As you may know, Google asked me to curate a series of events for them designed to facilitate different thinking and debate around some of the more interesting and challenging issues facing planners today. So the inaugral #Firestarters event on Thursday, on the subject of Agile Planning, saw a couple of fantastic talks by long-time ad provocateur Mark Earls, and Stuart Eccles – co-founder of smart digital agency MadeByMany.
Mark gave a thought-provoking preview to his new book ('I'll Have What She's Having') due out later this year, building on the idea of how things don't spread unless people see other people doing it first, and how this means we need to shift focus towards the concept of lighting lots of fires and 'curating diffusion' (isn't that a lovely idea?), using data in smarter, more agile ways, identifying patterns, and how in this regard it is the space between people that is the truly interesting bit.
Stuart gave an inspiring rapid-fire talk on the subject of 'The Lean Agency', exploring the ideas around the application of agile and iterative techniques to the practice of planning (and of building useful digital stuff), and building on the thoughts and processes outlined in his Planningness presentation from late last year. Using Gareth Kay's Ideas That Do and Noah Brier's thoughts on Invention, Innovation and Diffusion as a starting point, his talk was full of quotable nuggets and ideas including: 'it's not iterative if you only do it once'; 'take what works, ditch what doesn't'; 'what's the minimum thing you can do to start testing something?'; the frequent confusion between iteration and incrementalism; the idea of a necessary balance between intuition and iteration (a great point to which I shall return), and the virtuous circle of Learn, Make, Test.
Martin Bailie curated a discussion around some themes he has written eloquently about before – namely how the very anatomy of insight is changing from ad-hoc to real-time and reponsive, but the market research industry has (largely) been slow to innovate in equipping clients to deal with a world that needs to be characterised more by always-on collaboration with audiences, and responsive marketing on the fly. I really liked some of the thoughts that came out about how the very fact that there is 'a Plan' (with a capital 'P' no doubt) is a blockage, the idea of setting the vision but allowing the route there to be flexible (a 'journey' rather than a campaign), the challenge in understanding the signal versus the noise from real-time insight, and making the point about the need to step back from iteration to understand where you are.
The critical issue of combining short-term campaigning (for want of a better word) with longer-term value building was talked about in a conversation hosted by John Willshire. Some good thoughts here, asking the question about whether we get too hung up on continuity and making the point that lots of interesting innovative ideas in the short-term builds longterm effects regardless of consistency. Building on this, the discussion spent some time on John's analogy (which I really like) of bonfires and fireworks (eloquently explained in this deck he's just put up), and augmented that with his truly smart ideas around reverberation and amplification (there was even equations involved!). There's a great post on this that John has penned as a follow up to the event which I recommend you go read.
One big question that arose out of the conversation that Mark Earls hosted around the subject matter of his talk was about how companies might analyse patterns in the data they already have access to but don't currently mine to its full potential (good point: how often do you see businesses sat on huge amounts of untapped value in the data they already collect?). There was also a thought around this about the potential of using long-term research communities over extended periods of time, and of our ability to track cultural networks (interesting thought here I think about combining feedback from brand communities with broader use of social analytics across networks).
Stuart's conversation arrived at a truly interesting question: what are the comms version of agile software frameworks? Along the way they talked about reducing the cost of failure by developing a culture of learning ('failure is only useful if it is followed by learning'), whether the creative and media planner should really be one (now there's a controversial thought), the idea of decentralising approval processes and stealth budgets, how you might bring production time and costs down to enable more speed and iteration, but how important it is to find the features that people really love ('take something away until people scream').
One question that seemed to come up again and again in the discussion was around the agility of clients and whether, even if agencies start working in more agile ways, it will be all be in vain if clients don't do the same. Ramzi Yakob hosted a discussion on just this subject, which ended up focusing on some pretty fundamental questions such as budgeting (whether clients are ready to be flexible enough to budget for experimental activity – Agile Budgeting if you will), and culture (whether a client can ever be truly agile if their organisational culture, expectation and working is still rooted in inflexibility and process). On the positive side, some good thinking seemed to be coming out around the idea of connecting with advocates in client businesses, championing examples of where different working has led to success as totems for a broader, new way of working, and (building on the idea that rather than tell a client you have to show them) giving clients the tools for a day and involving them in the process so that they might see the value first (the idea of running a client hack day for example).
As well as picking up on these points, the conversation that Michael Litman hosted around what is stopping us from being more agile, seemed to have many contributions. We're not short of potential blockers to change it seems, but we do risk them becoming overwhelming unless some of the fundmamental areas are considered: how agencies are remunerated; embedded processes; jargon; hierarchical structures and decision making; people thinking iteration is just doing extra stuff without clients paying for it; overcoming inertia. Clearly we don't have all the answers to this yet, but I liked some of the thinking that came out around encouraging an open, collaborative ideas-from-anywhere approach, empowered front-line staff, and flatter decision making. The notion also, that making new stuff, rather than focusing entirely on comms, helps create an opportunity for at least some of these issues to go away, and for a new way of working to be created.
Curating this event and discussion has brought it home to me just how broad this subject is, how many parts of our industry it touches, but also how fundmental it is to the changes we need to be making in order to be fit for purpose in a connected, always-on world. As I said in my wrap to the event at the end, I'd like to think that this was not the end of an event but the start of a debate. Too many conferences it seems, feel like they're trying to solve issues in one event and in the end only succeed in raising questions to which there is little opportunity to debate potential answers. That's why we deliberately didn't make this a conference, but a provocation and a discussion. Judging by the feedback on the night and since, it feels like that really worked, but it's only the start. So rather than it being a one-off, our aim here is to curate a series of events, and explore and build on the points that I've attempted to capture here.
Props to Google for taking the approach that they have in facilitating that debate, and thanks to all who came and participated, particularly the presenters and conversation hosts. You can view the fantastic illustration that the guys at Scriberia did to capture the talks and the debate in full effect here. The date of the next event (likely in June) will be confirmed here soon but in the meantime contributions, feedback and thoughts around some of the ideas captured here (and the themes for the next event) are more than welcome.