It’s time we got serious about communications planning again

Time we got serious about comms planning again

The potency and potential of the discipline has been diminished and diluted by malpractice.


Naked Communications may no longer be open for business, but 20 years after the agency launched its legacy and influence is undeniable. Naked helped instil a sense of creativity within media agencies, forced advertising agencies to become obsessed with the places and spaces their work would appear and helped establish the concepts of integration and media neutrality, concepts which are now central to modern communications thinking.

The core philosophy underpinning Naked’s approach — that ‘everything communicates’ — has never been more relevant or applicable to those charged with delivering brand growth. Communications planning, the discipline popularised by the agency, has become one we’re all familiar with today. Done properly, it should represent a powerful tool for managing complexity in the communications landscape.

However, the potency and potential of the discipline has been diminished and diluted by malpractice. Comms planning is too often used as a byword for the task of aligning message and media, rather than the holistic, ideas and outcomes-orientated approach to solving client problems it was intended to be. It is a discipline just as likely to be practiced within the sales function of the big tech platforms as it is within agencies. Places where media neutrality is not just impractical, but anathema.

Faced with a fresh wave of media fragmentation, rampant inflation and increasing complexity driven by new capability in digital and marketing technology, it’s time for us to get serious about communications planning again.

Fragmentation of the media landscape continues apace

Communications Planning emerged during the first significant wave of media fragmentation. This trend has continued and perhaps even accelerated.

The number of touchpoints that constitute the media landscape has exploded, presenting marketers with ever more choice. The journeys consumers take on their route to purchasing from brands is increasingly non-linear and highly variable.

And while the demise of ‘traditional’ media has been greatly exaggerated, advertisers face significant headwinds achieving ‘attentive reach’ as consumers move behind paywalls into low/no advertising environments.

At the same time as challenges emerge in ‘paid media’, ‘owned’ media is enjoying remarkable growth. Consumers are now just as likely to have their first interaction with a brand or product via owned channels such as CRM, social or brand.com as they are via ‘awareness driving media’.

These channels are increasingly influential in determining how consumers think and feel about the brands we’re responsible for and so to some extent, marketers in all categories can feasibly adopt the mindset of a media owner. A mindset which normally means considering owned channels and their contribution before defining the role for paid channels.

Planners can shy away from the challenge posed by this dynamic or embrace it, returning to first principles. “Everything communicates” and therefore everything is media, whether it is paid or owned or even a notionally ‘ad-free’ environment.

The shapes of the assets and ideas required may be different, but the objective remains the same. Namely, think broadly about our definition of ‘advertising and media’ and use the touchpoints which allow us to create the desired outcome with the target audience.

From thinking about channels to thinking about layers

Just as communications planners at the turn of the millennium helped establish the notion of ‘integration’, practitioners today need to modernise their approach, defining how integration works in a communications landscape now underpinned entirely by digital technology. Advances in marketing technology have expanded and enhanced our toolkit.

However, to think of opportunities like Search, Programmatic, Mobile, eCommerce and Dynamic Creative Optimisation exclusively as new channels limits their potential. These technologies are best thought of as layers that live over everything in the marketing plan.

Conceived of in this way, they represent a means by which our ideas can be enhanced and strengthened. For example, how do we make our ideas ‘shoppable’, bringing commerce out of the retailer and into the places our activations live? How might we ensure the brands we work for are discoverable in places where search behaviour exists, not just in Google? How should our communication ideas flex according to contextual or audience signals?

Integration is perhaps the single biggest opportunity for brands today, there are more ways to communicate than ever before. Simultaneously, it is also the biggest challenge. Moving from ‘channel thinking’ to thinking about ‘layers’ provides a conceptual framework for by which we can develop a modern form of communications planning, a form by which we might increase the coherence our work, integrating new martech opportunities at a fundamental level.

Opportunities, not challenges

The challenges we’re seeing in the media landscape today mean that conditions are ripe for a resurgence in communications planning. Naked’s central philosophy that ‘everything communicates’ is just as relevant today, if not more so than it was in the year 2000 when the agency launched.

We need to remind ourselves of what the discipline can offer both clients and agencies alike. It can’t just be ‘media plus message’, which sells the potential of this approach short.  How we modernise the discipline in light of continued innovation in digital is crucial. The opportunity is to find ways that integrate, rather than isolate new and emerging digital specialisms.

In doing so, we will create a modern communications planning product which is fit for purpose today, allowing us to reframe the challenges presented by fragmentation as an opportunity to do better, more interesting work rather than an existential risk to our business.

Tom Darlington is group strategy director at PHD Global Business

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