Planning was invented in the sixties, but has it lost its way? There are few today who personally remember Stephen King or Stanley Pollitt, the two great founders of the discipline. Unless we go back to its core reason for existing, there is a risk the discipline will run adrift.
When planning was first invented, it served a vital need. According to Pollitt, researchers had grown too comfortable in their backrooms, and needed to play a more active role in the process. The new ‘planning’ department both inspired creativity and understood its effects: the old left-brain, right-brain dichotomy.
But with the collapse of the commission model, and an increased focus on short-termism, it is harder than ever to maintain an effective culture. Where once agencies conducted their own research, it is now often outsourced to research consultancies. Skittish client-agency relationships have grown too short or project-based to take the long view.
John Griffiths, who co-authored 98% Pure Potato with Tracey Follows, interviewed the first generation of planners in the sixties. He describes how focus groups used to be de rigueur to ensure that communications truly resonated with the audience. Yet with qualitative research now used rarely or not at all, planners today have lost a vital link to the consumers they are supposed to represent.
Desk research cannot become a true substitute for primary. We need space for proper, well-handled research which enables us to meaningfully understand our audience. According to Griffiths, one agency used to average about 25 focus groups a week! Too often our insights become mere observations, and are rightly ignored by creatives and clients.