Effective Planning: Conquering your own bias

I’ve often thought life must have been much simpler as a cave man living 100,000 years ago. People needed food, warmth and shelter to survive and the idea of a spreadsheet would have seemed an alien concept. In the modern era, however, we have things called jobs, and a seemingly endless list of stimuli that can be either beneficial to those jobs, or a hindrance.

As a media planner, something that comes under the ‘hindrance’ heading are biases, both internal and external. This topic is one that truly fascinates me, and I have followed the endless debate about bias over the years as they change, grow and appear or disappear according to external forces. It would be an impossible task to analyse the impact of the full spectrum of stimuli, but here I hope you will humour me as I examine a few key elements I believe are worth exploring.

Most obviously, we face a natural bias towards those media channels with which we’re most familiar, or those we have historically seen to be the most effective within our individual experiences. In the same way we play to our strengths, we place more emphasis on what we know best, with the likely outcome being media strategies that aren’t best placed to deliver against brand objectives. Examples of this are hard to come by as they tend not to be listed for awards (unsurprisingly), however it flags the importance of a diverse skillset within teams to fill the gaps of others and ensure activation isn’t limited by our own lack of expertise.

Moreover, prevailing industry thought that comes to be taken as common knowledge can be a dangerous pitfall in the struggle for channel agnostic planning. It’s very easy for pre-conceived notions to become embedded in our psyche to the extent that we take it as gospel and don’t question it, or instead build upon it rather than rebuild. However, just because something has worked historically doesn’t guarantee its future success. Breakthroughs are made in physics by developing a theory and then trying to disprove it, and by having a similar willingness to question and discard our own industry thought (and indeed our own theories) we can add more value to our clients through the creation of more robust strategy.

The phrase “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics” is often used to describe the persuasive power of numbers and highlights another pitfall of our internal biases. Often, we’ve decided the best solution to a problem long before any empirical evidence comes our way. It’s unsurprising then, that we reverse cause and effect in a search for insights to back up said beliefs, before then presenting them in a way that suggests we’ve come to a decision off the back of that evidence and not vice versa. This may be a much more efficient way to plan as there’s no room for a potential spanner in the works, but it’s certainly not more effective. There’s no denying experience and common sense are both key ingredients in the recipe for successful planning, but there’s no substitute for data in building robust strategy.

Taking a more wide-lens view, there’s a big question to be asked within the media industry around the role of owned, earned and shared media. The current heavy emphasis on paid media owes a lot to its ability to be measured against hard KPIs, which in an industry increasingly answerable to short-term, bottom line metrics has meant media that contributes to the long-term development of a brand takes a backseat.

In its most damaging form, this can result in brands and agencies driving ever further down the efficiencies road at the expense of owned, earned and shared advertising, blinkered by an all-consuming push to achieve the highest ROI possible. In the moment, optimising in this way can look like an attractive proposition as hard metrics are the most tangible sign of success we have. Taking a step back however, it’s clear this can sometimes mean the role of other media channels contributing to softer brand metrics is neglected, leaving brands with a larger job to do than before to revive their brand awareness and image. It’s our job as planners to educate brands against this.

Something more subtle is a behaviour discussed in Helena Morrisey’s ‘A good time to be a girl’ called ‘groupthink’. This is the idea that groups of people who share the same culture, beliefs and social circles are more likely not only to back each other’s opinions but also to disregard others, believing in the strength of their collective and agreeable mindset. Notably, it can have the effect of perpetuating the same thought and work processes, leaving little room for diversity of thought. In 1986 the space shuttle Challenger broke up within minutes of taking off, killing the seven crew members. Engineers who voiced their concerns about the unusually cold conditions were ignored by NASA managers, confident in their group belief that this wasn’t a serious issue.

As a business case, there isn’t one much stronger for making diversity and inclusion central to your business model. Just as diversifying your business’s products and services can help to safeguard against business decline, diversity in a workforce can help safeguard against stagnation and promote growth through the introduction of new, fresh thinking.

Our role as media planners is to build strategy that delivers against our clients’ brand objectives as effectively as possible. To do that requires a conscious understanding not only of our own personal biases, but also the biases within the industry and our working environment. A lot of the time there’s no easy catch-all we can use to define what’s good stimulus and what’s bad stimulus, but a good starting point would seem to me to be the desire to find what’s useful and what isn’t, and that all starts with asking the right questions.

By Jonny Harrie, Business Manager