In something as dependent on relationships, chemistry and creativity as communications planning, only a fool would try to lay down precise models for how you can achieve name recognition nirvana. But general trends emerge over time and new ways of working are constantly evolving.
So what is the best way to approach comms planning? Will Collin, a partner at communications agency Naked, says it is important to be clear what the term really means. "In the industry, when people talk about communications planning, they often mean working out the best channels to use. This is where so many people miss the point. It hobbles the solutions that comms planning can create."
To Collin, communications planning is a creative process looking at all the ways a brand can come into contact with the consumer and is not limited to just how and where it should present itself. Nailing down exactly the best model is especially relevant for big clients, particularly those with a global remit.
Both Naked and Michaelides & Bednash - what some call hotshops - are independent of the normal structures; neither a media buying agency nor a creative agency, but somewhere in between.
Graham Bednash, managing partner at Michaelides & Bednash, sums it up thus: "When clients want a TV ad they go to a creative, but when they want a big cultural idea, they come to us." He cites the example of the spoof front cover on thelondonpaper, detailing the apparent murder of George W Bush, that was a promotion for Channel 4's "what if" drama, Death of a President. Meanwhile, Collin cites the recent work his company has done at NikeTown (see box below) as evidence of the radical thinking that can come from a client avoiding the traditional creative/media agency approach.
Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of creative agency Ogilvy UK, sees things differently. In a reference to the 1970s Hollywood heyday of Coppola, Scorcese and Friedkin, he argues that the "auteur" is the missing ingredient in communications planning.
"You could argue that the person with the breadth of skills to do that doesn't exist in our industry, but that was probably true of film directors, too," he posits. "People are so precious about their own sense of control, that the agency world has specialised itself to the point where those people don't exist."
Poran Malani, ex-McCann Erickson and now senior consultant at brand agency Dragon, believes it is the agency that can bring all the specialisms together that will make itself invaluable. "What clients need is to get everyone working off the same page, so the top agency becomes an agent of talent, not necessarily having all the talent itself. It's the ability to control and lead it," he says.
The people who will revive the industry are those who can see the big picture and think strategically, says Sutherland. While they can come from anywhere, increasingly they will emerge from an interactive background.
Malani claims this is where media agencies have been stealing a march.
"They have taken on digital much better (than creative agencies)," he contends.
He says the "fight for the top table is the biggest in the media world", but that media agencies are better-placed than ever before to own that space.
"There's a pseudo-science to marketing now. Media agencies have been clever - they've managed to fit that bit. That's what clients love; they like to predict what happens next."
In an industry where image is everything, agencies are increasingly defining themselves around jargon and new concepts. For example, MindShare has a new system of "destination planning".
Head of communications planning Nick Ashley explains: "We agree an objective with the clients and the agencies, and from there we set up the possible barriers to reaching the consumer before going on to the creative platform. It incorporates the brand, the consumer and how the consumer interrelates with media channels."
Creative agency BBH has invented "engagement planning". It is intended to link the creative thinking, account planning and management to a deeper understanding of the rapidly evolving media world.
Kevin Brown, director of engagement planning, says: "Because of digitalisation, comms planning needs to reflect that changing media landscape. Our view is that we need to have that channel thinking upstream in the development of ideas."
Brown's department has appointed people with a background in media agencies to broaden the traditional ad agency approach. The result is ground-breaking campaigns, such as those that linked British Airways with Google Earth, saw The Mail on Sunday targeting young couples, and saw Audi launch the first branded car channel on television.
But just in case we are all getting carried away when the key question is asked - "which comes first, the channel or idea?" - old certainties reassert themselves. "People engage with content, not channels, and I appoint creative thinkers first and media technicians second," Brown says.
For Kate Rowlinson, head of communications strategy at media agency Carat, there are dangers in giving too much power to creative agencies early in the process.
She supports the BBH model, as long as the media agency's role is not undermined. "What creative agencies like BBH need to do is to be very clear what the new department is offering," she warns. "The big question is 'who is responsible for the media advice?'. That can get really tricky as, contractually, the media agency is there to provide media planning."
There are other models on the table of course, such as bringing the media owner into the debate and having a free-for-all where the client engages with a number of agencies at once.
"In principle, having everyone as an equal stakeholder is positive and doesn't bias the strategy to one particular discipline," says Rowlinson. "If the digital or PR agency are good enough, then they should have an equal stake. But the challenge is the potential for territorial battles."
However, she argues that in cases where specific media are essential to a campaign, involving them at an early stage of the process can prove fruitful. By contrast, Jim Taylor, regional director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Mediaedge:cia, believes that none of the above really works. Two years ago he wrote a book, Space Race, which argued that the future would throw clients back centre stage.
He says the usual choices considered by most big companies at the moment are uninspiring: they can give it to one or more lead agencies, with others inputting, or to a new agency.
But none of these works to optimum effect, he believes: "Unilever and Procter & Gamble know that giving it to their existing agencies hasn't worked that well. The problem is when you give it to lead agencies, the others get demotivated."
Taylor's solution is for the client to regain the initiative and help muck in with communications planning and the generation of brand ideas.
"For me, the only way you can do comms planning is for a small group of people to lock the door for a week and not come out until the strategy is defined," he says. The client must be with the key people: its marketing person, trade marketing person, the creative director of the advertising agency, the media planner, the account planner and perhaps a digital expert.
"Clients who experiment with it break through the silos and get much stronger, simpler, bolder plans," he claims, citing the example of SAB Miller, which he works for as an external communication planning facilitator.
"SAB Miller owns the process and so when we go back and ask what percentage of the plan has been executed, we're at 70%. That's excellent - many agencies will only have 10%."
A less controversial and more popular view is that good comms planning is horses for courses - uniting the right brand with the right agencies, with the right breakdown of responsibilities.
Or as Dragon's Malani puts it: "The real skill of the agency in the future is the one that can help the client navigate the complexity with a view of where that needs to go.
"If you're able to manage the materials and make sure it's on the right track of your client and become a guardian, that's what the agency at top table is going to be - not necessarily doing it all, but knowing how it's done."
When Nike wanted to launch its new NikeiD studio it appointed communications agency Naked to lead on the idea's strategic development, the core idea and the channel mix. The studio, based in NikeTown, London, allows customers to come in and design their own Nike trainers, using in-store computers and design consultants who can be booked for sessions of up to an hour.
Naked, supported by digital agency AKQA and PR firm Freud, came up with a multi-pronged approach to promote the launch.
Consumers were given the chance to talk about their shoe creation via a recording booth at the store and the interviews were played on the NikeTown digital screen.
Naked created three installations to move around the capital that would allow people to go online and investigate the new studio.
The mobile "digital dispensing cubes" measure two metres by two metres and they offer fast-track Bluetooth tickets, as well as the chance to see the interviews with happy customers.
A seeding campaign identified London's 50 most influential people, who received an exclusive invitation comprising an iPod Nano loaded with film from the Nike studio concierge. Lifestyle PR and pages on MySpace and Facebook were also created.
"Nike realises that traditional advertising methods are not as effective as they once were," says Niku Banaie, who ran the account at Naked. "The NikeiD product is highly innovative and it needed a progressive approach to comms that complemented it."
The Royal Navy was struggling with poor recruitment when it began the search for a new communications planning approach. Head of marketing Iwan Williams recalls: "The main thing I knew was that any campaign needed to be fully integrated and that the target audience was men and women aged 16 to 24."
The Navy commissioned research showing the very different media consumption of potential officers and ratings (lower ranks). The former tended to watch less television and read broadsheets, while the latter read tabloids and used more social networking sites. The Navy decided to jointly appoint an advertising agency and media planning agency, with digital creative and media planning agencies to follow later. WCRS and Carat were the chosen couple, due to what Williams calls "the seamless partnership" they showed during the pitching stage. Glue and I-Level were appointed to manage the internet strategy.
"WCRS led on the creative and strategic direction and was in effect the lead agency," says Williams. "But it would be far from the truth to say that the other agencies were subordinate. In particular, Carat brought an understanding of the media consumption habits of our target audience. The core value of the media planning agency is to make the creative agency work harder and more effectively."
The chosen approach was to go for television and cinema for "Life Without Limits" aimed at recruiting for the Royal Navy, and cinema only for the Royal Marines' specific campaign - "Royal Marines Commando: it's a state of mind".
The distinction between the two approaches was that potential marines didn't watch enough TV as they were "too busy doing things". This core approach was then backed up by magazine partnerships, a revamped website and connections with social networking sites.
The agencies were appointed in June 2006 and there were weekly meetings between all the different groups to ensure everyone was aware of what each was doing. The first advertisements for the Navy appeared in October 2006 and the Royal Marines campaign has just begun in cinemas across the UK. It is too early to gauge the effect of the latter, but the Navy's campaign has already reversed a shortage of jet and helicopter pilots and telephone enquiries have increased by 33%.
This article was first published on Media Week