Our agency is looking for a planner and on Facebook, I got asked why? And what do they do, really? And what role could they be playing at a digital agency? So, instead of writing a long answer in a closed group on Facebook, I decided to put it on Tumblr and then here.

Having worked with ad agency creatives before, let me tell you, they are just this wonderful and entirely different breed of people. All of us must be creative and creativity comes in many different shapes and forms, but ad agency creatives are pushing it to the next level in comparison to other marketing professionals.

However, what I’ve learnt from these ad agency creatives is that the creative process isn’t something that just happens. Heck, some big international agencies might develop 200 ideas and concepts before choosing just one to present to the client.

[pullquote] Some ad agency creatives might consider themselves lucky if they can see two of their ideas going through to the clients every six months. This is large-scale for sure and not the reality for all creatives of course, but you get the idea. Being creative at a professional level is a skill that takes time and focus.[/pullquote]

A creative must love creativity and aspire to be highly creative. If you allow creatives to roam free, chances are that they will benchmark against creativity and not business goal fulfillment. It’s not unheard of having top-class creatives going for Cannes Lions and not selling product as their top priority.

So, here’s where the planner comes in. Someone needs to focus on business objectives and the real consumers. Basically make sure to get into everyone’s heads, including the creatives. Is this function a necessity, you might ask? From what I hear from clients, planners are highly appreciated.

So appreciated in fact that you want your planner to do what he or she does best all the time, and not making sure meetings are set up, that agendas and meeting protocols are followed up on, that the production process are running smoothly, that everyone’s hours adds up by the scope of work as outlined in the proposal.

(This is probably the main reason the planner isn’t the same person as the project leader. Or the production leader, for that matter.)

Now, as you can see, the hours divided on different functions quickly add up. A creative team often consisting of at least a copywriter and an art director, a planner, a production leader and a project leader. And maybe also an account manager on top of that, a person who brought the client in and whose sole responsibility is to make sure that the clients’ needs are being met.

Sounds expensive? Gosh, mind you that we haven’t even touched upon the matter of actually producing ads or commercial and then paying hard cash for media placement. With all that money on the line, the creative output must be effective, so paying for the planners’ efforts in all of this has made sense for big ad buyers.

My background is in PR and I’m a huge advocate of it. Simply put:

  • PR is “earned” exposure instead of “bought”, which forces PR professionals to always think from the outside in and not the other way around.
  • In PR, you don’t get people’s attention by screaming puns at them as loud as you can or by being something to laugh at.

This is basically why planners have been superfluous in the world of PR so far. Understanding the gap between the perceptions of the sender and the recipients and bridging those relationships are the core competency of any skilled PR professional. One could say that PR don’t need planners, because PR professionals are planners.

Now, that last part is unfortunately not entirely true…

I might be a huge advocate of PR for several reasons, but I must be frank and admit that as far as PR agencies goes, well, the creative process just isn’t anywhere near the ad creatives’. This is not because PR doesn’t aspire to be highly creative, but the creative process need far bigger budgets than the industry is used to.

PR agencies has always been lurking in the shadows of the great big ad agencies. Except maybe when a crisis occur and the PR team takes precedence over all corporate messaging, but that is usually a very temporary state. But afterwards it’s back to having ad agencies dictating the messaging and the PR agencies to try to get people talking about the advertised messages.

But this, however exciting (or not) this is, is history now.

Because, enter the digital evolution. It’s a revolution in social. A revolution in logistics, how messages can travel freely across borders and target demographics. A revolution in the way that creating platforms and arenas for two-way communications is ten-fold cheaper than buying ad space.

For a long time, I thought that PR would have the upper hand in all of this. PR is all about recommendations, earned publicity, unbiased reviews, influencer relations, unpaid activation and listening to communities. And this is where the ad agencies suddenly got very weak, especially considering their expensive setups and the fact that print media quickly went out of style.

But it turns out I didn’t see the whole picture.

I’m still very saddened that the PR industry was to stuck in old structures to be willing to change. Because what PR needed to do right then and there at that precise intersection, was to start incorporate more sturdy creative processes as well as to learn how to produce other content than text.

And here’s where the ad agencies still have an upper hand of sorts. They have great creatives and they have great experience when it comes to complex project management and content production management. And of course, planning.

As it turned out, planning became even more important for the creative process than ever before. Because with bought media, you could always forget about the consumers and your messaging would still end up on the billboards and in the magazines.

But the fact of the matter remains because still to this day, neither the ad agencies nor the PR agencies has caught up. They’re still struggling to keep up, but struggling with completely different things. But their most difficult and fundamental choice still lies ahead of them:

  • Should the ad agency let go of having paid placement as their core and instead focus on earning their way in the digital space?
  • Should the PR agency let go of having mass media publicity as their core and instead focus on earning their way in the digital space?

If they keep their focus, they will need to scale their businesses down. If they choose to go for digital, they will no longer be ad- or PR agencies, they will be digital agencies at their core. So, either they stick with what they know and adapt to market demand, or they decide to change the way they do business at their core which will include a new body of knowledge, a new set of roles and a brand new (and shiny!) toolbox.

Personally, even though I have a background in PR, have decided that the latter sounds way more interesting. I truly respect the marketing mix, but the sheer volume of user-generated behavior data to be harvested in the digital space alone, makes me confident about a credo that I’ve been talking about for some time now—digital first.

In this attempt to establish a new body of knowledge and a new set of roles for an emerging marketing discipline, I’ve learnt that I must pick the best parts from different industries. Working with former PR professionals has several advantages, especially when it comes to business strategy and outreach tactics. But there’s a gap between digital creatives and digital PR strategists still, mainly because PR historically has been weaker on the creative side.

So, what I want to do is to take great planners from great ad agencies and combine their strengths with great PR strategists. Because planners understand the creative process better than PR strategists. Their joint assets would make up for what I want from a pure digital strategist. We must be able to be agile and create powerful activation strategies without having to deploy armies of consultants.

[pullquote] In the near future, I don’t see a need to separate digital strategists from digital planners.[/pullquote]

And I won’t stop there. When it comes to online activation, I want to combine PR skills and creative content creation skills into community managers and influencer outreach specialists and pair them with top-notch ad creatives. For development, I want to acquire web- and mobile agency talent and combine it with ad agency production management skills and melt it into one function only.

And as for online intelligence, I want to merge management agencies’ understanding and appreciation of bottom line business intelligence, with crisis communications skills and big data management and analytics.

This is no small undertaking, but I’m in this for the long haul. I want this to be a lucrative venture because that means it’s healthy, but in essence, my ambition is rather to be a pioneer in shaping an increasingly important field of marketing and communications.

  • This will require proof of concept, so that’s why I and a bunch of colleagues are creating Whispr Group as a pure digital agency.
  • This will require education of tomorrow’s professionals, so that’s why I try to stay close educational institutions such as Berghs School of Communication and Hyper Island.
  • This will require advocates standing up for these types of ideas, so that’s why I’m still keeping my blogs up and running.

And finally, this will require awesome individuals. And this is why I’m recruiting and why I’m right now are looking for a kickass planner! Do you believe in what we believe in? Then come help us build this thing.