One of the attendees of last week's Google Firestarters said (in his write up of the event) that Firestarters had become established on the strategy and planning scene as 'the place where the most informed debates happen', which I took as a big compliment as that's exactly what we've aimed at achieving over the past six years of events. And there was certainly plenty of good debate at last week's event, and provocation too (as evidenced by Amelia Torode's fantastic 'trainspotting moment' above - more on that later).
The context for this debate is a rapidly shifting agency environment involving changing agency operating, client engagement, and remuneration models. The IPA recently asked me to conduct research into the future of agencies (the output of which is a report that will be launched at Ad Week this week), which revealed both significant pressures and challenges but also an evolving landscape where opportunity comes from different ways of working in order to solve client problems, and distinctive approaches to talent, partnerships, resourcing, technology and the application of creativity. These are the challenges and opportunities that are shaping the context within which the strategist and planner of the future will operate, which raises interesting questions around skills, craft, processes and whether 'traditional' planning and strategy skills will shift or have actually never been more relevant.
Kicking us off, Dom Boyd (who, as Head of Strategy at adamandeveDDB and APG Chair, has a well informed perspective) talked a lot about the tensions that now define the role, captured in a series of nicely provocative statements. Everybody needs a strategy, said Dom, but nobody needs a strategist. Whilst the need for what planners do has never been greater, that doesn't automatically mean that clients need agency planners more than ever. In a changing world it is the ability to simplify amongst the noise, cut through to distill real truths, challenge where complacency reigns that defines great strategists. Dom's talk championed the power of instinct, creativity and clarity, and above all empathy ('If you're not into people, you have no future'...'the more digital we are the more human we need to be'). We're in danger, he said, of doing more and more 'what' at the expense of 'why'. Of fetishising context over content. More fundamental is the role in defining the 'brand OS' - the purpose and vision ('brand as idea'), how the brand solves customer needs and pain points ('brand as interface'), how it communicates and connects ('brand as publisher'). To be able to understand what the future could look like and work back to a meaningful path forwards. To ask the questions nobody else is. The future is the same as the past – but wired differently.
Next, Amelia Torode gave a real tour de force focusing on skills, needs, structures, and commerciality, all framed within the context of that wonderful slide at the top of this post. Her talk was upbeat and positive, pointing out the continuing need for strategists as sense-makers and meaning-makers which, in a confusing, complex, post-truth world is needed more than ever. Great planners should be the 'enemy of beautiful wallpaper', culture spam and brand noise (what happens when you don't have good strategy).
Yet too often, she said, strategic skill sets aren’t housed in the right organizational structure to allow them to flourish. We need to be far more flexible with how talent works with clients - moving away from 'who's the planner on this?' to the idea of 'strategy crews' - combining the right combination of strategic skills that can get the client to where they need to be ('strategist tinder'). When waves of change are continual, strategy is your surfboard.
The idea of combining different strategic skillsets in useful ways was echoed by Steve Gladdis, Joint CSO at MediaCom, who gave a brilliant perspective through the context of five key challenges facing planning and planners. The good news is that clients are asking for more strategist time, but the context is one in which technology, and increasingly AI and algorithms, will increasingly impact what planners do and how they do it. Data is bringing new capabilities to planning (end-to-end systems, dashboards) based on actual rather than claimed behaviour, helping planners to get to the answers to traditional questions quicker. But no machine is yet able to answer questions like 'is that a good insight?', or 'is that a clear and compelling story'. So clients will increasingly demand that insights from big data sets be combined with insight from observing or talking to people ('small data'), and the intuition and experience of the planner themselves.
Data strategists are increasingly useful, but their skills need to be combined with those that can understand the application and potential of data, and the creativity that can bring that value to life. The danger, he said, is that as we craft ever more individualised experiences we lose cultural impact or unity. We'll need to work harder to define those ownable moments or territories, to balance broad advertising reach with highly-targeted activation, to understand the points at which the costs of personalisation outweigh the benefits, to evaluate the important bets (which might not be advertising). Increasingly, he said, different combinations of more specialist planning skills will be brought together in powerful ways for client benefit, in a kind of 'parthenon' approach to planning:
It was a fascinating debate and one, I think, that could not be more timely. My thanks as always to our fantastic speakers, to Google for hosting, and to Scriberia for visualising the talks so brilliantly.