Varia Makagonova urges her audience at the ECP to build their brand experiences on real, human insights

“Good strategy should be invisible,” as the saying goes. This is probably why, if you get a group of planners together, they won’t actually talk about planning for long. That’s because they’ll be too busy talking about cool stuff that they’ve found, rediscovered, researched or realized.

After all, that’s practically the planner’s job description: to “have the ability to be interested – to find the interesting part of anything that they do”, as Boris Nihom of Achtung! put it on the speakers’ panel of the 2015 European Planning Conference.

The event took place over two days in the hauntingly beautiful city of Prague, and drew a motley crowd of ‘planning types’ from strategy directors to freelancers to those who had left ‘the industry’ but still retained the strategy spirit.

And the theme, as much as there could be one, was very much about finding inspiration in the ‘real’ behavior of ‘real’ people. That is, of getting off of our ‘storytelling’ pedestal and getting our hands dirty in the real world.

Man is not a rational animal – he quoted Robert Heinlein – but a rationalizing one

Tom Theys of FCB memorably opened the conference by reminding us of some fundamental psychological research: that it’s not so much that thoughts create feelings create behavior, but that actually often it’s the other way around. And that’s why creating moments for people to interact with your brand should be at least as important as creating convincing reasons for them to consider it. “Man is not a rational animal,” he quoted Robert Heinlein, “but a rationalizing one.”

My talk picked up where Tom’s left off, offering Sid Lee’s perspective on designing branded experiences. In particular, I urged planners to remember the importance of building experiences from real, human insights – avoiding the temptation to go for what’s easy, flashy, or spectacular.

Professional influencers were the next stop for inspiration, as Michael Bahles shared some lessons learned from the world of diplomacy. Michael pointed out the importance of skills (empathy; listening more than speaking), but also the importance of preparation (in particular, learning about and understanding the culture and expectations of the other party). “The worst thing you can do,” he said, “is to be derisive or dismissive of the other party’s cultural norms”.

In a world where people increasingly care less and less about brands, we need to give people a reason to talk about them

Boris Nihom of Amsterdam agency Achtung! spoke about a more direct approach: learning directly from people’s behavior through the use of rapid prototyping. He argued that in a world where people increasingly care less and less about brands, we need to give people a reason to talk about them. And the best way to do that is through tech innovation that goes directly into their hands, and lets us learn from the way they interact with our products. This reshapes the role of the planner from the ivory-tower thinker to an experimenter, and lets others come along on the journey. And like it or not – this is probably the future of the industry, as we get less opportunity for deliberation and more demand for rapid action and reaction.

And Katharina Michalski of Miami Ad School provided a zoomed-out perspective by talking about how planners can learn from world history to piece together emerging trends and anticipate changes in behavior. “History does not repeat itself”, she memorably stated, but there are correlations, trajectories, and fluctuations in cultural codes that we can uncover to draw useful and meaningful analogies between the past, present and future. And above all, she says, learning from history is about self-knowledge. Just as planning, understanding others starts with understanding ourselves. And it’s a skill that we cannot bear to lose.