Planners need to break the chains of specialization

So, the results from the WARC Future of Strategy survey say that we’re frustrated by the march away from long-term work, and towards short-term project work.

Well, to me this suggests that perhaps planners need to be the change agents inside their agencies and help change how we work to guarantee a more fulfilling future.

How do we get to this future? I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. We are specialising ourselves into irrelevance.

If you look inside client organizations, you see more silos and specialisms than ever before. The same is true within the marketing function.

What’s more, clients have more companies advising them than ever before. Where did these agencies come from? The impetus for this trend lies, at least in part, with the agency holding companies’ continuing strategy of diversifying their services. They do this in order to drive their revenues.

This of course means there is more focus on channels and activities, and less focus on the client’s actual business problems. And it means there is more impetus — explicit or not — for us to offer advice that is self-serving rather than value-driving.

You can also see this fragmentation within the planning discipline itself — where once there were only planners, there are brand strategists, growth strategists, communication strategists, digital strategists, mobile strategists, social strategists, and so on. I’m surprised we haven’t gone retro and created the TV strategist and print strategist to complete the set.

All of this fragmentation in the core role of the planner is creating brands that are fragmented into a million little pieces.

We continually fail to deliver a coherent end-to-end brand experience.

We end up solving our problems, not the client’s business problem. We are exerting our efforts on downstream, tactical activities — and we are not zooming out to see the bigger picture.

This over-specialisation problem is only amplified by the increasingly short-term nature of our engagements. We know that the truly valuable effects of brand building — such as rising base sales, commanding a price premium and, as Judith Williamson so wonderfully puts it, “building empires of the mind” — takes time.

Yet increasingly we are being asked to work in short-term bite-sized projects. And, increasingly, we planners are being disincentivized from thinking and working long and broad, rather than short and narrow.

There’s an urgent need, in my opinion, for the return of what I call the “informed generalist”.

The informed generalist is a planner who is able to see the whole picture and design the right solution, unencumbered by the chains of specialisation.

Who is obsessed by the outcomes they create, not just by the output they make.

Who can join up thinking and deliver a solution across time and space.

Who is able to zoom in and out as required, in order to see the forest and the trees.

This may seem the opposite of where we are going. But if we don’t address this, I fear we risk ceding more ground — intellectually, financially and in sheer unbridled enjoyment — to the advisor who still thinks long and broad: the management consultant.

First published in the WARC Future of Strategy Report

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