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March 2, 2010
A Call to Unlearn

People often ask me what it takes to be or to hire a great connection planner. Does a candidate need to have a media background? Can yesterday’s brand planners morph into today’s connection planners? Is it more about creativity or strategic smarts?

My short answers to the above are no, yes, and both (but leaning toward the latter). Ask someone else in the field, though, and you could get different answers.

The truth is it’s a new, developing discipline, and people define and perform it differently. A basic agreement seems to exist that connection planning is the application of consumer insights to inspire connection (or contact, communications, engagement, or media) opportunities, yet the how, when, and whom one does that through is open to broad interpretation.

Through my consulting work with many different agencies and marketers, I enjoy a unique vantage point from which to see what can make or break connection planning. What I’ve come to realize is success may have less to do with a planner’s experience or innate abilities than many believe.

In fact, it has less to do with the connection planner at all than with the surrounding people, processes, and expectations. Rather than being about what people do, successful connection planning more often than not is about what they don’t do. It requires a dedicated commitment to unlearning much of what has driven communications development for decades.

What do I mean by "unlearning?" Well, consider that my own personal definition of connection planning calls for making an impact on the communications solution itself -- not just the delivery of the communication (i.e., the media plan), but the creative, too. This simple-sounding goal calls for some decidedly difficult changes in the age-old unwritten rules of advertising.

For example:

  • Old rule: Get the brief into the creatives’ hands as soon as possible. The more time they have, the better the work will be.
  • New rule: Connection insights need to be in every brief.

This is one of those things to which many of today’s agency leaders will nod their heads readily. They’re politically correct enough to say agree without hesitation.

However, in the heat of a hot project, will they block out a day or two to allow this to happen?  It's not likely. Instead, they rush to the old goal of getting the brief done and off to the creatives as fast as they can. They can’t break the habit of giving the creatives as much time as possible, even if it means supplying incomplete input.

  • Old rule: Media “insight” equals media habits.
  • New rule: Connection insights that are insightful.

Time and again, I see factual statements or relatively simple leaps of logic being regaled as connection insights. (“Our target audience members are entertainment junkies!”) Sadly but predictably, these would-be insights almost never lead to surprising or unusually effective solutions.

Real insight is not obvious; it doesn’t spit out of computer runs or focus groups. It’s hard, and it takes perseverance and courage from people willing to embarrass themselves by throwing a lot at the wall before anything sticks.

  • Old rule: Media strategies are about dayparts and flighting.
  • New rule: Connection strategies inspire and inform the creative solution itself.

This one seems to be the toughest for many. It’s downright uncomfortable for them to allow “media” thinkers to set, or even contribute substantially to, a campaign strategy. I say if you can’t get past this one, stop trying to do connection planning. What’s the use of arriving at rich insights about how to fit brands into people’s lives if those insights can’t inform the invention of ideas?

  • Old rule: Let the creatives retreat into their cave, then reveal what they’ve come up with when (and only when) they deem it ready to share. Then media people can come up with some sexy tactics to extend the idea.
  • New rule: Let others in the sandbox at the same time.

It takes a village, people. Connection thinkers, digital strategists, producers, and other specialists need to help invent communications solutions today. Everyone knows this. Precious few actually do it.

One reason exists why behavior change is so hard: We’re human. We’re hardwired to resist change out of self-preservation, yet the irony is that the way to stay alive in this business isn’t to cling to the past. It’s to unlearn.

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Lisa Seward has been pushing boundaries since starting at Leo Burnett in 1987. As North American media director at Fallon, she led the development of connection planning as a new U.S. discipline and won numerous awards for media creativity. She’s been named an AdWeek Media All-Star and Ad Age Media Maven. As Mod's owner and principal consultant, Lisa helps agencies and marketers fuse media and creative into more modern communications solutions.

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