Name of the game is communication strategy

Media ‘planning’ and ‘buying’ are no longer adequate terms to describe the complex, continually changing media environment – hence the birth of the phrase ‘communication strategy’, says Mark Palmer. Mark Palmer is head of communication strateg

The phrase “communication strategy” was first used about seven years ago; it coincided with the time when broadcast sponsorship was legalised. It then seemed that most of my time was spent explaining what “communication strategy” meant and why it was different from “media planning”.

There is nothing wrong with the title “media planning” except for the prominent preconceptions it conveys about the role and its contribution. Seven years ago preconceptions were that a predefined number of media existed (five); the primary job of media planners and buyers was optimising the coverage of a demographic audience within a pre-defined budget; and that media’s role was to provide a passive vehicle into which creative work was placed.

Using the phrase “communication strategy” was therefore no more than a request for a different set of beliefs: that media use could fundamentally affect communication, that the role of media people was to be inquisitive and proactive and if media was used as a strategic discipline, it could make a significant difference to brands and sales.

Seven years on, this is no more than common sense.

The basic principles in flagging the words “communication” and “strategy” haven’t changed. However, what has changed dramatically is the marketing environment, the influence and scope of brands, the sophistication of consumers and, of course, the fragmentation, proliferation and cross-fertilisation of media. It is not easy to see where the lines should be drawn between product, retailer, media, brand or consumer.

There are few companies that haven’t considered sponsorship in some form when evaluating the return from communication. Direct response is an increasing requirement for what used to be regarded as “brand” advertising. Some of the fastest-growing brands in recent years do not even have a physical presence or a location (First Direct, Direct Line, Microsoft). The power of the ad budget to determine TV schedules vanished some time ago. As golf fans without Sky bemoan the absence of the Ryder Cup, Rupert Murdoch considers the benefits of running TV stations where 85 per cent-plus of revenue comes from subscription.

In the US, Murdoch’s own media strategy has moved on. He’s bought baseball team the LA Dodgers. Rumours are rife that the next stop is for Sky to buy stakes in the Premier League as it seeks to reap the rewards of the digital age and pay-per-view TV.

Manchester United’s plans to extend its brand into a dedicated cable and satellite TV station have just been announced. Banks, travel agents, retailers, publishers and so forth are poised to join it in digital formats.

Tesco ceased to be a grocery shop some time ago and became a destination. The launch of its Clubcard turned many of the normal rules of marketing on their head as Tesco started considering its customers as individuals, rather than a homogenised target to attack.

In short, the world has simultaneously expanded, shrunk, diversified, fragmented, proliferated and homogenised. Communication strategy is there as a phrase to remind us what we are trying to achieve for our clients. In developing solutions we need to remember to stay focused strategically on our clients’ business, to understand media from the consumer perspective and to avoid generating media solutions from a box. No change at all then.

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