Dead or primed for rebirth? The state of communications planning in 2017

Whilst eulogies announcing the death of frameworks and processes are often premature, I can remember one area of the communications ecosystem that did unfortunately pass away. It was the stand alone communications planning entity.

Every week the advertising industry loves to pronounce the death of something.

Media planning is dead – says one expert. 

Planning is dead, says another. 

The traditional media agency is dead too (whatever that means).

Oh dear, the marketing plan has also died too. 

So many innocent constructs taken away from us.

The only thing that is realistically safe from the grim reaper of advertising obsolescence is, indeed, the pronouncement of things being dead.

Whilst eulogies announcing the death of frameworks and processes are often premature, I can remember one area of the communications ecosystem that did unfortunately pass away.

It was the stand alone communications planning entity.

When I first began in media in the early ’00s the ‘comms agency’ was a common and highly valued organisation. In Australia this was led by Naked (and driven primarily by Adam Ferrier, Mike Wilson, Mat Baxter, Ian Perrin) and Bellamy Hayden (driven by Phil Hayden and Simon Bellamy), with clients such as MLA, Coca Cola, GSK, ninemsn, Unilever all significantly leaning on these organisations to help connect with audiences.

Ferrier, Wilson and Baxter reunited at 2015’s Mumbrella Awards

The concept of an a communications planning specialist organisation was simple – they created campaigns and communications that would connect with audiences to allow their clients to deliver on their business goals. The largest part of this was a clear focus on the audience – their needs, their attitudes, their beliefs, their context – and working back from that. The audience would shape the platform, the platform would shape the tone, the tone would shape the channel and across all of this was a clear idea of the client goal.

Some call it strategy, but it’s not really that. If anything it was the bridge between strategy to execution – which is the main area where organisations face issues in creating value.

Throughout the ’00s this model grew in stature and capabilities and worked well with the more traditional, tonnage based media agencies. It agitated the industry somewhat, but it provided a wider level of thought in the industry around what communications and media could be and in doing so raised the capabilities of the people within, and raised the visibility of the area within client organisations.

Then a few things happened.

Photon Group, which had a stake in Bellamy Hayden from 2003, purchased Naked in 2008. In 2008 the media and advertising industry was probably the healthiest it had been in Australia for decades. Media spend was growing, agencies were growing and there was an appetite for growth and invention.

In 2009, Australia felt the brunt of the GFC. The first cut was media budgets. Media budgets went backward by over $1 billion as clients scrambled to find savings. Media was – and still is – an easy cut as it’s a simple one and can make a material impact to a P&L in the short term.

A consequence of this was a review of fees, and the consensus was that having a media buying agency and a media planning agency was a duplication in work and an efficiency lens would suggest consolidation of this into a single provider.

Media planning specific retainers and project dried up. These companies tried to diversify. Bellamy Hayden wanted to start buying media. Naked wanted to be a creative agency. Both sacrificed the independence and simplicity that made them appealing in the first place.

Mat Baxter left Naked in 2009. In 2010 Bellamy Hayden closed and merged into Naked. Naked continued to look for new avenues to grow but it ultimately became a more confused offering to the market externally, sitting somewhat uneasily between media and creative.

At this time the larger media buying agencies made a few more strategic hires and strategy became a more front and centre component of new business pitches. Media planning and buying became delivered by the one entity.

Which shouldn’t be an issue. But can be if an agent is also a retailer. The concept of the related entity was not such a burning topic 10 years ago.

My feeling is in 2017 there is no more opportune time for the original ethos and purpose of Naked and Bellamy Hayden to be revisited.

To develop agnostic communications ideas that have the audience at the centre, and are solely strategically and executionally aligned to the goals of the client organisation.

The beauty is, in 2017 the tools we now have across data, intel and platforms mean this can be done with greater precision, greater speed and with greater optimisation and iteration.

I was lucky enough to see Tom Goodwin at Reset on Tuesday and he spoke about how hard it is to create and deploy an advertiser message that is going to be noticed, let alone processed, by someone.

His comment was, and I paraphrase, there are friends’ wedding photos we have been too busy to see, Oscar-winning movies we haven’t watched… and we expect someone to watch a behind-the-scenes video of a behind-the-scenes video.

For that reason a better approach to communications planning is needed. A pure approach.

And despite many people’s disagreement, I am confident companies are more than willing to pay a fair price for this. There is primarily a high value in good thinking that translates to effectiveness, and secondly and there is a comfort and rigour around the independence this brings too.

As Andrew Reeves (now at The Royals, formerly of Naked) said in a post in LinkedIn – “media planning is back, baby.”

Ben Shepherd is a director at PwC.


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