Why great account planning is like jiu jitsu

One of the precepts of jiu jitsu is that smaller, weaker individuals can use leverage and positioning to triumph over bigger and stronger opponents. For John Griffiths it’s analogous to good account planning.

“It’s shorthand for using cleverness, timing and balance to outwit much larger opponents,” he says. “The challenge for planners and creatives is to overcome the disadvantage of size or modest budgets to achieve a surprising result. If you’re a heavyweight you don’t use jiu jitsu—you punch everyone’s lights out. If you are up against the big guy, then you have to change the rules.”

The U.K.-based Griffiths is a leading planning expert, author and trainer. He’s coming to Toronto May 8 and 9 to deliver a special two-day training course through the Account Planners Group.

The Message spoke with Griffiths to better understand his take on the industry today and how planners can improve their own work to drive client brand growth.

Are there existing industry trends that are problematic to you?

Planning as an industry discipline really came to the fore, and performs best, through a reliance on cognitivism says Griffiths. Cognitivism is an area of psychology that focuses on mental processes, and how people perceive, remember, and respond to stimuli.

“Cognitivism basically says it is worth asking what someone thinks about communications,” says Griffiths. “What their mental model is of the client, or the brand, and what they think the client is doing.

“We think that people are smart when they look at adverting, that they are interested, and their opinions are worth listening to in how we develop our work,” he says. It’s talking to people and trying to understand what they think, their motivations and desires, and how they feel about brands and advertising. Their misunderstandings are as important as their understandings. 

“What we had in the last few years has been this wave of behaviourism. Because the internet allows you to do behaviourism almost without effort—that’s part of the problem. We’re just measuring what people click on and what they search as if this is somehow predictive of what humans are and what they do—and I think it’s dangerous. It’s not that I’m only a cognitivist, but we have to put the two things together.”

So has digital been good for planning?

Of course it has, says Griffiths. “I’m not a luddite.” The wealth of consumer data allows planners to find richer, more meaningful insights, he says. But while behaviourists use data to tell them what is, great planners use data to imagine what could be.

He uses IKEA U.K.’s “Chuck Out Your Chintz” campaign in the mid 90s as an example. IKEA had a tiny market share in the U.K. at the time, and was having a hard time breaking through because only about 25% of the market indicated that it liked Scandinavian furniture.

In most cases, an agency would say that 25% of the population was the target, because that is what the data told them, says Griffiths.

“What IKEA did was to tell the entire country that they were wrong and had no taste in furniture. They took on the entire country. The advertising ridiculed people for their existing taste, and that breaks every rule of customer respect you’ve ever heard of. But what actually happened was the country changed its taste and said ‘Actually maybe I do like Scandinavian furniture.’”

That’s good planner jiu jitsu, according to Griffiths. It’s having the confidence to take on giants—competitors and negative brand perceptions alike—to change the game to your advantage. It’s looking at the data and not accepting what it says as reality,  but how it could be used to change reality.

So how do planners get their clients and co-workers to do that?

“You have to have a culture which is willing to challenge the status quo,” he says.

“If all you’re doing is saying ‘Let’s find the easiest and cheapest way of doing this,’ then frankly you can’t win. And that’s why the idea of saying ‘Let’s get some genius guru planner in there and they’re going to change everything’ is wrong. They’re not going to change everything. They can’t, because the culture has got to be receptive to alternative ways of thinking. If the client—if the culture—will not accept it, the most brilliant planner can’t get through.”

This sounds like a call for “disruption.”

“Most people who say they are being disruptive are just playing bullshit bingo,” he says. “Disruption is about risk-taking and doing the most unexpected thing—where, frankly, if you fail everyone says ‘I could have told you that. Of course you were going to fail. That’s crazy.”

“The trouble is everyone tells me that they’re disrupting, and they’re not,” he says. Most of what happens in a category is all the same thinking and work, and for the most part that’s because the same people are rotating around to different jobs within the same category.

“You don’t get disruption, because actually what they’re doing is they’re colluding in a status quo and, funnily enough, stuff doesn’t change from year to year.”

Real disruption comes from getting people to think differently about a category and actually change their behaviour, he says. That used to come from creatives. “But I would argue the creative work now is mostly convergent, and very similar. If you took the logo off the page you would never know what it was for. It wouldn’t make any difference.

“To me, for planners to make a difference we have to ask the ‘What if’ questions? The ‘Why not’ questions.” That’s how you turn a disadvantage into an advantage, he says. That’s good planning jiu jitsu. It’s when you have a team in the room and they think they’ve cracked the brief. Except, says Griffiths, “the brilliant planners go, yeah but….”

For tickets or information about John Griffiths “Bop It!: A Master Class in Thinking Differently,” visit APGCanada.ca

David Brown