The rise of the Moneyball Artist

In February, a few of us at PHD put our heads together to come up with ideas we could put into an entry for WARC’s Admap Prize. Sadly, we didn’t make the shortlist, which was announced earlier this week, but we thought some of you may like to read what we finally submitted. Here goes.

Planning 2020: The rise of the Moneyball Artist

In 2020, the role of technology and that of the client will be more tied to planning, and to each other, than at any time in history. The role of the planner will evolve into a unified representative of both of these, and will be more responsive to changing needs.

A fair amount has already been said about the historical role of account planning in agencies, both in WARC and in other industry publications. We’re not going to recap this more than necessary. There is a much more pressing debate to take up: the future, rather than the past, of account planning.  In a world where the multiplicity of media formats renders the battle for people’s attention more difficult than ever, we’ll look at how planners will steer their agencies towards growth even as they make a stronger cultural impact on people.

The role of technology

In the 2011 Hollywood film Moneyball (based on a true story), Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, used a revolutionary data-oriented approach to hiring players, a first for the industry at the time. His assistant manager, a freshly-minted Yale MBA, convinced him that data analysis was the key to turning his team’s poor performance around. The plan was partly a success in that the Oakland A’s went on to win 20 consecutive games in the American League in the 2002 season, though they lost the finals. More importantly, it paved the way for the increased adoption of sabermetrics, the science of measuring in-game baseball activity, throughout the country[1].

The advertising as a science vs. advertising as an art debate has been going on for quite a while. In 2020, even more than it was in 2002 to baseball, science will be a force to reckon with in the industry, as it will be in the world. Futurist and author Ray Kurzweil says that the history of technology shows us that technological change is exponential rather than linear and that even Moore’s law will fall short in time[2]. In eight years, technology will be truly embedded in people’s lives. Young people who turn 20 that year would have grown up, from birth, being able to connect to the world at a touch of their fingertips. The now-famous YouTube clip of a one and a half year old looking in bewilderment at a magazine that can’t be swiped like an iPad[3] will no longer be surprising; it will be the norm.

Today, agencies don’t really hire data specialists; those that do place them squarely in the digital team. Going forward, these specialists will be an important part of the planning team and of the agency, and the planner will work with them very closely. Analysts and visualization specialists will mine in great detail the data resulting from the millions of interactions that people have every second, in much more detail than Beane and his assistant manager did in 2002. By 2020 we will be able to gain a truly granular understanding of the nature of these interactions, and planners will draw on this to weave narratives out of data rather than just using it for incremental web design changes as is often done today with the information gleaned from A/B split testing, for example[4]. In short, data will enable us to make transformational changes to the way we plan, rather than transactional changes.

Companies like Google, Microsoft, AT&T and IBM already have data specialists in-house[5]; in the future, understanding how data fits into the brand narrative will be a key part of the agency’s role too. Within an agency, it will be the planner who will champion the cause of data. This will take planning back to its origins: as Stanley Pollitt said, “The account planner is that member of the agency’s team who is the expert, through background, training, experience, and attitudes, at working with information and getting it used – not just marketing research but all the information available to help solve a client’s advertising problems[6].” The role of the planner will be more challenging then because of the multiplicity of data sources she will have to deal with, but conversely, there will be more strands to weave brand stories out of.

It isn’t just about the data

2011 was a year that not only saw the release of Moneyball, but that of The Artist, a French drama shot in black-and-white that is mostly devoid of dialogue. At the outset, one would have thought it a highly unlikely contender for any award, but this season it is pretty much sweeping all of them, having won three Golden Globes, seven BAFTAs and nominations for ten Oscars. Clearly, the emotional element cannot be underestimated, just as it can’t in the art of advertising.

At PHD, we take pride in our focus on the human aspect of advertising, as much as we are intrigued by data. It is imperative to remember that a good planner doesn’t just look to the past – which is what data will point to – but to the future, where everything will not necessarily mirror the past. As Marshall McLuhan said decades ago, “As the unity of the modern world becomes increasingly a technological rather than a social affair, the techniques of the arts provide the most valuable means of insight into the real direction of our own collective purposes.”

The planner of 2020 will always remember, even as she works with numbers, that humans are not numbers themselves; they cannot be quantified. She may be equipped with the best historical data, as Billy Beane was, but she can’t predict how people will behave, as they did with The Artist. At PHD we plan with this in mind: we place the human element at the centre and then align it with data, brand values and cultural context.

The role of the client

Where traditionally the planner has been the voice of the consumer within the agency, in the future it will be incumbent on her to get much closer to the client. The agency-client relationship is much discussed and sometimes fraught. However it is an unwritten truth that the quality of creative output depends on the nature of this relationship – clearly, agencies that are considered expert partners will produce better quality output than agencies that are merely tasked with the execution of an idea. In 2020, clients will understand the importance of working with an agency that is more of a business partner than a creative outpost because of how data will be leveraged by agencies and by clients themselves.

Another area where planners will contribute in the future is client innovation. Many clients such as Procter & Gamble with Connect + Develop or O2 with Telefónica Labs are already experimenting with product innovation. Agencies are also beginning to dabble in product – BBH with Zag or McGarry Bowen London with their Suwappu toys for example, a growing kind of agency output . The opportunity for planners to influence product innovation on the client side will be higher in the future than it is now – planners will be able to identify opportunities for clients as a combined result of better understanding brand data and having an agency view on product development. The role of the client in 2020 will evolve to a stage where they are more open to such input.

This is important when you consider that at the moment, the opportunity for the planner to influence product is limited. Planning needs to rise towards playing a bigger role in having a say in what is built (the product) and where (the media), in order to impact what is said about it (the messaging), in a sense a re-imagining of the interface between account planning and media planning, as Will Collin discussed in an essay[7]. People are saturated with messages about products that they often don’t want, and it is vital that planning changes that status quo. Ultimately, we’re looking at flipping on its head what Bill Bernbach said decades ago, about advertising not creating a product advantage, only conveying it.

Agile planning

Another problem that clients have with agencies is the typical turn-around time for creative projects. In 2020, the lead-time to production will be much less than it is now because of how technology will have advanced. This will require planners to be at the heart of the creative strategy: by leveraging data and cultural context and ensuring people are still at the heart of an idea, they will need to take responsibility for ensuring that the output is not only relevant to the business but relevant to the people, and is able to see the light of day in record time.

Enter agile planning.

Agile planning is a term that has only recently started being discussed in the advertising world. Adapted from the software industry, it refers to a process that values four key characteristics: “individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, responding to change over following a plan”. You can see how this would apply to marketing – the very first criterion favouring people over processes is a warning bell to agencies who are steeped in the old world, and it is also why it may make those who are used to following a process more than a bit uncomfortable. It is also another example of how, in as much as technology and software evolve and impact work as in Moneyball, we will need to come back to the human angle represented in The Artist. With agile methodology, the process followed to produce user-friendly software has in a sense come full circle[8], as will planning by 2020.

The principle of agile software came about because some developers realised that their managers favoured inflexible processes over trying to do what was best for the customer. Agile software principles discard the ‘waterfall’ planning process of yore, where one person or group, having completed their assigned task, hands over to the next and so on till they come to the end of the line – instead favouring a more flexible process that is able to respond to changes in human requirements on the fly.

In a similar vein, because of the way people shift their attention to new media platforms fairly quickly (think of the increased prevalence of Kindles and iPads in the place of physical books amongst commuters), the media industry needs to realise that the creative idea they want to bring to market in three or four months’ time (or longer) may simply be irrelevant to people by the time it actually comes to life. As the agile manifesto says, “in order to succeed in the new economy, to move aggressively into the era of e-business, e-commerce, and the web, companies have to rid themselves of their Dilbert manifestations of make-work and arcane policies[9].” Hard hitting words, but those that account planning practitioners should sit up and listen to in order to play a key role in moving the advertising industry forward.

In a world with an explosion of screens – mobile phones, tablets, outdoor, TV, handheld games – agile planners will help agencies navigate this fast-changing terrain by constantly interacting with actual users and consumers to understand their changing motivations and behaviour, even as they keep an eye out for the latest developments in modern culture. For example, Pepsi and its agencies in the US successfully leveraged the do-good mentality of people in an economy that had seen the fall-out of the housing boom with Pepsi Refresh, and more recently they started playing around with the growing phenomenon of the second screen with Pepsi Pulse, in conjunction with The X Factor and second-screen service Get Glue. Ultimately however, the philosophy of thinking flexibly will need to permeate across agencies, to every discipline within it.

The rise of a new breed of planner

For their first thirty years, films were primarily silent. It took years for technologies like sound, music and animation to become prevalent in cinema. Yet today, in an age where 3D and special effects make the movie experience incrementally more impressive with each new technology introduced, The Artist has taken filmmaking back to its roots.

But we’re also reminded of what author and technology consultant Geoffrey Moore said[10]about the adoption of innovation across generations: that there is a lag between when early adopters make something their own and when the early majority does. By 2020, we will start seeing more and more practical applications of data in the media industry because the majority will have come into its own by then and clients will be more comfortable with data.Moneyball will have a clear role to play in advertising.

Planners need to be equipped to bridge this gap as efficiently as possible.  To face 2020 with confidence, planners will need to start getting more comfortable with data and technology today, get closer to clients in order to influence product as well as media and messaging, and be agile in both thought and action.

Not only will we then be able to change the fundamental role of planners in agencies, but clients’ perspective of what agencies do, and people’s opinions of the industry itself. We will see the rise of a new breed of planner – the true amalgamation of the best that Billy Beane andThe Artist have to offer – the Moneyball Artist.

[1] Lewis, Michael D. (2003), Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, New York: W.W.Norton

[3] A Magazine is an iPad that does not work (2011), YouTube (video)

[5] Lohr, Steve (2012) The Age of Big Data, The New York Times Sunday Review

[6] Pollitt, Stanley (1979) How I Started Account Planning in Agencies, Campaign 20 April pp29-30

[7] Collin, Will (2003), The interface between account planning and media planning – a practitioner perspective, Marketing Intelligence & Planning, Vol. 21 Issue 7, pp440-445

[8] Ries, Eric (2011), The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation To Create Radically Successful Businesses, New York: Crown Business

[9] The Agile Alliance (2001) The Agile Manifesto

[10] Moore, Geoffrey (1991) Crossing the Chasm, New York: Harper Business Essentials

[Cross-posted at a A Cup of Tea with PHD]

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