So what is communications planning?

Communications planning provokes as much debate today as it did in the mid-1990s, when it was the height of fashion in media and marketing. But while the industry may have accepted the concept, the questions about what it is and who should do it remain the same.

Naked Communications, the agency that sparked more of the debate than any other, returned to the spotlight last week when it was sold to Australian marketing services company Photon Group for £16.5m. While the agency’s founders have been developing Naked across the world and diversifying its offer, the London office has been quiet.

Ivan Pollard, the fourth partner at Naked alongside the founders, believes communications planning was a victim of its own high fashion. He adds: “Naked was famous for stunts but now it is equally famous for its expansion, tools and data.”

While the hype around Naked may have died down, there seems to have been growing fatigue with the idea of communications planning. Initiative head of planning Tony Regan, who launched WPP Group communications planning unit Nylon, says: “There was a time when, because it was fashionable, agencies competed with each other by claiming to do it. I feel that it’s got a bit hackneyed and it is unclear what it means.”

The definition of communication planning varies across the board and from agency to client. To Pollard, it is an “assessment of all of the possible opportunities to invest money and marshal a client’s efforts at all touch points where the brand and consumers will meet”.

Under the skin

For Phil Nunn, partner at Trinity Communications, it is more data driven and helps a client draw all of their comms together. He adds: “It is about encompassing all channels and getting right under the skin of a brand, but you have to get into the data, which is often ignored by media agencies and clients themselves.” Regan simply says it is “the scope to prioritise activity in any channel according to what is appropriate for the task”.

The only area of agreement is that it should mean the most appropriate channels are used for the most appropriate message. Libby Child, chief executive of business relationship consultancy Aprais, says that the differences between agencies mean clients are often confused.

She explains: “At the simplest level, communications planning is broader than media planning, embracing all channels. That’s why clients don’t understand why their media agencies can’t do it.”

The question of where planning communications should sit – in house or in a standalone agency – is another key issue for clients. Child says media agencies are responding to clients’ demands but adds that many are still tied to remuneration deals that call their neutrality into doubt.

Meanwhile, advertising agencies are looking to move into communications planning territory and are making noises about a return to full service. CHI & Partners has already scooped the media planning and buying accounts for Carphone Warehouse (MW, January 17) and Virgin Money (MW, December 16, 2007).

Standalone agency

For Tim Allnut, who runs CHI & Partners Media, communications planning is “fundamental” to what CHI does and should not be handled by a standalone agency. Allnut adds: “You either believe in it and put it at the heart of what you do or don’t.”

In the long term, many clients are looking to reduce the number of agencies on their rosters. However, clients are sceptical about the neutrality of advice from their media and ad agencies. Child points out that while clients may not need retained standalone agencies, they might occasionally need specialist advice.

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