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What Is Planning?

Posted on July 31, 2003 and read 7,769 times

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From the pages of BBDO Toronto’s FIRESTARTER the Borg offers Ihaveanidea some thoughts on Account Planning.

Many people ask what is planning? What do you guys do?

I recommend starting off by defining what you aren’t, so here goes.

Planning isn’t a process. It may use processes like Brand Pyramids but that doesn’t define it. Anyone can use processes.

Planning isn’t the voice of the consumer. Planners are advertising people dedicated to helping the client move forward their business. Understanding the consumer is critical to that but it isn’t what planning is.

Planning isn’t research, though like processes planning will use research. Planning isn’t even a way for Brits to get well paid cushy jobs in North American agencies (hang on, perhaps it is).

So what is it?

Planning is a way of thinking.

There was an ad in the UK for Denim aftershave (That dates me. Who uses aftershave nowadays?). It showed the close up of a hunky man’s body with a girl’s hand reaching across to undo the studs of his denim jacket. The voice said “Denim. For men who don’t have to try too hard”. It was quite famous. It appeared every Christmas in different guises for several years. And yet the brand gradually declined and died. The message was clear and highly relevant to the target – “use Denim and you will get girls”. The trouble was that wasn’t what people took out of the ad. People took away that Denim was for wimps who couldn’t get a girlfriend and were desperate enough to give Denim a go.

This is the key to planning to me – understanding the difference between what you say and what people take away. The difference between Stimulus and Response.

It sounds simple and obvious. Hey, it is simple and obvious. But the implications of how you do things is profound.

Aristotle (I always wanted to start a sentence with Aristotle) believed that the human mind was a blank slate, a tabula rasa, on which life wrote its experiences.

This seems to be the attitude of many advertisers. The consumer is a willing recipient of their messages. The important thing to know is whether they have got the message or not. However psychology has come a long way since Aristotle. Take the attached diagram for example. According to how you look at it, it can be a number 13 or a letter B. What matters is the context you bring to the stimulus.

There has been a similar change in the way psychology views communication. Up until the 1960s communication was seen as something that was done to a recipient.

However during the 60s that all changed. Experiments showed that people actively affected the message they received. They were active partners in the communication.

A particular case of this is Attribution Theory. This says that instead of being blank slates people are like simple scientists trying to make sense of the world. Take for example the case where an attractive girl (substitute guy, sheep, or Herbal Essence shampoo as is your wont) wanders over to you in a bar and asks for a light. What is your response? Unless you sensibilities are completely atrophied I would suggest you go beyond thinking her cigarette is unlit. You try to understand her motivation – is there more to it than needing a light? You try to guess what she thinks of you. You make judgements about her based on your values and expectations of normal behaviour.

The key is the difference between stimulus and response. Say the Captain of an aeroplane you are travelling on says “We have a problem with our engines. DON”T PANIC”. Your response is likely to be the opposite of the intended one. Sheer Panic.

Understanding this difference between stimulus and response is key to the planning mindset.

What does it mean?

It means a different approach to research. Who cares what the “Main Message” of an ad is if people’s response is very different? It calls on more subtle respondent centred research. It is no accident the use of qualitative research for ad testing mirrored the growth in planning.

Some quantitative companies have tried to get at stimulus/response issues and go beyond traditional measures. Research International for example uses Cognitive Response Analysis. Cognitive Response Analysis involves asking people to note all their responses to a piece of advertising. The emphasis here is on all. It could be a direct “That makes sense to me” to “I don’t like his hair” to “Did I remember to turn off the barbecue before I left”. Then people are asked whether each response was positive, negative or neutral. Cognitive Response Analysis was developed by the same psychologists who developed Attribution Theory as a way of measuring the likely impact of communications. They found the more positive responses the greater the attitude change.

Generally, most quantitative companies haven’t really got it yet. It was 10 years ago that the research world was shocked to find out that likeability was the biggest single factor in driving effectiveness, not impact or persuasion. Not really surprising if you regard communication as a two way process. If you like someone you are more willing to go along with what they have to say, less likely to find fault, more likely to respond positively, more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt.

It also means a different approach to writing briefs. It isn’t just about what you say. It is about understanding the consumer and how they might be expected to respond to that communication. What are the expectations and baggage they bring to the communication? This involves a lot of exploratory research early on to understand them and where they are coming from. At J Walter Thompson, one of the agencies to invent planning, they used to use something they called the T-Plan. This involved describing the target responses they wanted in sensual, rational and emotional terms.

With the Dodge SX 2.0 we conducted qualitative research into three potential advertising routes. One of the most interesting responses we got was to a spot called “Steamroller” where a steamroller runs into the Dodge SX 2.0 and it flips the steamroller martial arts style.

They related it to movies like Fight Club and The Matrix and understood it to be a humorous take on that genre. But they went further. They related particularly well to it because they didn’t think older people would get it.

A respondent said, “Older people will probably write in to complain that the steam roller would flatten the car. They don’t get it.” In other words the ad was referencing a whole series of cultural knowledge the young people had that they believed older people wouldn’t “get”.

There was a sense of shared values that excluded the older generation. That’s a lot of response to a simple little ad. It means more emphasis on the brands. Your response to the girl in the bar or the captain of the plane will be affected by your knowledge of them as people – how trustworthy are they; what do you know about their character? Do they often do things like this? Similarly the reputation of a brand will effect how people respond to communications from it. And, though this is often overlooked, the communications feed into people’s perceptions of the brands.

Thus with a quality print campaign designed to enhance perceptions of quality for Chrysler, one of the key elements was that the examples used were trivial. People are used to manufacturers claiming their quality has improved. They all remember Ford said Quality was Job #1. We felt that if we made big claims we would get a skeptical response. But as for small claims? They were small enough to be easily believed. The desired response was “if they care that much about that little detail then the big things are likely to be really good”. And the tone of the ads was the tone of a proud craftsman not a salesman.

Above all planning is about realizing consumers have minds of their own. As advertisers we send our babies out into the world. Once there they are out of our control. They take on lives of their own. Sometimes famous ads fail. Sometimes the worst ads become cults. Planning helps us give them the best chance.

And yes it is a great job.




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