What modern marketers can learn from JWT’s long lost 1974 strategic planning bible

While most modern marketers prefer to gaze into the future, Shane O’Leary reminds us that looking back in time is just as - if not more - important.

Many young marketers are entering our industry having never been taught the fundamentals or history of marketing. Their knowledge base is over-specialised around digital communication tactics.

Some see everything new and shiny as optimal, and everything that came before as the domain of luddites and, god forbid, old people! This has a knock on impact, particularly in agency land, where the average age is probably somewhere around the early 30s and many senior marketers get out before they hit 40.

Mark Ritson refers to this as the ‘tactification’ of marketing. He has argued at length that a sort of creeping anti-intellectualism (I’m looking at you, Mr Vaynerchuck) means “marketing seems to be devolving into a base tactical pursuit devoid of strategic thinking.”

This thought struck me after I recently saw a post from a renowned young marketer talking about how “marketing has fundamentally changed forever.” We do ourselves a disservice with comments like this. People have always had a ‘novelty bias’ and will be drawn towards newness, and sure, the tactics we use to communicate with people are incredibly different even from 24 months ago.

But there are also many, many things about marketing that haven’t changed in decades.

A few years ago I saw Irish advertising legend John Fanning speak. One of the things he said stuck with me. Modern adland looks forward too much and forgets to look backward. We ignore our history. While technology is changing what we do, that doesn’t make what’s gone before irrelevant. Brands have faced similar challenges for decades, but we ignore the learnings.

As the famous Churchill quote goes: “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

This is a topic that some of the smartest thinkers of our age have reminded us of.

Bill Bernbach spoke about the need for a communicator to be concerned with the ‘unchanging man‘.

Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett, two of the richest men in the world, consistently refer to the power of learnings the patterns of history because “when you find something that doesn’t change, you can step off the treadmill of keeping up and start to compound your knowledge.” This should sound familiar to modern marketers.

Jeff Bezos suggests that you should build a business strategy around the things you know are stable in time: “I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.”

It seems clear to me that we’re missing a chance to learn from marketing’s history.

But where should we be looking?

Stephen King, JWT Planning Guide, March 1974

I recently came across a great place to start. A guide to marketing written in 1974 that, incredibly, is just as fresh, vibrant and applicable in 2018.

Stephen King is the godfather of modern strategic planning, or ‘account planning’ as it was referred to then. This guide was created to help others in ’70s JWT understand the process of marketing and brand building. The document was typed out and photocopied, and has resurfaced in the last few years.

It’s eerily accurate and still incredibly applicable to the modern problems brands face.

Here are some examples:

1) “In any competitive market, people’s choice between brands normally depends on the total impression they have of each brand. There are many elements that can impact this and each brand has a blend of motivating and discriminating factors.”

A brand is not just what you tell people it is. It’s how it acts, interacts with customers and what other people think about it too. It’s the sum of a variety of factors that create a total impression. In a time of social media, customer experience and the importance of other people’s testimonials, this quote has never been more relevant.

2) “We know that most people in most markets have a short list of brands from which they normally choose and these short lists change over time.”

This quote reflects Byron Sharp’s concept that loyalty exists, just not in the all encompassing way we think. Rather people are loyal to a small number of similar brands. King goes on to essentially say that most brands are more similar than they are different, again a theory that Sharp and Ehernberg Bass have proven and popularised.

3) “If advertising is to be fully effective, it must contribute directly and indirectly.”

This is another learning that we seem to be forgetting in our attempt to make every communication rational, tactical and perfectly targeted. Brands are built by communicating en masse in wasteful, fame building, emotional, top of funnel ways and then by capitalising on this in an ‘activation’ led, direct manner. Binet & Field speak about the 60:40 rule of emotional:rational or brand building:sales activation, and here’s King saying pretty much the same thing. Modern marketers have become incessant masseurs of the lower funnel and need to remember the ‘indirect’ role for advertising.

4) “The reception of any communication depends… on the receiver’s relationship with the sender of the communication and the form in which it is sent.”

The medium is the message and the context of communication changes how we process it. After becoming slaves to the idea of programmatic ‘audience buying’ through digital display and forgetting that the context in which an ad is seen is vitally important, we’re slowly beginning to remember this in 2018. For too long, we’ve focused on cost rather than quality placement. As Faris says: “we judge brands, like people, by the company they keep.” Rory Sutherland is also very good on this topic, and the idea that certain media provides a public signal that personalised media cannot.

5) “It also makes it clear that the only way to plan advertising effectively is to have the closest possible co-operation between client and agency throughout the process.”

I’m sure when he wrote it King could never have envisaged that we’d have different agencies for every channel plus a media creative and PR split. With an ever mushrooming group of agencies, consultants, procurement and client bodies around the table, this quote has never been more important. To really bring a great big idea through the line, collaboration is critical. Consistency is a virtue and modern research has shown that advertising across platforms delivers a higher ROI and integrated campaigns build better brand associations and deliver more brand equity.

6) “The most important factor affecting basic media selection is the relationship of medium and creative treatment”

How many times in the last week have you been served a social ad with creative not tailored for the platform? Or a YouTube ad that’s basically a TV ad shoehorned into pre-roll? Or seen an outdoor ad that you can barely even read? Sure, production costs are prohibitive, but a close relationship between media and creative delivers the best rendition of a campaign. Media choice should be a slave to a big creative idea and has a huge role to play in effective communication. Just ask Stella Artois, TideBurger King or Superdrug.

These six examples are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more gems to be found hidden between the covers of this 37 page document. You’ll find yourself shocked at how readily it applies to modern marketing. King truly was a mind before his time.

So instead of reading that Techcrunch article or watching that YouTube video from a social guru, read this instead. Or go onto WARC and find a case study from the ’90s. Or go to Amazon and look up old marketing books that are still in print like this or this. Or search YouTube for old videos like this.

There really is a world of information out there that, once you dig under the surface, you’ll see applies to the modern world of marketing just as much as something written today.

In summary

As Kyle Seargent writes, bright and shiny can also be blinding.

History isn’t.

History conjures up patterns. History creates lessons. It makes sense to learn from the mistakes and triumphs of others.

Knowing your history benefits you in a competitive job market too. Relentlessly chasing down old books, case studies and talks will set you apart from the majority of your peers who only focus on the present. It will help you think differently than the masses. That’s hugely valuable.

Being obsessed with the future is fine, as long as you remember to be obsessed with learning from the past too. The secret to success in marketing is often just having a wide knowledge base to pull from that straddles disciplines and decades.

In another 44 years time I bet the sharpest marketers will still be learning from this incredible guide. There’s a lesson in that for all of us.

Thanks to Julian Cole for pointing me towards this brilliant document.

Shane O’Leary is a senior strategist based Dublin. To receive his irregular marketing and media newsletter, click here.


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