Strategic planners are the data-diggers of the agency world — Sharon Goldman chats with three leaders in this exciting sector.
As a child, Tracy Lovatt recalls being “incredibly curious — I was always asking why, why, why.” That’s the reason her mother isn’t at all surprised at her career choice as a strategic planner: “My mother says it’s good now because I get paid for the ‘why,’” she laughs.
Planning used to be a job function found only at UK agencies, until the sector was imported to the US during the 1980s (a move generally credited to Jane Newman, founder of Merkley Newman Harty). Meant to bring the voice of the consumer inside the agency, planning has become a “broader, more strategic field since then,” says Lovatt, especially as highly targeted campaigns have become marketing essentials.
Today, strategic planners study and measure consumer behavior with a wide variety of research tools — from surveys and in-home interviews to online tools and Web analytics — in order to help plan client strategy and drive behavioral change through creative communications.
“At BBDO, we describe planning as ‘the work behind the work,’” Lovatt explains. “The content is based on the strongest foundation — we’re out in the world mining for insights to help consumers with their lives.” The strength of that foundation, she adds, is the total of 50 planners across the BBDO network, as well as a full-time Ph.D. cultural anthropologist on the team.
Much of the planners’ work is based on data, and while there is an analytics team in place to do the “heavy lifting” of tough data, all of BBDO’s planners are trained qualitatively and quantitatively to evaluate the numbers.
“We’ll use any kind of data we can get — the client’s data, segmentation data,” she says. “It’s so important in terms of laying the foundation of how people feel and what they do today.”
Lovatt says that it’s no surprise that direct marketing tactics are at work here. “Strategic planning has been at the heart of direct marketing, either as it used to exist as snail mail, or if it’s today’s DM, one-to-one contact with consumers,” she says. “What’s happening now is that DM is no longer siloed and consumer behavior isn’t siloed, so we’re using techniques that have not traditionally been used in DM.”
Digital media allows planners to get closer to behavioral change than any other channel, she adds. “We can adapt compelling content much faster to drive behavioral change, and we can get feedback much faster,” she says. “It’s less abstract than with other media channels.”
Take BBDO client eBay: “The real-time behavioral data we get from eBay shows what people are buying down to the second that they buy it; why certain things are important in the moment,” Lovatt continues. “If we see trends, it’s easier for us to anticipate future behavior and create communications.”
Before beginning creative work in any channel, the team starts the process by examining the client’s business objectives. These are then linked mathematically to behavioral change. “If our client wants to increase market share to 12% up from 7.5% by the end of 2009, I know we have to sell X more units,” she explains. “I can then tell how many people I need to attract.”
Lovatt adds that she believes this “work behind the work” is as important as the work itself. “I always tell people I have the most interesting job in this agency,” she says.
How did you get started in strategic planning?
“I met a guy on the train who was the head of strategy at what was then known as Needham, Harper & Steers. He was fascinating. One day he said he had a job opening. I knew nothing about the agency world, but I got the job and I’ve stayed in [the industry] ever since.”
What is the best part of the job?
“It’s like being an FBI profiler. We’re profiling consumers with a great deal of depth about why they do what they do. I guess that’s why I read a lot of mystery books and love CSI, because I find it fairly similar to what we do.”
How does strategic planning relate to DM?
“Strategic planning is not only about looking at consumers in terms of numbers and behaviors, but lifestyles and the relationship they have with the brand. Relationships are also an important part of direct marketing — it’s not just about acquiring customers but keeping them happy and loyal.”
How can strategic planning increase ROI?
“In this [by-invitation-only] world where the consumer rules, the more you do up front to understand the various segments — not only of groups of people, but of individuals — the better your ROI will be. The more targeted and customized, the more relevant your message.”
How has planning changed at Publicis?
“In the old days, planning was focused on focus groups and writing briefs; it was really a passive administrative function. We started by saying that we needed to define business challenges much more accurately. [Now] we use data analytics to identify targets of high return based on various perspectives on their behavior, and are able to hone in on precise groups of people whose behaviors are understood.”
How can marketers keep up with constant changes in the industry today?
“With great difficulty — anyone who tells you differently is deceiving themselves. You try to focus on the essential things, such as understanding the conversation going on and the lives of the people. Even with the best analytics people in the world, someone has to think about how to interpret the data to sort wheat from chaff.”
How do clients perceive strategic planning?
“I would go so far to say that recent pitches have been won entirely on the ability to do this type of [strategic planning] work and tie it back to the brand.”
How do you define direct marketing?
“It’s anything that engages with people one-on-one, that provides an active and emotional response to the brand. In the old days, DM used to suffer from being tied to a particular format and channel. I don’t think that’s true now.”