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Planners will usher in new types of marketing agencies

Leland Maschmeyer is account planner at McKinney. He is a winner of the Miami Ad School’s “Pick of the Litter” distinction and the AAAA Jay Chiat Account Planning Gold Award for Audi’s “Art of the Heist,” as well as MIXX and Effie awards for Oasys Mobile’s Pherotones campaign. Many of you might know him from his blog “Whistle Through Your Comb”, where you can find a lot of great material on planning and other interesting thoughts.

We always ask ourselves what is it that a planner does or should do, but what should a planner never do?

Good question. Planners should never be complacent. They could always be smarter, more informed, more interesting, more weird. The strategy could always be better. The work could always be better. The presentation could always be shorter. More entertaining. Better designed. Their blog could always be more interesting. The brief more pithy. The briefing more inspiring. Once a planner becomes complacent they fail to question. They fail to push. They fail to search out. They fail to inspire. They fail to innovate. Comfort breeds mediocrity and “uninterestingness.” A feeling of complacency is an early warning sign that the quality of your work is about to wane.

I think that things are really changing. Even the planning job is getting more and more specialized (ap, cp, ip). Where do you think planning is heading?

More planners will break away from ad agencies to start their own agencies. But don’t think they’ll start yet another ad agency. Planners will usher in new types of marketing agencies with innovative structures, philosophies, processes and outputs. Zeus Jones (a “Service Marketing” philosophy), the Paragraph Project (an “urban planning” approach) and OIA (a “Ronin Planning” philosophy) are a few examples. Here are a several reasons why will happen on an even larger scale in the near future:

1. Planning is bigger than advertising. Always has been. This is why you see large companies – i.e. Coke, Nike – and small companies – i.e. Method – pulling planners in house and design agencies – i.e. Brian Collin’s Brand Innovation Group – pulling them in as well.
2. The planning community is overflowing with great ideas and thinking that deal with many issues marketers and ad agencies face today.
3. A new generation of planner is emerging that is tired of just thinking. This new crop wants to do.
4. Unfortunately, ads agencies are set up where planners think and creatives do. As much as the industry bangs on about creative not being a department, it is.
5. Because many of the solutions/ideas planners bring to the table have nothing to do with advertising, they fall of deaf ears or are put on the back burner.

Agencies are built to execute ads. No matter how much they bang on about being solution neutral, they aren’t. They make money off of ads. So they only care about ads. Non-ad solutions are treated as ornaments to the “more important” ad campaign. In the end, many planners feel constricted because they find their thinking incompatible with the ad agencies they work for. Pressure is building. Eventually the plannersphere’s membrane will burst.

You wrote several posts on your blog about the most interesting thoughts from the last two years of plannersphere discussion. What do you think is the most powerful or most revolutionary idea that emerged in the plannersphere?

Failure. Our industry is built to generate hits. But we don’t. We can’t. Failure – in any area of life – is more prevalent and certain than success. Unfortunately, we haven’t built our agency business models to deal with this inescapable fact of life. We operate like we are immune to it. So we waste time with excessive and often unnecessary research, copy testing and arguments over whether this or that will work. In the end, none of it matters. What matters is doing. We need to be doing more. On another note, the failure to accept failure and build business models that absorb it forces clients and agencies to gravitate ideas and efforts toward what has worked before. This minimizes innovation and increases repetition. Unfortunately, this is a false sense of security. Replication doesn’t guarantee success as the conditions for the previously successful campaign were different that current ones.
If we had business models that accounted for the frequency of failure, maybe people would spend more time innovating and less time C.Y.A. (Covering Your Ass). It’s not a far off idea either. There is a lot to learn from entrepreneurial greenhouses like Y Combinator, Curious Office Partners, Obvious, Tech Stars and Hit Forge who incubate and execute lots of little ideas. Each idea starts out with a small bit of financing, is executed and, once it proves itself in the market, receives more financing/support. There is no better test for success than the market. This means that all the time and money wasted worrying about and researching whether a new idea will succeed is unnecessary; you simply try it out. This offers up an interesting paradox: the agencies who thrive in the future will be those who do not just outsucceed other agencies but outfail them as well. They will grow not in spite of failure but because of it. I’m not the person to do this. I’m not smart enough. But I hope some smart person figures out how to design an agency model built not around “the one big idea” but “the many small ideas.”

This might sound weird, but do you think a blind planner could in some cases do a better job?

That is a weird question, but I get the spirit of it. What you’re asking is, “Is a planner who takes in information about the world differently from most people, a better planner?” It may make him a more interesting planner as the things he notices and the way he interprets them may be unique, but interestingness is only a third of what constitutes a good planner. There are also two other talents planners must have to be “good:”

1. They need to have skill in articulating the abstract. As much as some planners like to claim planning is about numbers and calculation, our discipline is no more scientific than the creatives’ job. We interpret the world in new ways. So we have to find ways to capture that often intuitive, abstract, personal interpretation in a form other people can understand and act on. Easier said than done, of course.

2. They need to be good salesmen. Planners must take their slant on the world package it and sell people on it. Getting people to believe in your idea is one of the hardest things to do in all of planning because all it is an interpretation. Like a belly button, everyone has one, but you, as a planner, have to prove that your view is right the one for the situation. You can be the most interesting person in the world, but until you make people believe in the power of your idea, they will never fall inline behind your strategies and you will never be all that effective as a planner. Craftsmanship and salesmanship are just as – if not sometimes more – important as interestingness.

What’s the most common expression that marketers or advertising people use that you hate the most?

I actually wrote a post about this a while back. These vapid meaningless words bandied about meetings truly frustrated me to no end. They are like cotton candy: at first you think you can chew on it, but once you try, you find there is little substance behind it. “Marketing-ese” words are red flags: they tend to be crutches for people who have no clue what they are doing or talking about. If you press the person to clarify what they mean, they end up talking in circles or out of both sides of their mouth. So to pick one that drives me the most nuts is tough. I guess it’d be a toss up between “Luxurious” and “Conversation.” As in, “We need to let consumers know how luxurious our product is” and “It’s about creating conversations with the consumer.” Those words are so overplayed and misused they’re meaning has been diluted. They sound good, but ultimately worthless is aligning people around understanding, objective and action.

What do you think is the book that everyone in advertising should read, that is not actually about advertising. And why?

Great question. There are just so many. But forced to pick, I would say Story by Robert McKee. It’s a book about writing screenplays. More importantly, it deconstructs a story to tell you what makes great stories and how to build them. I’ve used that book as a resource more times than I can count. If you can tell a good story, you are not only more interesting, but you become a better craftsman and a better salesman. It should be required reading for all planners.

Russell Davies

I have a lot of respect for junior planners

John Robson

To be or not to be media neutral

Great planners are extremely intuitive people

Adding value through planning