It's Time to Put Communications Planning Back on Agencies' To-Do List

Why All Agencies -- Media, Creative and Digital -- Still Need to Rethink the Way They Mix Media

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Anthony Young
Antony Young
Late last year a report landed that made for uncomfortable reading at big agencies, warning that just a third of top CMOs felt their ad agencies were helping them make the right trade-offs between digital and traditional media. The solution? Marketers should "reconsider their range of agency options" and "look beyond traditional-advertising agencies."

Not that digital agencies were safe. The report told marketers that they risked wasting millions of marketing dollars if someone couldn't help them integrate digital campaigns effectively.

If you haven't read this report -- "The CMO's Imperative: Tackling New Digital Realities," from Boston Consulting Group -- get a copy fast. Boston Consulting Group doesn't really have a stake in this beyond providing solid intelligence. Very senior clients listen to the group, moreover, so we should too.

Glee on Hulu Plus. On an iPad.
Glee on Hulu Plus. On an iPad.
The report suggests companies should integrate their strategies better, using what they know about their consumers' habits to choose the right mix of traditional and digital media. Marketers should jettison old marketing-mix models that don't fully integrate all channels effectively. Standard agency incentive models should be structured to support seamless collaboration.

We've heard this from clients for years, of course, but what seems clear is that only a handful of marketers believe we've listened and even fewer believe we've responded.

Clearly changes are needed, but I believe the solution is within ourselves, and that's encouraging. Here are three of my recommendations:

  • Agencies need to work harder in developing 'T-shaped' people. T-shaped people combine a depth of knowledge in one marketing discipline with a breadth of understanding in the wider spectrum of disciplines. They know how each discipline can be blended with others to deliver one integrated campaign. Ideal blends of skill sets include creative people who have an appreciation of media, digital executives who have an understanding of how branding works, and media people who are conversant in direct response. There's no place for tired preconceptions and complacencies in a participative world. People have to have confidence in new media. They need to learn the necessary new skills. Yes, this requires training, but more important, it demands a shift in how we organize our agency teams to build these skills and collaborative cultures.

  • We need to re-establish and re-invent communications planning as a core function. Over the past three years, communications planning took a back step in the recession. Strained agency P&L's and clients looking to trim both fees and headcount meant that communications planning strategy was downsized. We saw this both in the creative agencies and the media agencies. I'd argue that the digital agencies need to embrace this discipline further if they are to establish credibility beyond their own channel expertise. Communications planning is right where the industry was with account planning 30 years ago. Can anyone imagine today developing creative work without account planning?

    Before this decade is out, my belief is that development of a client's integrated marketing communication programs simply won't happen without a clear brand media strategy. Communications planning needs to go much further than where it is today, going beyond dealing with only paid media to plans that also integrate owned and earned media. Planners will also need to better integrate analytics to make this discipline more accountable and rigorous.

  • Embed communications planning into the agency's campaign development process. Just having a communications planner on the team is not the answer. What I've seen is that unless communications planning's role is built into the agency team DNA and development process, it will fail.

    The agency world today is still so very execution focused. We have traditionally made our money from execution: producing television commercials and print ads; building websites; developing social-media programs; and planning and implementing media buys. We are too quick to jump in with proposals for clients to buy. But the Boston Consulting Group calls into question agencies' ability to help clients get the strategy and to credibly propose the right investment mix. For communications planning to succeed it is critical to have a clear set of deliverables. The process of communications planning intervenes, informing the creative and the digital development processes.

Agencies are still some distance from cracking this model. I admit that we aren't there yet at my agency.

To succeed we need to evolve this in partnership transparently with our clients. If we claim it's done before it really is, we will lose both our credibility and our clients' patience. Then the predictions of Boston Consulting Group will be proven right. Let's not let that happen.

Antony Young is the CEO of Optimedia US, a Publicis Groupe media strategy and buying agency headquartered in New York. He recently published his second book, "Brand Media Strategy: Integrated Communications Planning in a Digital Era," a Palgrave-MacMillan and Advertising Age publication.
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