5 Strategic Planning Wars
and 5 Tips to Win Them

How to survive the “Tower of Babel Syndrome” in advertising agencies

Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel

by Antonio Nunez*

BRAND PLANNERS. User Experience Planners. Shopper Planners. Digital Planners. Social media planners. Content Planners. Channel Planners. You-name-it planners. Many big agencies´ strategic departments are said to resemble a scary Tower of Babel: flooded with data, confronted by hyper-specialized jargon and unable to create unifying brand metrics. They are criticized for working at turtle pace and for being fragmented by narrow discipline-oriented points of view.

Many creative teams complain about having to pay the toll in this situation. They are forced to spend more time trying to find an overarching theme for campaigns, which means less time to craft their storytelling productions. Many marketers too. They are left to build their brands relying almost solely on brand personality and tone of voice consistency. Their brands can’t generate true meaningful conversations, relying on a collection of key visuals or on superficial anecdotes to influence consumers’ perceptions or behaviors. Those brands end-up lacking purpose and a distinctive point of view.

This Tower of Babel Syndrome is not a new thing. Different planning disciplines have always been at war. However, this “war” should not be viewed as a bad thing, it has been the necessary evil that has helped agencies confront the challenges of each communication era.

Creatives vs Researchers

The in-house researcher era: Agencies hired research practitioners tasked with infusing creativity with the rigor of public opinion research. And so, the tensions between art and science, between images and numbers and between creatives and pollsters were born. Kellogg’s cereal brand advertising, for example, as a result of the tensions of this era.

Researches vs Creative Planners

But then some pollsters became not only efficacy controllers but also a source of inspiration. The second chapter of the strategic planning evolution was the conflict between research practitioners and creative planners. The first having strong statistical and analytical skills, the latter armed with storytelling capabilities and intuition to find the intersection between insights and creative ideas. The planning role was not only about proving the ads to be efficient anymore; it was also about inspiring the creative teams. An agency’s goal became converting the right data into actionable insights. Nike brand advertising could be an example of the conflicts of this era.

Brand Planners vs Digital planners

The digital revolution created a third type of holly grail for the planning community: the “digital-first” strategy. Traditional “brand planners” and the then called “digital planners” were meant to work together in harmony. The ideal way to marry the traditional “Push” culture of brand planners with the emerging “Pull” culture of digital planners. The resulting team needed to integrate “old” and “new” abilities: On one side, synthesis, single-minded messaging and perception analysis capabilities and on the other side, consumer behavior analysis, content creation and friction-less information architecture creation capabilities. The dream was to create grounded real-time brand storytelling through brand experiences. Apple communications could be an example of this chapter´s conflict.

Storytelling Planners vs Experience Planners

Consumer’s mantra nowadays seems to be “stop telling me stories and give me an amazing free app”. For brands to stay relevant they are required to be meaningful and entertaining and also to offer useful products and services that provide an added value. Planning teams need to merge their abilities to create pervasive storytelling with the ability to design new products and come up with original business ideas. They also have to work closer to advertiser’s business models, not only to their marketing plans. An example of brand communication from this era could be Uber or Airbnb.

Planning teams vs the future

As for the future, I suspect that, not too far from today, agencies will need to curb the gap between storytelling and story-doing. In an era of generalized skepticism, brands will need to make their brand stories tangible. Planners will be asked to deliver against the old Roman Emperor’s adagio “panem et circenses” (bread and circus): Brand utility and entertaining, meaningful storytelling.

In order to roll with the times and the new conflicts that await us, strategic planning departments will need to learn how to:

-1. Focus on what we strategists share in common, instead of trying to exacerbate the full nuances of our different strategy disciplines.

-2. Find integrative metaphors and vocabulary to function as one team.

-3. Work more iteratively and not sequentially.

-4. Assume with humbleness that the one million metrics that used to calm clients (and agency leaders) cannot replace our intuition or the scary trial and error system.

-5. Embrace that strategy today is much less glamorous, it is about making infinite small tweaks and not about the romantic eureka moment of the Next Big Idea.

One thing I know for certain about the planning war is that Planners of all disciplines will need to embrace conflict and friction as part of our daily reality in order to finish the construction of the Tower, unlike what happened in Babel.

A former version of this article was published by WARC.com under the title “5 Tips on the future of Strategic Planning”.

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*About the author:

Antonio Nunez is an author, speaker and brand strategist specialized in Storytelling. For ideas and tips on storytelling and communication, you can join his free newsletter at antonionunez.com or follow his Twitter @AntonNunez

Communication Strategy Consultant, Author, and Storytelling Teacher at Domestika.com. More at antonionunez.com

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