Rise of the polymath – What is brand planning and what traits make a great strategist?

They say that deciding what to do after leaving school is a key time in a person’s life, or that leaving college is the time when you really shape your future. These are ‘funnel eras’ in your life, times when you must narrow your options and choose to follow a path.

I’m going to be completely honest here, even when I decided to leave Simply Zesty, three years out of college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my career.

For me, while I had honed my thinking – choosing to follow a path in business, then a path in marketing, followed by a focus on digital business and then startups – I had literally no idea what was to come next.

At that stage, I’d had enough of the constant stress, low thinking time and bias to ‘billable’ hours of account side, yet I certainly didn’t have the full skill set to be a great creative (we’re all amateur copywriters though eh?!).

And then, fate struck.

On a night out with a few friends, someone mentioned to me that the role of a planner might be an area that suited my desire for control, to focus on longer term, high level strategy and most importantly, my incessant theorising around brands.

As I started to do a bit of research, my angel in expensive Japanese denim came to the rescue, and here I am today, happily planning away for some of Ireland’s biggest brands!

Best jobs in the world

It’s my solemn opinion that being an ad planner is one of the best jobs in the world, and yet, it’s not a path that all have the aptitude for, it isn’t sold as a future career option to graduates (at least in my experience), or even well understood by many within the industry.

Getting to work with big brands to make sense of an increasingly fragmented advertising landscape, unearth and solve strategic business problems and proffer opinions on important trends and insights is incredibly rewarding.

I firmly believe that the planning discipline is misunderstood in Ireland at the moment, and while I certainly don’t have all the answers, as a relative ‘noob’ to the role, I do have some opinions and experience.

I’ve also done a huge amount of looking into the history of planning as a discipline and focused on how our role is changing as agencies, channels and businesses evolve.

Here are some thoughts…

What makes a great brand planner?

A good planner is a ‘polymath‘, a curious, nosy bastard drawing on a diverse range of cultural, sociological, psychological and other interests. Ideally, a great planner will be agile, open to change and excited by new cultural phenomenons, often identifying them before they even happen.

Essentially, a brand planner is a plug in, both externally for your clients, but also internally for your creatives and account people. They’re the people that make the creatives go ‘Aha’, the people who translate a disparate, multifaceted client brief, bringing in information that’s etheral and nebulous and condensing it into simple, actionable tasks or relevant insights.

A planner is an intermediary, a facilitator, an enabler who works to arm creatives with robust, smart thinking.

Honesty, clarity of thought (we’ve enough bulshitters in this business!) and the ability to bring objectivity to the process through the smart application of data and self reference are also common traits of great planners.

(If you’re not a sports fan, skip the next two paragraphs, if you are, this might enlighten you)

If I were to reference this back to sporting terms, a planner isn’t a Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, or Luis Suarez, the preening, brooding star of the team. (That, of course, is the creative!)

They’re the Xabi Alonso and the Sergio Busquets, a fairly important cog to the naked eye, but a mission critical part of the team to those who fully understand the role. They sit back, pull the strings, facilitate, translate defence into attack and ultimately set up others for the glory – a puppeteer.

Planners are proactive in their thinking, ahead of the curve (sometimes too far ahead) and act without ego, but know how to stroke the client or creatives ego.

According the APG group, ‘almost every communications agency (and their clients) benefits from a disciplined  system for devising communications/advertising/commercial strategy and enhancing its ability to produce outstanding creative solutions that will be effective in the marketplace. It is the planner’s job to guide or facilitate this process via the astute application of knowledge or consumer/market understanding.’

Too many agencies undervalue the importance of a strong creative brief, preferring instead to let creatives loose like proverbial monkeys flinging shit in the form of irrelevant ideas at each other (ok, maybe I laboured that analogy, but you get the idea!)

Good planners understand that the creative brief is a critical stage in the process, and should offer a balance between control and inspiration. Their insights are not merely placid, boring statements, rather illuminating, thought provoking amalgamations of data and social/anthropological smarts.

Different planners have different skillsets. For example, some focus on research, some on data, some on digital. But all great planners have some crossover of these skills.

Of course, none of this is easy, and it takes time, aptitude and patience to grow in this area, but trust me, it’s hugely exciting when you get the balance right.

Books to Read:

Don’t just read marketing books. Understanding different subcultures, markets, perspectives and opinion is vital. However, here are a few good ‘plannery’ books to take a look at:

How Brands Grow

A Masterclass in Brand Planning

Pollitt on Planning

Marketing in the Era of Accountability

People/Organisations to Follow:

London Strategy Unit

Zoe Scaman

Russell Davies

Account Planning Group

Alistair Green

Craig Le Grice

John V. Willshire 

Jeremy Waite

Northern Planner

Gemma Teed

Helge Tenno

Articles to Devour:

What is account planning?

Intro to comms planning

Where the puck is going…

How to do account planning?

How to get into strategy?

What’s an insight?

How do you get into planning?

Gap Jumpers – Where the puck is going

Junior Strategy

Jon Steel: What makes a great planner?

The many voices of planning

Hopefully, somebody that reads this brain dump will see some illumination towards the role of planning in advertising, or even perhaps pursue a career in it. If you have any queries or thoughts, please do get in touch.