This blog takes a deeper look at digital planning and strategy in brand marketing and advertising. It accompanies a useful overview of these strategic tools from my Birmingham City University colleague, Mike Villiers-Stuart in his blog, Overview: Working The Methodology. This article considers how we can deliver strategic approaches that bring value in a constantly changing landscape of digital channels and platforms. In short, how can we develop an effective digital (and future-proof) methodology?
Platforms, Channels and Formats
“There was a time when people felt the internet was another world, but now people realise it’s a tool that we use in this world.” Tim Berners-Lee
Since the explosion of the internet in the mid-1990s we have seen the continued growth of digital marketing channels (Meeker, M. 2015). Within the broad definition of ‘online’ there are an increasing number of platforms that offer opportunities for brand advertising; desktop/laptops, smartphones, tablets and, potentially, wearable devices. Eventually we might even include the connected fridge as a platform. These technologies have driven the emergence of new media channels, specifically web, mobile or social media. These channels have led to a plethora of formats from display ads to paid search to native content or video ads. As a result of this combination of platforms, channels and formats, marketing and advertising has become an increasingly complex landscape.
The other side of this challenge is that consumer behaviour in the brand context has become similarly complex. Arguably, our basic human needs, as defined by Maslow remain largely the same. The difference is that these needs are being played out in many different places. Way, way back, before the internet, advertising and marketing had limited touch points. The aim of advertising was to create something memorable, such as a jingle, a catch phrase or a concept, in the hope that consumers would remember them later at the point of purchase. In the UK the 1980s was a heyday for creative advertising. People such as John Hegarty (Levi’s 501), John Webster (Cadbury Smash, John Smiths, Courage Best) or Tony Kaye (Real Fires, British Rail, Dunlop) were writing adverts that were memorable, often repeated, and memed in playgrounds.
In today’s digital landscape the problem is not simply the numerous channel options, but also that consumers adopt new ones faster than brand advertising. Larry Downes’ identifies an increasing gap between these two groups (Downes, L. 2009) due to the exponential growth of the technology that drives digital media. It means that brands in digital are constantly playing catch-up with their audience.
The Role of Planning and Strategy
‘If you have all the research, all the ground rules, all the directives, all the data — it doesn’t mean the ad is written. Then you’ve got to close the door and write something — that is the moment of truth which we all try to postpone as long as possible.’ David Ogilvy
The primary purpose of advertising and marketing is to create brand value, sell products and services, and through that, to create a return on investment (ROI). Simply placing adverts without any strategy in a complex digital media landscape is unlikely to deliver a return. Although some brands have tried this approach, advertising needs something more than just a ‘spray and pray’ strategy.
As early as the 1960s, even with fewer channel choices than now, it became apparent to some advertising UK execs that account managers could not rely on intuition or guesswork to develop their campaigns. Two people are credited with the development of the discipline known as planning; Steven King at JWT and Stanley Pollitt at BMP (Morison, M A et al 2012). They believed that they could produce much better results for clients if advertising professionals looked beyond pure marketing research and interpreted data in a more meaningful way. The discipline has since matured, or to use an advertising term, ‘rebranded’ into a range of roles. The Account Planning Group lists a dozen key positions, and creative recruitment sites include terms such as account planner, strategic planner, strategist, creative strategist, and an old favourite, ‘brand anthropologist’ (Morison M A et al, 2012, Pg 7). The precise definition of who does what, and especially, who is more important in the pecking order, seems to be cause for considerable debate. Tracy Fellows, Chair of the Association of Account Planning said there is “a culture emerging in our industry that isn’t clear on what strategy is or what it does.” (Tiltman, D, 2011). In spite of this confusion, there are some broad principles that underpin the discipline that go beyond a single job definition. Some would even argue that job definitions are in fact, irrelevant. Ultimately any strategy aims to take a brand from pain to gain – identifying a problem and finding a solution. That boils down to understanding research, developing some insight and through that, offering the brand a creatively led solution or ‘a moment of truth’. Regardless of what we title it, strategy is a meeting of analysis and creativity.
The Rise of Digital
Even in the 60s, the amount of market research was too much for an account manager to interpret (Morison M A et al, 2012). Now, with an explosion of digital channels we have many more measures and research data. Along side the market research offered by companies such as Nielsen, Kantar, IPSOS and Comscore, planners, or strategists for that matter, can also access some exotic analytics data generated from digital channels. Typically it covers usage information, such as web or app analytics that works in conjunction with primary research conducted by a brand or agency.
Tom Fishburne, Marketoonist.com
At the other end of the process is the deployment of marketing and advertising. What tactics will the marketer use in order to deliver the strategy? As new platforms develop, tactics will inevitably change. The shift and the resulting opportunities to advertisers in digital platforms has been closely tracked for some years by Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends. Other indicators of a shift include Google’s ad revenue for search and display, which has nearly doubled to $20bn in a decade (Reported in Ad Week, July 2016), and social media advertising, where Facebook has seen revenues go from zero to $3.3bn in less than 10 years (Seetharaman, D. 2016, WSJ).
Such rapid growth creates a confusing landscape in which to deploy brand engagement. One example is the Internet Advertising Bureau’s Ad Unit Portfolio which shows hundreds of options for just one of many advertising channels, display advertising. Another indicator of this is the growth is in technology providers in the digital landscape. Scott Brinker in the Chief Marketing Technologist blog found that the number of players in the market almost doubled between 2014-15.
The challenge for advertising agencies that stems from a changing landscape is that of risk. How do we prove engagement in new, emerging channels? Brands, by their very nature, tend to be risk-averse and shy away from what they see as untried channels. Therefore the role of strategy becomes more important in helping brands to understand the new landscape and manage that risk (and, of course, to spend the money).
Technology as a Tool
One of the biggest challenges of the modern digital landscape is that particular platforms or technologies drive a campaign. It’s not unusual to hear a client say ‘put a QR code on it’ , ‘we want an app’, ‘let’s use iBeacons’ or ‘we want an augmented reality campaign’. In some ways it is understandable. An emerging platform such as the smartphone is very feature driven, and thus the technology is at the forefront. The challenge is that tech-driven thinking is not strategic. All it is doing is describing the tools to deliver a campaign. Imagine that you commissioned a portrait but you only told the artist the brushes you wanted them to use? It’s no different in advertising. Describing a technological feature fails to show an understanding of the audience or the context in which they might be engaged. It’s important to keep in mind that the technology itself is agnostic – there is nothing wrong with it – but without a strategy it is often used poorly.
Furthermore a lack of strategy in emerging platforms creates a ‘me too’ approach – using a channel simply because everyone else seems to be doing it. When some brands are early into a channel and see a small measure of success, others jump on the bandwagon. User generated content in social media is a good example of this. There’s a Tumblr dedicated to this, called tellusyourstoryblog.tumblr.com, that documents numerous brands that have asked users to share their story. The most surprising of these is PreparahionH, the pile cream. A strategic approach might reveal that another ‘send us your selfie’ campaign is not the best way to engage an audience in this context.
From Pain to Gain: Strategic Methodologies
Today’s planning discipline in advertising agencies is essentially an applied practice rather than a theoretical concept. Although there are supporting theories, strategic methodologies are rooted in a practical delivery of a campaign to an audience – the straight forward pain-to-gain process. An effective strategic tool can be understood in three stages; research, insight and creative. Within each stage there are a number of smaller processes that contribute to the development of the strategy. Although it is often described in a linear way, the reality is that development doesn’t always take a such simple path. For example, creative might be considered at an early stage in the process then reviewed or changed following further strategic insights.
In a complex digital world, this process can understandably become confusing. In order to formulate an effective strategy it is therefore necessary to use a framework. Agencies often like to invent their own, but three such examples are DPDDD (Villiers-Stuart, M. 2014), SOSTAC (Chaffey, D. 2012) or Storyscaping (Legorburu, G. & MaColl, D. 2013). These are not solutions that can provide an answer, but instead are tools that describe the flow of development in which to deliver an effective, meaningful strategy.
Realists or cynics? It all depends on your perspective. With the rise of digital channels, strategic methodologies have become more complex. Inevitably, some argue that it creates an unnecessary mystification of the process. Chief amongst these is Byron Sharp. He proposes that advertising is not sufficiently underpinned by empirical research and suggests that the objectives of many strategic methodologies are false. Strategists may focus on creating brand value through storytelling that will deliver brand fans or advocates. Advertisers will cite passion brands such as Harley Davidson or Apple who deliver a brand story that creates advocates who will purchase more frequently and encourage others to do so. The most referenced example of such brand fans are those that have the Harley Davidson tattoo. Sharp’s research identifies the concept of a fan as largely a myth and that the purchase/repurchase rate is similar for most brands. A little more vociferous in his argument is Bob Hoffman, Ad Contrarian (2007). A long-standing ad-man, Hoffman believes that brand strategists are mistaken in identifying consumers as ‘fans’. He suggests that what is described as ‘brand advocacy’ is nothing more than convenience and habit. He would go so far as to argue that brands are misled by their agencies who are creating something of ‘an emperor’s new clothes’ about what is fundamentally a simple process. He suggests that this is why brands will deliver inappropriate campaigns such as social media ‘Tell Us Your Story’, smartphone apps that are hardly used, and banner ads that are rarely clicked on. The Advertising Realists believe that it is really not that complicated. Arguably it’s in the interests of agencies (and their fees) to make it seem so. The Strategic Realists are typified by an irreverent, almost punk spirit that seeks to break down much of the pompousness of current advertising strategy. An Open Letter to All of Marketing and Advertising is a good example of this approach (Anon, 2010), which ends with the plea:
‘If you’d like to tell me what’s good about your product, fine. I may buy it. I may not …But, not to put too-fine-a-point on it, please, please, PLEASE, if you wouldn’t mind, awfully. Leave me alone. Thanks.’
Tools for The Job
All of this presents our core question. Which strategic methodology, if any, is the most appropriate? Perhaps the solution is to take a strategic approach to strategy itself. Just as technology is a tool, a strategic framework is simply there to deliver a job. The job of good advertising. That choice of tool should consider the values of the agency, the needs of the client and the campaign objectives. Thus, the DPDDD methodology is an effective tool for clients who are results driven, looking for an end-to-end solution. SOSTAC, on the other hand, is designed to meet the needs of a marketing-led approach. Storyscaping is a more in-depth tool that can help build the brand idea, especially in an omni-channel landscape. Storyscaping lends itself well to engagement for passion brands but it may over complicate the process where consumers are uninvolved with the brand, such as the classic FMCG product, a packet of soap powder.
These are just examples of how the tools might be applied and are far from exhaustive. Ultimately the choice of methodologies should be underpinned by the basic principles of strategy – identify some relevant research, critically assess it to create some insight and develop creative that meets the needs of the brand.
Legorburu, G. & McColl, D. Storyscaping: Stop Creating Ads, Start Creating Worlds, 2014,
Villiers-Stuart, M. Overview: Working the Methdology, 2016,
Meeker, M. Internet Trends 2016, 2015, KPCB
Morison, MA et al Using Qualitative Research in Advertising, 2012 (2nd Ed) Sage Publications
Downes, L, The Laws of Disruption:Harnessing the New Forces That Govern Life and Business in the Digital Age, 2009, Basic Books
Tiltman, D. The death of the big idea and the future of strategy, 2014, Brand Report
Seetharaman, D. Facebook Revenue Soars on Ad Growth, 2016, WSJ
Sharp, B. How Brands Grow, What Marketers Don’t Know, 2010, OUP
Hoffman, B. The Ad Contrarian, Getting beyond the fleeting trends, false goals, and dreadful jargon of contemporary Advertising, 2007
Anon, An Open Letter to All of Advertising and Marketing, 2010, PSFK
 There is a list of key planning roles to be found at http://www.apg.org.uk/#!apg-planningjobguide/c1lkf
 This might be controversial to some who believe the difference is significant, such as Jinal Shah who argued the importance of the planner vs strategist definition in his Constant Beta blog: http://jinalshah.com/2012/05/29/lets-fuckin-set-the-record-straight-account-planners-and-digital-strategists-are-not-the-same/
 These kinds of analytics are typically drawn from individual web-site based logs into formats such as Google Analytics. In addition there are aggregations of this data through tools such as GS Stats Counter or Google Trends to highlight just two.
 A rise from 947 in 2014 to 1,876 in 2015 http://chiefmartec.com/2015/01/marketing-technology-landscape-supergraphic-2015/
 QR codes originated as a means of tracking parts in the vehicle industry. They were adopted in Japan as a means of delivering a URL to a mobile device due to the complexities of translating Japanese into Roman-type URLs. However, there are few examples of successful campaigns in Europe and the US. I discussed this problem with Graham Charlton at Econsultancy (2013) in the following blog post: https://econsultancy.com/blog/62397-qr-codes-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/
 I looked at the challenge for Beacons in this blog post: https://brandsandinnovation.com/2014/10/28/beacons-the-saviour-of-retail-probably-not/