By Lisa Seward
Look around our industry today and you'relikely to hear one word thrown around a lot: planning. Like a magic elixir, planning - whether called connection, context, contact, or strategic planning - is touted as the key behind many a winning media effort.
Attend a media conference and sure enough, there's a panel of planners promoting consumer insight as a necessary ingredient in today's media work. (Well, not exactly. Each will boast of his or her own insight, no doubt the result of his particular agency's highly differentiated and trademarked Secret Consumer Insight Development Process.) Read about the latest victorious pitch and chances are, the winning team of media executives will chalk it up, at least in part, to the deep consumer understanding derived from the agency's planning team.
Talking about planning, I'm not referring to communications planning, or the practice of considering and using all communications channels instead of the traditional paid media forms - but to connection planning.
Connection planning has taken the media industry by storm, not unlike what its predecessor, account planning, did among creative agencies decades ago. Planning's promise of instant wisdom, a seat at the strategic table, and of course big ancillary fees from clients have made even the most traditional media shops giddy.
Having led the development of the Fallon connection planning team in 1999, I can confirm just how huge the wave has grown in only the past two years. Fallon connection planners have gone from being extremely lonely and misunderstood, to being overwhelmed with brotherhood - but still misunderstood.
When we conceived of connection planning, the goal was to make campaigns work harder. It was obvious that traditional, impressions-based media planning was increasingly ineffective and would (or should) soon be obsolete. Equally clear was the threat posed to creative - even good creative - in the age of heightened consumer choice and control. We established a new discipline that would integrate media considerations early in the creative development process and at the same time, ground media thinking firmly in the consumer's reality instead of decades-old media conventions.
The means to the end was "consumer insight," yet the end goal was not the insight itself, but rather more effective media efforts that connected with consumers at a much deeper level.
Somewhere along the way, though, as the connection planning bandwagon became crowded, the core reason for its existence was lost. To hear many practitioners tell it today, it's more about differentiating themselves on a request for proposal, than about creating better plans.
We have to ask ourselves (and more importantly, clients should be asking their agencies) where all of this insight is leading us. Are we generating noticeably better, or even different, media plans using our deep understanding of consumers? And if not, what's the value of all this insight development in the first place?
As a judge of a recent media awards competition, I gave the industry a B-minus for its application of planning insights to media plans and buys. Having reviewed entries across multiple awards categories, I was amazed by the casual use of "strategic insight" and "values connection" that revealed no payoff of an actual action taken based on the findings. In many cases, the insight was clever or surprising enough, but there simply was no follow-through in the media plan.
I can't help but think if that's the best of our work, what do plans look like that aren't entered into competitions? Far too many of our "best" plans and buys look astonishingly traditional at a time when consumer media habits are anything but.
So, to all the agencies touting connection planning these days (by whatever name they want to slap on it), and especially to the clients paying those agencies for the service: Please, for the sake of making us all better and more effective, remember to ask the simple question - To what end?
Lisa Seward is the media director at Fallon, Minneapolis. (email@example.com)