The last several years of tumult in the advertising industry have forced people from traditional advertising and emerging digital backgrounds to bump up against each other in interesting — usually acrimonious — ways. To hear it told, advertising people and digital people are like oil and water, and there are plenty of proud and sanctimonious people on each side upholding the worst stereotypes each has about the other.
When they do work together, the relationship is often marked by mutual distrust, disrespect, and — while few will admit it — even some resentful competitiveness.
This is to the detriment of the amazing things that can happen when we set aside our differences. To get there, however, both sides have to adapt.
Planners from traditional ad agencies tend to regard digital agencies as murky collections of "digital strategists" selling you the next big thing; the "IT crowd" — outsourced developers who make microsites — and self-important hipsters in love with tangential experiments. Meanwhile, to people working at digital agencies, the word "planner" is probably most closely associated with the word "bullshit." I have frequently heard my colleagues sincerely and somewhat exasperatedly ask, "But what do they actually do?"
My own transition from the world of traditional advertising agencies to the world of digital agencies has been an educational experience. After a couple years hammering things out, I have realized that our differences are because we are like Americans and British: We both speak the same language, but neither quite understands the other. But both sides share a love for bringing great ideas to life. When you can appropriately blend the best of planning with user experience and product strategy around this truth, the payoff is exhilarating and can add value to people’s lives and impact brands in ways far more powerful than a 30s TV spot ever could.
Strategic roles in digital agencies tend to be filled by people in user experience, product management and digital business strategy. All valid and important strategic functions that are essential for the creation, development and implementation of ideas digitally. But as digital has become the driving energy in the industry, the role of the planner has increasingly been compartmentalized. I would like to propose agencies seeking to thrive in digital-first world would do well to integrate planning more thoroughly, for one painfully simple reason:
Digital now defines brand. The experience of interacting with a company through digital touchpoints has become the first and primary definition of that company’s brand. And yet too many digital strategists consider the brand last — if at all — when planning and designing products. Many don’t even recognize that what they are making is marketing.
Without that recognition, the marriage of art and science that planners practice to ensure that what is created will acquire, convert and engage consumers and ultimately generate revenue for the business and brand is missing from the equation.
Digital strategists, then, should acknowledge the importance of this missing piece and welcome planners into the process. However, making this work requires planners to change (not always easy). Evolving and refining their traditional roles and deliverables and embracing new ones is essential to working in the intensely collaborative environments required for digital.
We also need to recognize that our target audience has moved from being a consumer, passively waiting to consume whatever we serve up, to being an active user who is going to decide whether to interact with what we create.
Furthermore, planners can no longer rely on traditional audience insight.
To deliver superior experiences and products, we must understand the beliefs, motivations and behaviors of users — which anchor the category and brand relationship — in the context of their expectations in a digital world.
We must expand how we build and define brands and ask, "What capability should this brand enable for the user in order to deliver on its promise?" and then work backwards to determine what needs to be said and done in order to promote it. And we must be able to do this within multiple media to plan and connect that idea across all channels.
The role of the planner today must include stimulating, identifying, translating and codifying ideas – not just handing them off. Jay Chiat once told me to "have a good idea or leave the room." That has not changed – we still live and die based on our ideas – but for many the hardest change to embrace will be that we must now be open to sharing this responsibility with other strategic thinkers.
*This article was originally published in Campaign magazine.