Planning Taxonomy

Agency Spy asked me a load of questions about different types of planners, but I think the answers were too meaty for a post on their site. And the answer just wasn’t scandalous enough to suit their style I suppose. But I spent the time thinking and writing about it and I’m sure there are a variety of opinions out there, so I wanted to share and hear your reactions. Here are their original quesitons:

As new channels and mediums have been added; as culture shifts and changes, planning has evolved along with it. I’ve recently started wondering… As we have added new planning based job descriptions and methodologies – how are we incorporating these ideas into our larger community and our work? I think other people are curious about this, as well.

So a few questions if you don’t mind?

1. Connections. Propagation. Media. Brand. Digital. Accounting. Behavioral. Do you think all of these disciplines are necessary?

2.  Planning is one of the few areas of the business that keeps evolving new methodologies and job titles. Lots of people aren’t sure about all of the disciplines – what they mean, how they’re different though they know they are someone important. Do you think that the industry should offer some sort of guidelines for each discipline of planning?

3. Lots of shops want their planners to be educated in new disciplines, but don’t offer a lot of support. I’m curious – do you have any training set up for your planners to help them learn new methods of planning?

4. I’m wondering about your expectations. Do you expect your planners to be multidisciplinary planners with the ability to handle all types of planning? Is their a base level of planning ability/education you think is required to be sufficient to do them all or some? (ie If you can brand plan, then you do anything!)

5. People are now identifying by disciplines such as “I am a connections planner!”  What do you think of the trend for planners to identify themselves in this way?

6. Traditional shops fear that digital planners don’t understand the more traditional side of planning (archetypes, cultural meanings, challenger brand, blah, blah, etc); that their skill is wildy different. Do you feel that’s a reasonable concern? Do you think a digital planner could also do offline, and more traditional work?

My response:

I recently became head of planning for our Amsterdam office and have hired two junior planners. Hoping to add a more senior planner any day now! I’ve interviewed 75 people from around the world about the positions I have in the past few months asking about their take on strategy (I use the words planning and strategy interchangeably), what skills they have to offer and matching them back to what I think I need. Each client poses its own unique set of challenges, but at the core I believe that any planner worth a paycheck is developing or innately has these abilities:

Curious: interested in learning about new things and demonstrate that interest through trying and doing. I am a big believer in personal projects, whether they are planning related or fed from some other interest, I want a planner who is a dreamer with a deadline.

Synthesis and analysis: they take their learning (numbers,ideas, thoughts) and turn it into something interesting, they need to simplify complex issues and clarify ways of moving forward that are inspiring

Opinionated: they have a point of view about everything. I usually call this a strong voice but I don’t mean dominating the room. Listening is critical, but they have to have articulate thoughts that persuade clients and the rest of the agency.

Collaborative: Again this is listening, but also waiting your turn, not owning your ideas, likeable enough that people just want you around to hear your thoughts

Communicative: they think through talking and writing, they get others on board and include them, they always have a story or idea to share

Patient: They understand that companies are massive and take time to change but realize it’s worth the wait and the perseverance.

Emotionally intelligent: They are sensitive to others, can be in many types of people’s heads and think like they do.

Positivity: They are enthusiastic but more than that, naturally see the good in a situation, lighten the mood, realize we’re not putting hearts in babies.

So that said, I love that planners tend to be the ones analyzing and putting their curiosity and positivity toward the industry, not just their client work. They think “what if” about their jobs and try new things. I think most of the sub-types of planners (account, brand, connections) are either people uncomfortable with the ambiguity that the title “planner” has, or they are experimenting with new ways of working in order to stand out or in hopes of truly being a better contributor to good work.

In my planning survey 2 years ago, I asked connections planners and digital planners to tell us what it is they do that is different from “traditional” planning. I think it was early days, but there are some subtle differences and performance enhancements coming out of these roles. Digital, for example, needs a curious person who has learned how all the social media/search/site elements work, who has proven they know how to make them work for themselves personally in developing professionally, who get the tech jargon and the specific challenges associated. But at the heart, they must have the above core skills. Connections planners, by comparison, are often strategy people brought into media holding companies so that their recommendations are more strategically sound or they are meant to bring the best of media thinking into the agency now that most media duties have gone to the media holding companies. Partner agency relationships are never as impactful on the work as having all the skills in one integrated agency.

Brand/Account/Strategic planner are all the same thing to me.

Propagation planning is a trick we should all have in our bag of tricks to think about in formulating briefs – who are the potential influencers of a target that might solve the problem even better or in a more interesting way than going after the target directly? But it’s not the only way to approach problems.

Media planners are strategic but not in this same group – they figure out where we can be to reach a particular audience and recommend a plan based on the budget available, or inspire the client to spend in order to get a particular result. Creative media planners can be extremely helpful in creating new media opportunities when brought into the process early. Sometimes “creative media planners” are also called connections planners.

I don’t see any need for the industry to set down guidelines. As soon as they put pen to paper, someone will come up with some new permutation. The variations with real value will survive.

On your last question, I would really recommend reading this article and the academic paper it was written about (linked within).

There are a lot of brands setting their strategy with their big, above the line agency, then hiring digital shops to extend that strategy digitally. There are only a few companies truly doing integrated thinking and work – StrawberryFrog being one, but also CP+B, The Martin Agency, and Mullen. I know because I’ve worked at all of them. This is my preferred model of working and a huge reason why I left DDB/Tribal for the position at StrawberryFrog.

In a separate digital agency, from my experience at Tribal, planners just aren’t asked to do the big brand strategy work. In that year, I never created a brand from scratch or worked through a repositioning with a client. But many of the best digital strategists did that type of work before they specialized. From my time at Tribal I learned that getting specific is a huge help in deepening your thinking. So I can do what planners in “traditional shops” can do, but they can’t do digital. If those digital shops bring up a crop of young thinkers who never cut their teeth on that all-encompassing thinking, then sure, maybe they won’t get how to come up with master strategies. But honestly, this isn’t rocket surgery. Smart people who meet the above criteria given the chance, who have the interest, who’ve read the books and who are coached by mentors who care can do it. That’s the training method too – give more and more responsibility, fairly distribute work so everyone has a chance at different aspects of planning, talk about case examples, read books/blogs and discuss together, and be as available to younger planners as possible. Any young planner’s eagerness will be rewarded with attention and mentoring.

One area you didn’t touch on is Global planning. Back of the napkin estimate, I think there are 10,000 planners in the world. Of those, about 100 are setting strategies for brands that are meant to transcend local cultures and touch people at their most basic, human core. Global planners. I think the need for that type of planner is on the rise and that there is a serious lack of people able to work with huge companies across loads of markets with all the complexities that entails. Generally, we have to hire smarties and train them to think this way.

6 thoughts on “Planning Taxonomy

  1. For some of us, planning’s been more of a “walking toward the light” kind of thing; we understand that it’s good, and we have a sense for how to do it, but without people who have gone before us, it lacks definition.

    At least now we can look at what you’ve written and start tearing it apart…in the most constructive way possible, of course. 🙂

  2. Great post. I think at the end of the day planning is about being a catalyst for good idea generation. The requirements for this is adaptability. Every client and every agency wants something different out of you. You need to be able to adapt, learn, and evolve, but also know when to challenge ideas and stand your ground for something you believe in.

  3. I’d add to the rather splendid list above the ability to be honest, which links to the emotional intelligence characteristic. We have to be straight with clients, creatives and ourselves…so even when we have our opinion, we can say we were wrong (but not that often!).

    Keep up the good work.

  4. What a great piece. In South Africa where I live and work as a Planner, the discipline is also fairly new and thus there aren’t many thought leaders or mentors which makes external learning through blogs/columns/books quite difficult. So this is awesome. I loved that you included opinionated, been accused of that a few times and I’ve always said that it was never a bad thing! What agency do you currently work for?

  5. Really interesting article (as is riding the fourth wave), thanks! I’ve had a job as a Junior Planner in London for nearly a year now. I completely agree with you when you say “I don’t see any need for the industry to set down guidelines. As soon as they put pen to paper, someone will come up with some new permutation.”

    I’m lucky enough (or unlucky enough depending on your point of view) to be the only Junior in our agency so I’ve been thrown in at the deep end and have had the chance to be mentored by some great seniors as a result. I probably spent the first 8 months worrying about finding the perfect description for my role. Every mentor I’ve had over the last year had a different definitions for our role. The only thing they each had in common was that their explanations were always focused around the kind of qualities and interest to have as an individual and how you integrate them into your agency…rather than a specific checklist of tasks to follow depending on which planning discipline ‘hat’ you’re wearing that particular day.

    The result is that, end of year one I don’t think the perfect definition exists, and I’ve realised I’m actually quite relieved that it doesn’t. Cheers for the post.

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