Moving Pictures

Tom Birk and a few of his colleagues ride their bikes from Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s Miami offices over to Key Biscayne. The six-mile ride, Birk says, has given his New England complexion a healthier glow and allows for an informal exchange of ideas outside the agency. These days, though, even the sand and surf of the picturesque resort island can’t keep the conversation light.

Since the tragic events of Sept. 11, Birk has been struggling to digest the facts and develop an understanding of how the attacks and the resulting military action will affect our society and culture. Much of the rest of the nation has been doing the same thing—but, as a planning director, this is Birk’s job. He’s the agency’s link to the consumer mind-set. “Part of our job is to go out and discover basic human truths,” he says.

And those truths have become particularly difficult to pinpoint. “It’s a very interesting time to be a planner,” he says.

At a time when pure instinct is easier than ever to second-guess, consumer research offers agencies and their creative departments guidance on how to proceed with their clients’ advertising as every piece of communication going out the door becomes subject to in creased scrutiny. For Birk’s planning department of five, that means stepping up what would normally be monthly temperature readings of “guerrilla-style” interviews to weekly initiatives and hiring freelance planners in local markets to glean regional information. Planners at agencies large and small have similarly been poring over the standard tools available—studies conducted by polling firms, trend letters, futurists’ reports, even Internet chat rooms—to determine how recent events and the dipping economy have changed the priorities of consumers and the way they respond to various types of advertising.

“We have to make ourselves valuable to our clients in a period when everything is upside down,” says Marian Salzman, global director of strategic planning at Euro RSCG, who has mobilized 150 planners worldwide to tackle the problem. “It’s very hard to argue that you’re relevant when you’re not up-to-the-minute in what’s going on.”

With news reports constantly offering alarming new information, staying up-to-the-minute has become all the more complicated. “Consumers are responding almost on a daily basis. It’s not something that happens very often,” Birk says. “You can think of events like the Challenger explosion or Tiananmen Square that have touched people, but there hasn’t been anything like this.”

“It’s changing every day, and it’s changing almost in real time,” says James Martin, senior vice president of marketplace planning at GSD&M in Austin, Texas. “It’s like you are trying to play a game and someone keeps moving the pieces.”

To help gather additional data, says Salzman, Euro RSCG is working with research firm Itsos Reid to conduct a monthly telephone poll, asking consumers, for example, how they feel about traveling and spending money. A group of 40 college students, called the X-plorer Panel and charged with keeping Salzman’s team abreast of up-and-coming trends, has increased the frequency of its e-mail reports to every other day. “We’ve really intensified what we want them to be,” she says.

New planning initiatives at Fallon include publishing a weekly report for staff and clients called “The New Reality.” “We had people working around the clock to publish the major themes that were emerging,” says director of planning Anne Bologna, who oversees the work of eight planners at the agency’s Minneapolis headquarters. “For those who thrive on chaos and change and messiness, this is really it. This is the ultimate planning assignment.”

Bologna, who has 16 years of agency experience, says she feels not only a professional responsibility but also a heightened personal obligation to provide insight into the public psyche right now. Diving into the task is a process that is itself cathartic. “It helps us all process what’s going on,” she says.

Martin at GSD&M has been briefing agency personnel and clients about his group’s findings in presentations that ask, “Return to Normalcy?” The question is a key one for marketers and clients—”One of the key signals of normalcy is to continue to consume and buy,” he says.

What agencies are finding is that the nation is collectively experiencing a sense of loss and is slowly working its way through the classic stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

“One of the overall implications that we are seeing is a new normalcy emerging,” says Bologna. “People are extremely motivated to get back to normal, yet everybody is, in their own way, admitting that the normalcy is of a new kind.”

Bologna’s department, like most planning groups, goes beyond those generalities, asking questions that may not be immediately obvious to a client. For instance, what are the implications of the country’s heightened spiritualism? What does buying American mean in the context of radically increased patriotism? What does it mean for globalization?

“The other interesting question that may not be asked by the clients is, What do you do with this incredibly strong urge in the nation to do something and do something good?” Bologna says. “What does that mean and how does it affect clients? You don’t know. But should we be thinking about that? Of course.”

If anything becomes clearer for agencies through research, it will be the importance of maintaining the integrity of their brands’ core values. “In a sense, the hangover of the excesses of our culture has been cleared out and clarified this year,” says Chris Riley, head of strategic planning at Wieden + Kennedy in Port land, Ore. “In the last few weeks, the curtains have been drawn to reveal an awareness and sensitivity to other people and other places.”

Like other planning directors with international resources, Rich ard Monturo, director of planning at TBWA\Chiat\Day in Playa del Rey, Calif., has sought guidance from overseas offices that have had more experience dealing with terrorism situations. “What they’ve told us is that it just becomes part of your everyday life,” he says. “You try to position your brand as having some tangible value and be careful to put it in a cultural context that won’t remind people of the unpleasant.”

Initially, Monturo says, he relied on instinct and common sense to help creative directors determine which creative product needed to be immediately altered. “I didn’t want to do any market research for a couple of weeks, because I knew that the re sults would be soon invalid,” he says. “It didn’t feel ethical.” He started talking to focus groups last week.

Monturo is still adjusting to the new pace of his job. “I wake up every day asking myself, What kind of day is this going to be today?”

Much like the rest of us.