or otherwise. No matter how many equations you can solve if you cannot translate raw material into real working models and recognise key flaws in current models then no amount of manual labour will produce success. Strategists are highly unrecognised and are the missing link between the theory and practice. In a world driven by university qualifications and societal expectations the true strategist often finds himself lost and unrecognised for his epic ability. I believe that no amount of education can equip a person for the role of a strategist. The instinctive qualities and expertise of a strategist is something that is either present or absent in a person and not something that can necessarily acquired through years of study. In fact any true strategist can in fact analyse complex processes and systems in a matter of minutes and solve huge problems in very short time frames. A strategist does exactly what his title says he does, ‘He forms strategy’ wherever he is placed he will find it difficult to resist improving that which he sees marginal room for improvement. Often regarded as a bigot a strategist is willing to take risks whilst not able to commit to the same level as those whose role demands closure. He is an idea machine and only when someone with great experience and wisdom utilises his ability does his sheer brilliance come to light. The issue is not about a drawing, a project or a campaign but moreover it is a pattern of thought, you either are naturally creative and brilliantly innovative or you are not. Unlike most other experts, the strategist’s disregard for stubborn and old fashioned powers that be can stem from his own inability to see decisions made that are wrong. I myself cannot boast the great depth of knowledge that many of my more academic friends can nor can I claim to be a workhorse steadily carrying on with my work, satisfied that I have a job that pays the bills regardless of how outright uninteresting it is. Strategists everywhere however can boast with gratitude and confidence that they are the very thread by which the boring and dysfunctional fabric of society is woven into a perfectly designed tapestry. The thought that goes into every successful project whether in the early stage of formulating concepts or in the later stages of implementation strategy is all fundamentally reliant on the skills and abilities of strategists. Thinking outside of the box is indeed our trademark stamp.


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