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Consumers, Context and a future for Communications Planning By James Caig, London, 2010

INTRODUCTION Flux defines our era of communications. Technological innovation accelerates with each year, and is often driven by consumer demand. It’s not only critical for marketing professionals to keep up. We have to address the many questions posed by such intensive change. Are agencies designed to help clients meet the demands of the next five years, or the next ten? How should they be remunerated? How many agencies, exactly, does a brand need? And what should their roles be? The media agency, in particular, is under threat. It suffers from a commoditised marketplace and a relative lack of influence with clients - compared with more ‘creative’ agencies. Despite this, I want to argue that the future of marketing could still belong to Communications Planning. The paradigm shift in media consumption has created new and complicated

communications challenges. At heart, though, people’s internal and external motivations for their behaviour remain pretty constant. Communications Planning, the home of genuine consumer insight, should be valued more than ever. What has undoubtedly changed is the need to match this insight with a more nimble and more flexible approach to marketing campaigns. If it is to seize this major opportunity, the discipline of Communications Planning needs to change. It will only secure the influence it deserves with clients if it risks innovation in its own right. If Communications Planning agencies can change the way they engage with clients, they can be the ones leading brands into the communications future.


Are media and content converging or diverging? As consumers of media we demand more content across more platforms, but expect devices that support them to aggregate everything for us. As industry ‘experts’, we observe trends and shifts, but evaluating their trajectory has become incredibly difficult. Knowing how to respond to them is almost impossible. As the interests of content providers, consumers and advertisers occasionally coalesce, so they are equally likely to pull in opposing directions. It is these contradictions that in particular characterise the change we see around us. If we want to understand how Communications Planning might change, it’s critical to get closer to these changes, and what they mean for consumers.


A (chat)room of one’s own?

Media can atomise communities, or create them. The teenager in the bedroom is as likely to be interacting with someone in another timezone via (for example) Skype, World of Warcraft or Facebook, as he is with his family downstairs watching TV. The capacity to create communities of interest around ever more niche areas has never been more accessible, or more scalable – the long tail dynamic of an inexhaustible supply and demand projected beyond the world of commerce. And yet, we risk a social world polarised by limits to access of the virtual one. For those already excluded, further automation and depersonalisation of social transactions could exacerbate the problem. In short, is the web social, or anti-social? Of course, in some cases the choice has been superseded anyway. The X Factor, far from being killed off by media fragmentation and real-time social networking, has in fact been reinvigorated by it. I know someone who won’t watch it unless their favourite TV critic is tweeting at the same time, as it’s like having a friend next to you on the sofa.


The shock of the old

Technology is changing people’s behaviour, but the motivation behind that behaviour may not be so new. Online communities allow a new kind of sharing economy that hasn’t been possible, or desired, since the days before capitalism. This idea isn’t even new itself. One of Marshall Mcluhan’s Four Laws of Media, the rule of Retrieval, stated the unlocking of a previously latent opportunity as a condition of media innovation. Less clear is the extent to which users, given limitless freedom and access to new ideas and information, will actively seek out those new ideas. On one hand, it’s never been easier to wander off the beaten track for that hard-to-find book, film or CD. On the other, Google’s algorithm-induced trend of customisation points to the way to a very likely world where we have ‘designed out’ novelty, and we all have information served to us based on what we’ve previously seen. We also shouldn’t conflate technological advance with a human desire to change. DVD rental didn’t die with the advent of Video on Demand. In fact, LoveFilm worked out the real problem with being a Blockbuster customer wasn’t the DVD format, but the inconvenience of having to rent and return them in person.

We need to look for the behaviour, not the technology.


Behaviour precedes attitude, not the other way around

Product usage is the most effective form of brandbuilding. Ask anyone who ‘loves’ a brand why they do, and it’ll be down to their experience with the product or service. But most marketing objectives are premised on quite the opposite: build brands to change minds and drive action. Even as ideas from Behavioural Economics provided the empirical argument for focusing on behaviour not attitude, the advertising industry is already retreating to the tried and trusted to articulate brand positioning. Hovis, with its two minute TV ad, won the IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix in 2010, for goodness’ sake. The best marketing channels, those that fit the entry-level definition of ‘identifying and meeting customer needs’, such as Retail, Telemarketing or Customer Service, effect behaviour as a lever to shift attitudes. They are also frequently the channels that also receive the least funding or attention. The main problem, of course, is the industry’s obsession with tracking people’s attitudes. Despite the reverence for Millward Brown data, these

measures remain merely indicators of interim perceptions of advertising. They are, frankly, bugger all to do with how people feel about a product or service, and a million miles from telling you anything about how and why people use it at all. But, in cases of good marketing, we see an intriguing blurring of the lines between product, service and advertising. Campaigns on the whole are becoming more participative, which provides an extra layer of interaction between brand and consumer – should the consumer want such a thing, of course. The real solution is, of course, to market something tangible and differentiating about your product, that people actually want. Sadly, many brands still resort to generic or clichéd claims. In 2010, convention required brands to promise ‘value’, which became the currency across a number of categories, and therefore increasingly meaningless. Value, de-valued.

So, the new world is a paradoxical one. But what do Communications Planning agencies do about it? The answer is, I think, buried somewhere amidst all these contradictions. After all, the opposing forces we’ve identified are, at heart, a range of new behaviours from a huge amount of people. More accurately, the answer is buried somewhere in all the assumptions we continue to hold as marketing professionals dazzled by new technologies and new ideas. Quite simply, not everyone is as besotted with this stuff as we are. And even if they are, they’re not as self-conscious about it as we suppose them to be. Even if we consider those for whom this new stuff comes naturally, that doesn’t mean that they’re all alike. The answer is, as it always was, to do with people, and the context in which they decide to do what they do.

Chapter Two


Context. It really was ever thus. In one rather dispiriting sense, the questions asked of marketing by these developments are nothing new. Understanding what people want, and why they want it, has been ostensibly part of marketing’s DNA since it was invented. In another sense, the democratic digital revolution of the last few years changes everything for the marketing industry. The confluence of data, convenience and connectivity we see now might just represent the moment the industry has to finally fulfil its promise to buyers and consumers. Marketing can ‘identify a need’ pretty well these days. But it never really cracked ‘meet that need’. At least, not in a way that couldn’t be shown to be really in the interests of the shareholder, as opposed to the customer. The reason ‘value’ feels like a platitude is because brands’ only real commitment to value for users is that which guarantees customers will reciprocate that value. Return on investment, they call it.

Which would be fine, were it not that brand loyalty works in pretty much the same way – merely applied in the opposite direction. Paradox City tells us it’s never been more important to understand the context of a consumer’s decisions and motivations for their behaviour, but the good news is it’s never been easier for organisations to identify and use contextual insight. The data, behaviour and interaction might just make it possible to reinvent marketing in a way that truly benefits consumers, and drives loyalty for brands and organisations in the process. This isn’t about technology, being connected, or the promise of value. It‘s about what the technology, connectivity, value message actually amount to. It’s about UTILITY, in terms of convenience, product efficacy, or expertise. The internet means it’s never been easier, and more important, to stop selling what we want, and to start helping people with what they want.

WHY MIGHT COMMUNICATIONS PLANNING OWN THE FUTURE? Another section, another paradox, I’m afraid. Communications Planning agencies have always been best placed to understand context. And yet they are probably the most threatened discipline in the current climate. Communications Planning is the natural home of consumer insight. Advertising agencies are brilliant at articulating what a brand represents, consciously framing in consumers’ minds how it behaves; digital agencies have become owners of brands’ virtual shop windows, 0ptimising the design and functionality of the most prevalent form of interface brands have with their customers. But Communications Planning has always provided the ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ to the other agencies’ ‘what’.

And really, what these other Ws (and an H) add up to, is ‘why’. Agencies that create brand content are manifesting a top-down, brand-centric point of view on the world. It’s been incumbent on media and communications planning agencies, and will continue to be, to ask why the consumer might care about this point of view.

Brand Content

Consumer Context

Agencies whose expertise is in making things, or producing content, will always be valued by advertisers – for two key reasons.


Scarcity Their specialism will always seem sufficiently beyond the reach of clients for them to assume they could do it. (There are a few exceptions, of course).


Relevance This expertise is also finely honed to appeal to the way clients think right now.

In short, advertising agencies add value and give their customers what they want. Communications Planning, meanwhile, enjoys neither of these luxuries. Brand owners (marketers, media managers, etc) often feel they could, with a little more product knowledge, do their media agency’s job. Worse, as media agencies attempt to diversify their services, the quicker clients are catching up and taking those skillsets in house

– from SEO and paid search, to social media and community management. More fundamentally, Communications Planning doesn’t offer easy solutions. The discipline asks clients to think beyond their four walls and deal with the world, and its people, outside. It asks brand owners to grapple with some of the contradictory trends of Paradox City. It asks businesses to cede control to customers in ways they’re simply not ready to do. It’s easy to imagine why, when faced with this onslaught, brand owners find solace in areas where they can assert control – over an approved message, over creative execution, over a media plan and campaign outputs. Is this the fault of clients, or agencies? I would argue that Communications Planning agencies need to employ some of the insight skills I’ve venerated here when assessing their own client’s motivations and desires. It might start with the client, but if the agency doesn’t change its behaviour when fully aware of the consequences, they only have themselves to blame.

This cannot happen any longer. What used to be merely the role of Communications Planning agencies is now a fully-fledged responsibility. They need to re-assert the importance of context in the decisions that individuals make, and demonstrate the knife-edge impact context has on a brand’s relevance. And they need to understand how hard it will be for a client to change. I believe Communications Planning can prove its value to a client base fixated on using media to drive margins rather than loyalty But I don’t think agencies can achieve this in their current form. They need to change. In the final section, I want to outline some ways in which I think this might happen.

Chapter Three


Start making stuff

Producing content isn’t about encroaching on the turf of agencies that already do this. But it is absolutely necessary if communications planning agencies want to sell their insights as effectively as they do their media buying.

Making things turns the abstract into something tangible, turns an idea into a campaign. Connecting the consumer insight more explicitly to the execution makes it easier to protect against the forces of non-marketers within the client organisation, and prevents agencies looking like they’re too smart for their own good.

Define your proposition Communications Planning could learn from account planning here. What is your product? What do you want different clients to think, feel and do as a result of interacting with the product? Is that prolonged string of diversified services starting to look like a shopping list? What exactly is it you’re trying to achieve? This sounds harsh, but I’d be surprised if many agencies find the time to do this in any meaningful way, at least in a way that would be relevant to its clients. Some design thinking here wouldn’t go amiss here, either, to regain control over how the agency is perceived by those that come into contact with it.

Reject interim metrics A discipline obsessed with context should publicly look down its nose at attitudinal tracking. Such data is advertising-focused, and entirely unrelated to behaviour in the real world. Briefs that include such data as evidence or targets should be rejected until they contain desired behavioural or business outcomes.

I believe we need new contextual metrics, and that agencies should be developing new measurement frameworks to illustrate what is required (see #1). One form of this might be measurement purely around participation, as opposed to awareness: perhaps mobile or location-based, centred around in-store interactions, or monitored and aggregated across digital destinations – whatever the form, the approach and the recommendations should be communicated to the client.

Real-time planning

It’s no good simply talking about this, it needs to be done. Whether you have license to or not, make a habit of monitoring and reporting weekly on campaign performance, and highlighting opportunities for a campaign to move in a different direction. Data is Communication Planning’s greatest weapon of the next few years, it needs to be used. Search data, buzz monitoring, interaction measures, facebook likes – all used currently either to inform post-campaign measurement, or for optimisation within the individual channel. We need to establish was of inter-channel optimisation in real time.

Everything’s a channel What actually constitutes content is going to become even more fluid, and the outlets available for content distribution are going to be increasingly numerous. Brands will be looking for advice on how to navigate this new terrain in a more integrated way than they currently do. The opportunity is for communications planning agencies to provide the overview - the ‘why’ that precipitates the ‘what’. Agencies should become literate with stuff of Content Management Systems, with what’s happening in mobile, in the retail space, with social connectivity – and be making recommendations across the piece. It should be the job of communications planning agencies to remind clients that nothing exists in isolation, not the other way around. The aim should be to solve problems, not raise them.

Smart resourcing

Back to the design thinking in #2. Arguably, no one client should be resourced the same way. From a planning perspective, I’d like to see agencies getting braver with the skillsets that are placed at the hub of the account. If everything’s a channel, and nothing occurs in isolation, why wouldn’t we want to have a team that consists of at the very least some combination of communications planner, data analyst, programmer, creative.

Skillsets, not departments

It’s tempting, when something like social media comes along, to recruit practitioners who sit separately within an agency set-up as the function beds in. For a new practice to truly be ‘at the heart’, though, it needs to be diffused throughout the agency, not segregated off and practised only by individuals who don’t get enough access to clients’ business to know how best to apply their skills.

Advocate automated buying

Counter-intuitive, I know. Media agencies already compete with their own clients in SEO, PPC and certain aspects of social media. Google and Facebook already take advertising on a bid basis, and the convergence of TV and the internet means a similar system for TV sales houses can’t be far away. My guess is that this will happen anyway, so why try to prevent the inevitable? Instead get stuck in to helping clients with the transition. It will at least avoid clients adopting the new process behind the agency’s back, and should assist in migrating the perception of the agency to something more consultative, and more valuable.

Empathy over experience

You don’t have to have loved, or even experienced, a client’s product to be able to plan effectively for them. But you do need to be able to intuit how people who do, or who have, really feel about it. Empathy is where it’s at for planning. That’s the real quality for a client-facing planner – not media knowledge. Agencies should look for different perspectives, and potential recruits, from tangential disciplines where consideration of the perception of others is paramount. One UK advertising agency has recruited a specialist in data visualisation, for example – purely to better communicate to clients, and each other. So, how about a bit of that for Communications Planning? Or game design, maybe, or project management?

Test ideas. Properly.

There’s no doubting the rigour agencies apply to the early stages of the communications planning process. But rigour applied to creativity is arguably more difficult than it is applied to data and insight. Here there are lessons to be learned from the advertising and digital agencies, which have learned how to thoroughly think through an idea before it goes before a client. This brings us back full circle to the idea of making stuff. If you recommend a game, design and build the game – or at least demonstrate the process that will be required. The time that communications planning ideas could rely on powerpoint and a line on a plan is gone. Agencies need to realise that and adapt – before clients themselves notice the shortfall.

In summary The world is changing. But people are still largely the same – and understanding the context of people’s decisions remains central to the Communications Planning opportunity. Agencies can help clients to finally fulfil the potential of marketing, and provide real utility for their consumers. The paradigm shift in media technology is the trigger for advertisers themselves to change. To achieve this, Communications Planning agencies require greater influence with clients, and will need to overhaul the way they engage with clients. This will require some innovative thinking around structure, servicing, and skills – to lead their clients by example, not rhetoric.

Thank you for reading.

The author

James Caig Communications Planner at MEC, London. Email:

Blog: See What Happens, at

Consumers, Context, and a future for Communications Planning  

A discussion of how changes in media and technology are impacting on marketing and agencies, and how Communications Planning should change i...

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