Strategic thinking is nothing new within the PR industry. Neither are the planning director roles that often oversee this function. But a new breed of planners is entering the industry, promising to redefine how clients devise and execute their campaigns.
Take Will Humphrey, who recently left ad agency Lowe to join the Edelman planning department that has been set up by former 3 Monkeys' director Ali Gee. Or Matty Tong, who also left Lowe to head planning at Weber Shandwick.
Their arrivals, along with such names as Blue Rubicon's Spencer Livermore, Bell Pottinger's Nicholine Hayward and Candace Kuss at Hill & Knowlton, signal an increasing formalisation of strategic planning within PR agencies.
But is the industry, taking particular note of client budgets, ready for this infusion of new blood?
The motivations behind the latest influx of planning talent have much in common. For a start, there is the accelerating importance of earning consumer attention in a highly varied media landscape.
For planners that are more typically used to a narrow focus on consumer-facing brands, PR's natural breadth can also be refreshing.
'Advertising is terrific for teaching people how to be reductive, but PR is terrific for a broad understanding of societal factors and business,' says Humphrey.
'Some of the work has not been in areas where you would logically think a planner could work,'
adds Hayward, who previously worked at McCann Erickson and Grey Advertising: 'I've been able to get involved in corporate, financial and political work.'
The chance to chart a new path, in an environment where little planning competition exists, is also enticing.
'There is more immediacy in terms of changing public opinion and behaviour,' notes Rob Campbell, creative planning director at brand consultancy Sunshine/M&C Saatchi.
'I can certainly see why that would be attractive compared with working on P&G's Huggies.'
The agency benefit
For agencies, the appeal is multi-layered. Understanding the exact nature of what planners do is the natural starting point. Born out of London's ad agencies during advertising's heyday in the 60s and 70s, planners bridge the divide between business and creative, identifying consumer insights, devising brand positioning and evaluating the effectiveness of campaigns.
All of which must sound attractive for a PR industry which, says Fishburn Hedges head of planning Lisa Story, has historically relied more on 'contacts and instinct' when developing content. 'As the demands and complexities of comms increase, dedicated planners are becoming vital,' says Story.
The new business angle is also critical. Resonate creative director Graham Drew points out that, at the very least, applying a level of 'rigour' to creative ideas makes them inherently more attractive during a pitch.
'When you are selling an idea, the path to that idea is so crucial to its perception,' he says. 'Do you think that the (comparethemarket.com) meerkat campaign would have sold without a planner behind it?'
Examples of this kind of success already exist. Weber Shandwick won Microsoft's European consumer business last year thanks to a 'high-end consumer-style planning idea in the pitch', according to Tong's predecessor, DDB strategy director Leo Rayman.
The inexorable rise of digital communication offers the most potent example of how planning can make particular strides within the PR world. Indeed, every planner to whom PRWeek spoke cited the allure of social media as a specific reason for joining the industry.
'All this content makes for the perfect realtime planning tool,' says Project Metal MD Nick Rappolt. 'You can get a sense of sentiment and preference of an audience and so tailor content directly to them at a much faster pace than before.'
This requires a much more sophisticated planning process, adds Immediate Future planning head Lance Concannon: 'It is unfeasible to expect your PR team to stay abreast of the rapidly evolving social media landscape and how the latest developments affect the comms function - this is the skillsset that a planner can bring to the table.'
Meanwhile, the impact of political campaigning is also being felt in the planning process - best illustrated by agencies such as Penn Schoen & Berland and Blue Rubicon, which incorporate polling and research when devising strategy.
Former researcher Adam Mack, who hired ex-advertising planners Alex Harrison and Serge Vaezi during his time as Freud Communications' strategy chief, recently joined Luchford APM to head a new planning unit called Luchford Futures. Mack believes there are several hurdles that planners must overcome if they hope to thrive. 'PR is much more unpredictable,' he points out. 'We don't have three-month planning cycles like most ad agencies. It's more like three weeks.'
'There's an awful lot less time,' confirms Weber Shandwick's Tong. 'And access to data is not always that easy.'
'We can't draw on £100,000 brand trackers in the same way as ad agencies, so we have to be more inventive,' adds Mack. 'Our first source is the online review, media comment and blogger, not a traditional Mintel or Millward Brown research report. Although we'd love more access to those.'
Matters are further complicated by the need for planners to be considerably more flexible when formulating PR strategies. Take Brand X, says Tong, a skin cream that positions itself around 'keeping your skin young and beautiful'.
'When targeting people who already have wrinkles, the message might focus on the trusted expertise of the brand, whereas with younger people the emphasis would be more on prevention,' says Tong, noting that messaging would also differ for beauticians and in-store buyers.
The net effect is that different skills are needed. While advertising has a dedicated training body in the Account Planning Group, PR has no such equivalent. If the current trends are any indication, it might require one sooner rather than later.
TIPS FOR THE TOP
Successful planners must ...
- Have a strong sense of curiosity
- Be interested in people
- Think laterally
- Be very imaginative
- Balance intelligence with intuition
- Challenge long-held assumptions
Convincing clients will be a 'hard sell'
The critical question is whether the PR agency business model, and the clients that support it, can sustain the development of planning.
Leo Rayman's 18-month experience at Weber Shandwick illustrates this challenge. Before returning to DDB, he remained unsure of whether planning could be funded outside a new business model.
Bell Pottinger's Hayward adds: 'I don't believe the business model is ready to support a big planning team on every account at this stage.'
Others, particularly smaller agencies, are less convinced of the benefits of investing in highly priced planners. 'There's no doubt it can work very well in PR,' says Eulogy CEO Adrian Brady. 'But either the business has to take the cost or the client has to share in the funding.'
Convincing clients, adds Resonate's Drew, is still a 'hard sell'.
'Probably not,' says Sony EMEA director of corporate comms, Nick Sharples, when asked if he would pay his PR agency for planning. 'I consider campaign planning a daily part of our activities.'
LG Electronics European marketing director Dominic Chambers says he would be wary of duplication: 'A client has to decide where its core strategy sits, so you don't duplicate that over multiple agencies. Normally, that still resides with the above-the-line agency, with strong support from PR.'
'Historically, there is a view that planning sits at ad agencies,' admits Blue Rubicon's Livermore. 'But the idea that planning or research is a luxury would be alien to us.'
Edelman's Gee points to three ways in which agencies can incorporate planning into their business models, with the initial caveat that clients must not be asked to pay for 'two separate lines'. Firstly, planners can help access marketing budgets beyond PR. Secondly, like Hayward, Gee says planners can improve the efficacy of campaigns. And thirdly, there is the new business benefit.
'The PR industry has been able to get away with putting creativity and flair for media relations ahead of real efficacy,' she adds. 'It's a bold move for agencies to invest in planning.' How bold? Only time will tell.
CASE STUDY - PLANNING IN ACTION
Client: British Gas
Agency: Blue Rubicon
British Gas wanted to get on the front foot in terms of communications with consumers. Blue Rubicon developed the 'We're Listening' campaign, which included taking a full-page 'Open Letter' ad in national newspapers.
Central to the campaign was the planning process - using focus groups to deliver a huge amount of consumer insight, in the way that advertising once might have done - and then using that insight to build a narrative and core messaging.
The core insight revealed that, common to all energy firms, it was necessary for British Gas to address the issue of price before talking about how, as an organisation, it has changed. Consumers had to be engaged on an issue they cared about before they would listen to the core messages. Then, as the best political campaigns would do, Blue Rubicon lined up all the creative executions behind that messaging. For example, using advertising as a channel to deliver the central messaging of the campaign - an Open Letter - in addition to securing blanket national media coverage.