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John Robson

To be or not to be media neutral

John Robson is one of the founding partners of the London-based agency Sparkler. Having an extensive planning experience, John Robson began his career at Abbott Mead Vickers and was then a founding member of St. Luke’s. This was followed several years at Lowe Howard-Spink where he ended up a board director managing & developing Tesco’s advertising strategy. As Sparkler people call themselves “media brand experts” and John kindly agreed to answer our questions, here it is, a discussion on (media-neutral) planning.

I always like to start simple. What do you think is the main job of a strategic planner in an advertising agency?

To provide a strong, straightforward & pure strategic brand perspective, in the midst of all the executional and political vagaries that necessarily circulate in an ad agency.

How does Sparkler use planning? Is there something different?

Sparkler is a planning organisation. That’s all it does. That’s the only way it makes money. Because it is free from the constraints of being tied to single marcomms creative channel such as advertising or DM, then it can ‘plan’ any form of creative media content – be that a TV programme, a radio show, a 48$, or a retailer’s loyalty magazine. Planning simply becomes developing consumer & brand insight on the one hand, and helping to translate that into some kind of branded content on the other. Facilitating the creative process en route.

You’ve been a planner for more than ten years. You’ve dealt with a lot of problems and you must have solved many in a planning context. Is planning more useful in bringing research data into the making of advertising or in adding value and inspiring creative teams?

In the commercial context of working in an ad agency then I believe it must be the latter – that is why Clients have come to your door. However, in the commercial context of a media-neutral consultancy such as Sparkler it’s the former – that is why Clients come to Sparkler’s door.

I know that planners have their own view about how advertising works. The question might sound either too complex or too stupid, but how do you think that advertising works?

If you’ve got something motivating and differentiating to say about your product, then just say it, don’t worry too much about creativity – it’ll just get in the way of communication. If you haven’t got something motivating and differentiating to say than pour in bucketloads of creativity, cos you’ll need it to cut-through. An ad with a proposition of ‘Free diamonds will be given away at 11am tomorrow at the local jewellers’ doesn’t need any creativity to turn it into powerful advertising!

There are a lot of ‘how to’ tips and a lot of trainings on ‘how to brief creatives’. Most planners already know most of them. What do you think the Ideal creative brief should always include?

What is the role for advertising in this comms channel ? In an age where the number of available comms & marketing channels is multiplying, then identifying precisely what the role for advertising is will become even more important than it is now.

Today, one of the hottest topics in planning is ‘media neutral planning’. In a few words, for those who don’t know about it, what does it refer to and how does it relate to the planner’s job?

I’ve heard lots of different definitions over the last few years. At Sparkler our view is simple – media neutral planning is finding the ideal solution for a Client’s problem regardless of media channel. I also heard another agency define it as ‘tactic neutral’ planning. Ie why even assume that some kind of marcomms is the answer? Maybe even spending nothing, and saying nothing is sometimes the best solution to the Client’s problem. I really like this re-definition when I heard it – I can’t remember which agency it was.

In Romania, not many agencies have strategic planning departments yet. Some agencies have never heard of it and some have heard, but don’t really understand its role. Those who do understand are using client service people to do the planner’s job. Of course, there are a few agencies that do have planning departments. What argument do you think that might help to convince agency managers to adopt strategic planning?

Without embracing strategic planning as an integral part of a comms agency, then the provision of creative comms is likely to become increasingly commoditised. Future scenarios could include creative teams bought in very cheaply either directly by the Client, via media owners, or via media buying & planning agencies who will get further and further upstream. Another scenario could be that ad agencies are simply made redundant by a combination of new consumer technology & independent TV production companies whose IP-based business models are far more attractive than the traditional agency commission or retainer models. It seems to me that televisually-based creative agencies are under more threat than print or promotionally-based agencies such as DM or Design. The promotion of strategic planning units within agencies or marketing services groups would seem to be important to defend the agency position in the marketplace. The more senior & media-neutral that unit is then the more flexible, cost-effective and client-focussed it is too.

If you were to choose a single book and recommend it to a planner, what would that book be?

I’d suggest referring back to older classics rather than modern coffee-table pleasers. So… anything by Ries & Trout, Exploring Hyperspace – A non-Mathematical Explanation of Multivariate Analysis (Mick Alt), The Gift – Mauss.

In the end, do you have any advice for young strategic planners in Romania?

Apply your planning skills to working out where you believe the world of media and marketing will be in 5/10/20 years time. Then work out the best way to pursue your career in the light of that. That might be a scary process – but think how exciting it could be if you are in fact right: or how annoying it’d be if you had worked it out but didn’t actually do anything about it. Someone else is sure to.

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