How to Be a Better Brand Planner

“Think like a CFO.”

That was my response when I was asked by Ben Malbon of BBH Labs during Tuesday’s Jay Chiat awards panel on innovation:

“How can planners raise the bar?” .

My response was directed at planners but I think it might be useful to anyone involved in brand building.

Many agencies talk a good game about striving to understand their client’s business.

But I often hear this question phrased as you have to think about “what’s keeping the CMO up at night?”

Well with all due respect to CMO’s, I don’t think it’s their beauty rest that counts the most.

I think a more relevant question, especially now, is “what’s keeping the CFO up?” Or perhaps the head of operations, or sales.

I didn’t always have this point of view.

When I was on the Agency side, I thought our primary focus should be on bringing the voice of the consumer to the table.

To, in a sense, rise above the commercial realities and restrictions and bring fresh, aspirational, dare I say “untainted” thinking to the table.

The ideas would have plenty time later in the process to be turned and twisted to fit the “real world” requirements.

What’s changed? Well, now I’m the client.

Now I am part of the team charged with not only blue skying, but actually implementing, these ideas.

And it’s really difficult.

And the sooner the “details” of operational viability are worked out, the better.

I will give you a purely hypothetical example to illustrate my point.

Imagine during a meeting on a creating a new hospitality experience an idea is brought to the table to include a concierge on every floor, thus offering guests a new level of attention.

Great idea. Distinctive and builds on the brand’s reputation for brilliant customer service.

Definitely rooted in a consumer insight about hotels feeling impersonal.

But here’s the problem, it’s totally ignorant of any operational reality.

This  idea has just added (maybe doubled) staff headcount. How is this cost offset?

Double the room rate? Perhaps but not very consistent with the brand’s focus on good value for money.

Reduce staff elsewhere?

Perhaps there is some accompanying innovative thinking that makes this possible.

But has it also been thought through and presented at the same time as the “floor concierge” was brought to the table?

Probably not.

Idea people (whether Agency or internal) will have more impact and credibility if they become better at thinking through the commercial implications of insights.

Agencies that can combine creative and operational thinking will be the most valued partners in the new economy.

Making this part of your training and process will reap many rewards.

You will earn more credibility with clients, they will treat you more like the valued partner you aspire to be and a great percentage of your ideas will get to market- instead of living solely as pretty pictures in a power point presentation.

I’m not saying that all planners need to get degrees in operations managment.

If you don’t have the right people on the team then bring in some collaborative expertise.

One of the upsides of the down economy is there are plenty of industry experts (in every industry) who are available for hire on project work.

Maybe your already doing this. If so,  good for you.

Perhaps focus on doing it more often, earlier, or with more rigor.

But from the reactions I saw last night at the panel discussion, I think there is still perhaps more room for “commercial creativity” in the innovation process.

I’ve come to the point of view that the difference between insight/ideas and real innovation is that the latter is defined by adding real value.

And who doesn’t want some of that?

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?
Are you consistently running ideas through the operations filter?

9 thoughts on “How to Be a Better Brand Planner

  1. Hi Julie

    What you’re saying here is a matter of approach.
    I think ad agencies can never know the client’s business as good as the client, therefore any attempt to think like the COO or CFO is doomed for failure.
    Plus, I think our job as strategic planners (and ad men in general) is to lead the client to change, and not try to think inside his box.

    Elad

  2. I like the concept of “commercial creativity” and I think many clients will too.
    Perhaps planners could add a simple “operations check list” to filter ideas as well as a “value added to customers” weighting. You could then go back to clients with some ideas that are dead easy to implement and some that require a rethink of how things are done but that will add incredible value to customers. This way you’d still stretch clients with your “out the box creativity” but they’ll feel comfortable that you understand some of the practical aspects of their business and they will be more likely to take your strategic advice.

    I remember a strategic planner recommended a phone delivery with custom wrapping for a little delight moment. They hadn’t thought through the warehouse and courier issues, cost issues nor had they realised that the customer is already delighted when they get a new phone so don’t need much else at that point. If they had gone through their check-list they would have quickly canned the idea and conjured something better…

  3. During another session at AdWeek, Maria Luisa Francoli Plaza from MPG observed that CFOs are becoming another important client counterpart with whom agencies must work.

    She also mentioned that while many other industries have been forced by the economy to adjust their structures and approaches, the agency world has been slow to change.

    Perhaps you’re starting a movement…

    So, any thoughts on agency comp?!

  4. Great post.

    I think Planners today should help clients make sure their innovative ideas come to life. Like you said partner with them. Fight for their ideas just like they fight for our campaign ideas.

    Feeding into your hypothetical of a concierge on every floor, could you not build a kiosk that had a live stream to one concierge who handled a greater number of floors?

    Many planners are not just tweaking ideas so they can be produced, they are actively finding vendors/partners that can do the work for the budget that the client can live with. Making it turn key for the client to see their idea live.

  5. I’m not currently running my ideas through the operation filter, but I think I should start!

    While coming up with BIG ideas is the fun part, it’s not so fun when they never see the light of day. I’d love to see more of our ideas come to life in the real world instead of living in presentations. I personally think I’d get more job satisfaction by seeing tangible results and knowing that my ideas are truly building brand value.

  6. Thanks for this post. I also had this feeling sometimes, when there’s some huge gape between the beauty of creative idea and the impossibility of implementation.. Agencies should try harder to turn realistics and stop believing they’re just great creative mind.

  7. I’ve always thought that it was the planner’s job to see around corners, to be the scout for the future, and to bring back ideas to inspire our clients to begin thinking now about how they could succeed in the future.

    The key to getting to the future does mean doing due diligence, and understanding what business the company is in, aspires to be in, and is capable of being in. This means having some understanding of the practicalities of the business. However, I do not think it is a planner’s job to figure out the details..there are many people for whom this is a core competency, and quite frankly, this doesn’t seem to be as rare a quality as imagination.

    I would suggest planners need to focus more on inspiration and innovation first and foremost, and then in dialogue with clients, figure out what the hurdles are and how to overcome them. Every successful new project I’ve worked on had 3-4 ‘death knocks’ before it went to market…these are wake up calls from the practicality police who perform an immensely valuable function on the way to market…canaries in coal mines, alerting others to hurdles ahead, but rarely do these people come up with ideas. They are gatekeepers. They are valuable. But they aren’t planners, and without planners getting out in front with ideas, we’d never have any clue as to where we’re going in the first place.

  8. This seems like a sure shot way of getting unremarkable ideas that wouldn’t even make the consumer blink forget looking at the brand twice. It precisely for this reason that brands today are undifferentiated commodities.

    The job of an idea is to inspire and if you are lucky enough to get an inspirational idea from the creative/ planning team then the onus is on the marketers to make it happen. Filtering ideas for feasibility will kill any chance of a really new and untested idea to break ground.

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