The planning conundrum; and Tesco's 19p carrots

08 May 2017  |  Dominic Mills 
The planning conundrum; and Tesco's 19p carrots

The secret sauce of planning is in danger of thinning to the point of gruel, writes Dominic Mills. Plus: Tesco’s ineffective advertising

For various reasons - running panels, a bit of public speaking, talking around the subject, and reading pieces by Paul Silver of MediaIQ or about Simon Daglish's views - I’ve been thinking a lot about planners and planning recently.

(Too much, truth be told, because it’s beginning to do my head in. Getting it down on paper may be a form of self-exorcism.)

Let’s start with a fascinating talk by a leading industry figure at last week’s IAB Leadership Summit where she/he said (I can’t name her/him) - and I paraphrase brutally here - : ‘[Clients] can do customer experience themselves. They can do creative work themselves. They can buy media themselves. So what are agencies for?’

Good question - as long as clients are better than agencies at those things (which I don’t believe), agencies may be redundant.

But there was one thing she/he didn’t mention. Planning. A slip of the tongue? Or an admission that planning - of the top-level kind performed by creative and media agencies, the kind that genuinely makes a business difference - is something that can’t be replicated outside an agency environment.

If this is so, is planning the agencies’ secret sauce? Given the commodification of just about everything else, is that kind of classical brand-led, customer-centred, married-to-data-analysis, thinking the key thing that agencies have to offer?

Before anyone scoffs, let me also draw their attention to a recent book by philosophy professor David Papineau, Knowing the Score, in which he uses sport as a vehicle to explore various philosophical issues.

One is about ‘heritability’, the importance of genes in determining skill, or what we might simplistically call nature versus nurture.

Papineau notes the high proportion of cricketing family dynasties, versus a much lower incidence in football. Times sports columnist Matthew Syed explains it much better than I can here - incidentally, the Times paywall looks as permeable as Trump’s Mexican version - but his shorthand is that cricket is essentially a learned skill, that unlike football the movements are unnatural, and therefore environment is critical.

Papineau himself puts it thus: “It’s not just that you need special equipment and facilities...you need to be taught young - if you haven’t been initiated before your teenage years, it’s probably too late.”

Does the same, I wonder, apply to planning? That the only place where you can effectively learn the skills is in an agency, that you need to learn them young, and it is also in an agency that you continue to develop and polish those skills?

Take the individual outside an agency environment, and are they diminished? I’m not sure I would go so far, because I know there are many ex-agency planners, usually with a classical training, who make a high living as freelancers, often working directly with clients.

But I certainly think that for a number of reasons clients get a better planning output from agencies - largely for ‘environmental’ reasons like those of cricketing dynasties - than they would from in-housing planners.

One, planners love working with top-level creative minds; you are less likely to find those in the client.

Two, a planner that works only on one client’s problems, or at least is not exposed to the thinking of planners dealing with multiple clients available in an agency, may find it harder to offer something other than a conventional piece of thinking.

Three, agencies offer planners a more protective environment, from which they are better able to challenge (in the politest way, of course) the client’s thinking - exactly the thing that makes them so potentially valuable. Put it this way: they are less likely to challenge client thinking if they get fired or sidelined for being awkward. Yet this being awkward - the ‘grit that makes the oyster’ - is where they can bring competitive advantage.

It’s not hard to see where this argument might fall down. First, as agencies succumb to the temptation to give it away for free or at a discount, so they and clients place less value on it. Brian Jacobs explored this from a media agency perspective last week.

Second, where do today and tomorrow’s entry-level planners learn the skills of planning? The answer is the hard way, at the coal face of client business, but mentored by those with experience and knowledge, who themselves had those classical brand skills drummed into them.

At some point, however, these Yoda-type individuals may disappear and the secret sauce of planning thinned to the point of gruel. It’s a conundrum.

Carrots for just 19p in Tesco

As always, reports from the front-line of the supermarket wars continue to intrigue. Last week saw Sainsbury’s announce a marked decline in profits despite a sales uplift. The main culprit is clearly a price war, coupled with a decline of 2% in sales in core supermarkets.

In the same week, Kantar published its latest supermarket scorecard for the 12 weeks ending 23 April, leading the Guardian to note that Lidl, with a market share of 5%, was on course to overtake Waitrose (share 5.2%) later this summer (Aldi having cruised past Waitrose and the Co-op some time ago).

It’s a good story, but I wonder if the real story isn’t elsewhere, namely with Tesco. There, the apparent story is one of recovery, exemplified by its reporting earlier in April of a return to like-for-like sales growth of 0.9% sales growth, the first time for seven years. The rot, it seems, has stopped.

But has it? First, that sales growth is against an inflation figure of over 3% - so it’s not growth at all, really.

The second point is that, over time, Tesco’s share has dwindled away quite markedly. Kantar shows it at 27.5%.

But it wasn’t that long ago - a decade, to be more accurate - that Tesco’s share was 31.8%, a figure that looked impregnable.

Here’s a chart, drawn by that ace planner John Lowery, who worked on Tesco at Lowe and The Red Brick Road, and more recently on Lidl at TBWA\London that tells the story since September 2014.

It doesn’t make pretty reading.

I took the picture of the carrots last week. Will the twice-discounted vegetables - from 45p, to 29p, to 19p - help? Well, maybe. Yet the pile of about 50 bags also suggests Tesco might have some distribution and logistics issues, not to mention a convoluted and confusing price regime.

Note too that they are the ‘branded’ carrots, in this case from one of Tesco’s infamous fake farms. So much for that as an idea, then.

And while Tesco’s advertising through BBH has improved after a sticky start, it doesn’t seem to be making much difference.

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