BRUCE LEE STENCIL / gary wheeler (FLICKR)

How To Become A Master Planner

A bit of my advice to people interested in becoming an account planner/brand strategist, inspired by Bruce Lee.

In going through Adrian’s terrific slides from the Cannes panel on innovation in advertising agencies, I appreciated how he used Bruce Lee as a way to talk about breaking free of traditional forms and structures. This caught my attention as Bruce Lee is someone I have referenced from time to time in conversations with people interested in becoming a planner. My reference to Bruce Lee in this context is based on his Three Stages of Cultivation. Before I go into my use of this, it’s probably helpful to review these stages here, as stated in Wikiquote:

The first is the primitive stage. It is a stage of original ignorance in which a person knows nothing about the art of combat. In a fight, he simply blocks and strikes instinctively without a concern for what is right and wrong. Of course, he may not be so-called scientific, but, nevertheless, being himself, his attacks or defenses are fluid.
The second stage — the stage of sophistication, or mechanical stage — begins when a person starts his training. He is taught the different ways of blocking, striking, kicking, standing, breathing, and thinking — unquestionably, he has gained the scientific knowledge of combat, but unfortunately his original self and sense of freedom are lost, and his action no longer flows by itself. His mind tends to freeze at different movements for calculations and analysis, and even worse, he might be called “intellectually bound” and maintain himself outside of the actual reality.
The third stage — the stage of artlessness, or spontaneous stage — occurs when, after years of serious and hard practice, the student realizes that after all, gung fu is nothing special. And instead of trying to impose on his mind, he adjusts himself to his opponent like water pressing on an earthen wall. It flows through the slightest crack. There is nothing to try to do but try to be purposeless and formless, like water. All of his classical techniques and standard styles are minimized, if not wiped out, and nothingness prevails. He is no longer confined.

Using this analogy for the evolution of planner and borrowing liberally from Bruce’s words to put it into writing here (which I have not done before), I break the three stages out in a similar fashion:


The novice planner:
This is a stage of ignorance in which a person knows nothing about the art of planning. In their work, the novice planner simply thinks and develops strategy instinctively, based on their intuition of what a brand should do and possibly based on things they’ve read in books or on blogs written by planners. Of course, they may not be very rigorous, but nevertheless, their thinking and rationale are fluid.

The sophisticated or mechanical planner:
This stage begins when a person starts training as a planner formally in an agency. They may have already been working in an agency in another department. They are taught the foundational tools of the trade and how to think about brands — unquestionably, they acquire the proven knowledge of planning, but all too often, their original self and sense of freedom are lost, and their thinking no longer flows by itself.

Early in their training, the mechanical planner’s mind tends to freeze at different moments, seeking the right tools or formulas to apply to a problem. As they progress, a dangerous state can occur where the planner becomes “intellectually bound” to what they have been taught, believing this is the final stage of planning. At this state, they are a sophisticated planner, but they have merely become an expert at using exactly what they have learned and they unfortunately believe that this is the only true way to do planning.

The master planner:
This stage occurs when, after years of serious and hard practice, the planner realizes that after all, planning is nothing special. Instead of trying to impose traditional forms and structures on problems, the master planner approaches problems like water pressing on an earthen wall. Thinking flows effortlessly through the slightest crack. There is nothing to try to do but to be effortless and formless, like water. All of the classic planning techniques and standard styles are minimized, if not wiped out, and nothingness prevails. The planner is no longer confined and is free to think through problems effortlessly and expertly.


After talking through this in some fashion with the interested party, I encourage them to look for someone who is at the top of the mechanical stage to learn from, but to always remember there is another stage beyond this to progress towards. I warn them not to get stuck in the mechanical stage.

With this, I also caution them that at some point they will grow increasingly frustrated with their mechanical or sophisticated teacher. I tell them that typically, long-established mechanical planners believe there is only one way to do planning and that way is their way. When this situation becomes unbearable, it’s time to move on to either a new teacher to continue learning different tools and techniques, or to find a planner who is in the master stage and can help them take all they’ve learned and break free from the rigid structures they’ve learned.

This often begs the question, “why not just go straight to a planner in the third stage to learn from?” I tell them that while they can learn from someone who lives in the “artless” stage, this person often becomes very annoyed with having to go back to the traditional forms and structures to train the junior planner in the core techniques. This then creates tension for both the junior and the master planner, often with the master planner deciding they just don’t have the time or patience to train a junior anymore. Of course a lot of this is also due to all of the existing and ever-increasing demands on the master planner in their role as a senior person in the agency.

So, there you have it. My analogy for becoming a master planner, inspired by Bruce Lee, and a little bit of the advice surrounding it that I give to people interested in becoming an account planner.

On a related note, I’ve shared a few of my favorite quotes from Bruce Lee that I find relevant to planning here.