Can Planners Save the Universe?

There has always been tension between those who plan and those who buy; and I am in no doubt that the tension survives whatever titular changes have occurred over recent years.

From old-style press buyers intimidating planners who dared to challenge their desire to shift spend from hand-picked-carefully-selected-context-rich publication A to agency-deal-driven-great-entertainment-giving publication B, right through to one trading director of my acquaintance more recently informing his planning counterpart that ‘you guys may win the business but we make the money’ the relationship has not always run smoothly.

Now there is more than a little evidence that 40 years of buyer supremacy is coming to an end.

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the future of media agencies lies in the hands of the planners.

Buyers are ‘hot’ people. They’re loved by their holding company bosses because they deliver a simple thing in a world full of jargon and complexity; and that simple thing is cash.

Which sounds better to a holding company CEO under pressure to deliver to the financial market every quarter?

  1. I’ve screwed these suppliers into the ground and ensured an additional X million in bottom-line revenue
  2. We are investing in the latest thinking that will help build my client’s brand over the next five years

Planners are ‘cool’, analytical people. They write articles to support the agency’s intellectual credentials; they consider every angle; they make carefully reasoned choices. They put their client first.

For 40 years media agencies have focussed internally on buying whilst publicly talking about planning. The reality is that too often buys drive plans; not the other way around.

And now the buying community faces twin problems.

Problem one. Clients are on to them. Agency deals, rebates, kick-backs, AVB’s, surcommissions, rappels, super rappels, dark pools, all of these are under investigation and are having a light shone on them.

Problem two. Automation. Unlike planning, which requires an understanding of and integration with other marketing service suppliers, the buying process can very largely be automated.

Now I know buyers are creative too – there will always be a need to look for new ways to get the best value for the client – but their period in the sun is coming to an end.

What do clients want?

A thorough examination of and use of large amounts of data. Integrated thinking across all channels, driving towards effective campaigns that pay back, and come with a feedback loop that gathers learnings and reapplies them.

Sounds like planning to me.

What do clients hate?

The suspicion that there are rebates, generated by their budgets that are not being returned to them. The uneasy feeling that comes from thinking that maybe this or that element of the plan is not there to do a job for me, but to generate revenue for the agency.

Sounds like buying to me.

I can already hear the angry ringing of a phone. ‘How many times do we have to tell you – clients want cheap prices, they want to commoditise media, they won’t pay for planning.’


So why do agencies keep hiring and parading planners? Why not shut up shop and do what you say the client wants, invest in machines, automate everything, move out of London, and fire all the planners and researchers?

Because the agencies know full well that planning is essential. If clients don’t agree with this (and I personally believe they most certainly do agree), then persuade them.

Prove the benefit of great planning; show the business benefits; convince the procurement guys that the skill (and there is a real skill involved) is worth paying for.

After all – we read every day that agencies want to be seen as top-end consultants.

They need to scrap the opaque nature of what they do, initiate honest, open business-building conversations with their advertisers.

Create the right environment and your planners might just save the universe.

1 Comment
  1. Can’t comment; too much of a planner!

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