Groping For Answers

-By Antony Young
Communications planning is a bit like early teen sex. A lot of curiosity, plenty of talk and possibly some experimentation, but rarely is it being practiced as regularly as it is being bragged about.

At best, communications planning is being offered up as an added value proposition by the major media agencies rather than being central to the agency’s offering. Yet there are strong signals that a shift is taking place that could have significant implications as to how agencies organize and structure their approach to their clients’ businesses.

Simply put, communications planning is a more strategic way of determining key media choices and connection strategies. It is about moving away from the science of delivering messages to audiences and toward the art of understanding how consumers receive and respond to communication. The starting point is the consumer, not the media channel or discipline. When practiced at its best, communications planning not only influences where a marketer’s creative will run, but also informs the creative, strategic and activation processes as well.

Fifteen years ago, there were fewer media channels, and marketers seemed prepared to accept that half of their advertising wasn’t working, because the other half was supporting a growing business base. Now, with the pressure on corporate earnings, companies are being forced to improve marketing’s productivity.

Communications planning is also increasingly becoming more important due to the impact of the Internet, both in terms of viable channels by which to talk to consumers and its ability to affect purchasing behavior and facilitate brand interaction. According to a survey by Netpop|U.S., four of the top six sources used for influencing purchase decisions are found online, with “browsing in retail stores” only slightly edging out search engines as the most important influencer.

Marketers are quickly feeling it’s uncomfortable to manage their mass advertising media channels separately from other specialist communication channel disciplines, in particular digital, but also in-store, sponsorship, marketing PR and trade efforts. Determining how those channels are integrated into the marketing communication effort is a core role of communications planning.

While U.S. marketers may not be asking for communications planning services by name yet, they’re increasingly asking their agencies for solutions to marketing problems that communications planning is uniquely suited to address. We are seeing a growing number of marketers putting a greater emphasis on strategy over execution. Strategy is about coming up with ways to not just make a brand relevant, but also to differentiate from its competition.

Communications planning has many facets, but it is first and foremost about setting a strategy that defines how you communicate your brand in ways that differ significantly from your competitors. For this reason alone, it could become the most important tool a CMO needs—and that an agency can offer. If you have the same strategy as a rival brand that’s spending more than you, you’ll find yourself lost in the clutter of sameness, a condition few marketers can afford in these challenging economic times.

Communications planning in the U.S. has often been packaged as media planning plus. It is rarely at the center of an agency’s proposition as most media agencies’ profits are derived from media buying. That is clearly an outdated model. There is also a need to change the mentality of agencies. Too often agencies (no matter which type) want to own the idea or lead the strategy. Profit centers and egos have inhibited integration and need to give way to collective ownership and partnership.

We are at an important crossroads. The agencies that will succeed are those that embrace a more integrated approach to client problem solving, as well as the added responsibility—and potential rewards—that it entails.

(Adapted from an article that appeared in Mediaweek)

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About Brand Media Strategy
This site is a resource for communications planners, brand marketers and media professionals. Brand Media Strategy [published by Advertising Age, Palgrave MacMillan] explains how brands today are employing advertising and media communication strategies to grow and build their brands. It explores the value of advertising in mass media; activation of digital media programs; and employing non-paid or non-traditional media vehicles. It's author is Antony Young, President of Water Cooler Group. A brand media communications company. http://www.watercoolergroup.biz

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