Perspective: Sarah Thompson on planning for the unplannable

The CSO at Mindshare shares how to think three steps ahead and be prepared for the best- and worst-case scenarios.

SarahThompson-HeadshotBy Sarah Thompson

If you thought 2020 was a challenging year for media planning, 2021 is going to be incredible. That’s because the only thing we know for sure is that we don’t know what’s ahead. With a myriad of evolving factors at play – from the growth and anti-trust of walled gardens, shifting media consumption patterns, the transition to a cookie-less digital media landscape, and content production processes (from sports to primetime) adapting to fluctuating regulations – there is more uncertainty ahead. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared.

The hurricane of unexpected changes to media last year resulted in brands leaning in, pulling out, turning media on and off, and then going through all those steps again. This year, we suspect that there will be more of the same, but we have the opportunity to be proactive and prepared. Scenario planning is critical, allowing the strategy team to get a sense of all the factors at play and the possible moves on the chessboard as a result – taking socio-cultural, technological, media, economic and political factors into consideration. For this process to work, we must avoid bias from availability (relying on only what we know) and ensure we are eliminating social bias (being too stuck in group think).

At this time, you may be wondering “What does this have to do with media and investment?” and the answer is “Everything.” People changed so much in 2020 that we fast-forwarded trends and then devolved into other areas in response to the changes in our communities. Equipped with that understanding and experience, we can now explore the potential facets of change in 2021 and appreciate that the future of our industry will continue to not look like our past.

For instance, given the spiked increase in video and audio consumption as a result of restricted mobility, our team at Mindshare and GroupM are exploring how to get reach in new ways in these spaces. Understanding production challenges and content shortages we need to ask ourselves: “What will a drop in new movies on Netflix every month do to TV performance? And given the current situation in Australia, what happens when Google cuts you off?”

This is a good exercise because it helps you understand the critical uncertainties that the industry could face in light of extended outbreaks, challenges with vaccines, and economic turbulence. It’s a good time to pull together a cross-functional agency team and consider the journey ahead in order to be more confident in how to address it.

There is a wealth of information on how to go through the process, such as the HHL-Roland Berger scenario-based strategic planning approach. Or, for me as a career marketing strategist, I’ve found it helpful to use the Influence Diagram Approach – where, in a single place, you can see all the factors at play for media and how they are interrelated to audiences, planning, and buying. For instance, in sports, if there is a COVID-19 outbreak that causes production or the season to change, you can see what that could do to viewership and advertising opportunities, as well as what is possible should they return to broadcast. You can explore more dimensions of the situation and start to explore issues systematically.

Scenario-planning is a good exercise to undergo at the start of any year, not just these very scary and turbulent ones. This year is a good one to start an annual resolution to have a good scenario plan and feel more confident as we head into the unexpected changes of 2021.