Channel planning disrobed

There’s plenty of ambiguity going around when it comes to channel planning. So the time is right to shed some light on what it is – and, equally, what it isn’t.

A friend from a very good ad agency called the other day and said: “We need to appoint a channel planner. Can you think of anyone good enough?”. I immediately asked why and the response was brutal: “We’re fed up with getting shit thinking from our media agency.”

As harsh as this sounded, it still only felt like half a truth. A decision like this isn’t made because of frustration. I suspect it’s more about bringing the strategic side of media back under ad agency control. It does raise a couple of really interesting points, though. Firstly, channel planning/communications planning/360 planning, whatever you want to call it, has finally arrived in New Zealand.

I’m not just saying this because Naked has recently set up shop. It’s because in today’s climate agencies will only invest in what clients are prepared to pay for. And you can bet your bottom dollar that ambitious marketers want their creative agency’s ideas, as well as their own messages, offers and products more effectively planned across their entire communications mix.

The second point is even more pressing: the New Zealand market doesn’t seem to have a handle on what channel planning really is. So, to provide some much-needed clarity, let’s start with what it isn’t:

  • It isn’t a smart media person sitting outside a creative director’s office. This is too much like post rationalisation and doesn’t provide enough scope to address the client’s business objectives. Channel planning also takes a hell of a lot of interrogation and this isn’t possible when creative reviews happen at 9pm the night before they are due to be presented.
  • It isn’t media planning dressed up in drag. The world of communications is much bigger than the world of commission-based media and channel planning has to take into equal account the role for DM, PR, packaging, sales force etc.
  • It certainly isn’t the new name for a media schedule.
  • It isn’t doing the client’s job for them. All marketers have one eye on being accountable to their internal systems and the other on coordinating projects. It’s a tough job and often ends up with the delivery to market being all about informing consumers. There is legitimate room for someone who manages engagement (in this respect, I don’t mean the creative stage).

So what is channel planning then? It’s about understanding the world that brands live in as much as it is about the way consumers live, because on any given day there are countless opportunities for brands to communicate, most of which consumers experience as completely indistinct.

Channel planning makes sense of this and ensures that the best contact points are made as relevant as possible. This might sound great, but it takes skill, so if you want to say you do channel planning then at least make sure you cover the following bases:

  • Collaboration – especially with the creative partner, and right from the beginning.
  • Help nurture the ideas process – unfortunately clients can sometimes be heavy-handed and a half-decent channel planner will know how to lend a hand in protecting the integrity of an idea.
  • Accuracy – have a very precise set of outcomes that link into changes in consumer behaviour.
  • Curiosity – this is a hard one to swallow for many media blokes especially, but accept that you don’t know everything and that you might need to look under a few rocks before you have the answer.
  • Neutrality – if you have a vested interest in any particular discipline then don’t bother. For example, if you make money through media commission then obviously every problem will look like something you can solve through paid media. The reality is that channel planning isn’t fundamentally designed to rationalise traditional media, it exists to marshal all of the possible resources available and, as far as I know, the agency I referred to at the beginning of this article is yet appoint a ‘channel planner’. Of course there’s also the issue of being good enough, but that’s something else entirely.

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