Sophie Lean, head of strategy at M&C Saatchi London puts forward a case for critical minds in ad agency planning departments
One of the saviours of planning as we face the tide of in-housing is our outsider perspective. We aren’t institutionalised, we aren’t biased. We apply a healthy dose of critical thinking, even cynicism. In short, we are objective.
As planners we are often putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. Trying to understand different audiences, what their beliefs are or why they feel and behave the way they do. Day to day we spend a lot of time thinking about other people. So, while we are often very conscious of other people’s subjectivity, we can fail to notice our own.
The truth is objectivity is harder than it seems, and it needs constant work.
We all have our biases, our tendencies of thought. These are sometimes conscious, but often subconscious, and so we need to actively seek them out. In fact, every time we approach a brief, we should start by trying to understand our own gaps in objectivity.
Rather than begin by asking what our audiences think, we should first ask ourselves ‘what do I believe about this issue, challenge, category? What presumptions might I be making and where might my blind spots be?’.
You need to be your own devil’s advocate, as well as surrounding yourself with people who think the opposite of you. At M&C Saatchi we are immensely proud of our broad church of planners, and we believe that while creative pairs are quite common, there is benefit to the same approach in planning. By pairing up different planner minds, who may naturally take a strategic problem in two different directions, you can test your objectivity. Ask others explicitly – “here’s what I’m seeing? Do you see it differently?”
It’s often said that objectivity requires the removal of emotion. That it’s about looking at things coolly, rationally, and neutrally. I’d argue it’s about embracing all the emotions that might surround a problem. It’s about listening to those who are vehemently opposed and those that are blindly for, as well as those who are completely apathetic. Yes of course we should talk to real people, but not just in one off focus groups. Have ongoing conversations, whether that’s recruiting panels, WhatsApp groups or ad-hoc. That way you can get opinions on any conclusions you draw, or any ‘if that, then that’ assumptions you make.
As you approach a new brief, don't just consider the tools you’ll need to find a solution, but also what plans you’ll need to make to be objective. And remember, the time when you most strongly believe that you are right, is also when you are least likely to see a valuable alternative.