Why Agencies should get rid of Planners

“We both drink out of the same well of inspiration. The only difference is: you get to piss in it first”

When asked for his definition of what (Strategic) Planning is, Russell Davies argued in a recent video Q and A , that in his definition a good planner is someone who can get people to do things. Whereas a junior planner should get creatives to think in a certain direction, a senior planner or a planning director should be able to get agency clients to make decisions based on their ideas. That’s by far the most pragmatic and most interesting definition I’ve ever heard.

I’ve been running an advertising agency for seven years. And in those seven years I always got very frustrated with planning (or strategic planners as they call them in the Netherlands). Most planners perfectly understand that digital transformed the job of an agency. And they know that quite often a good old advertising idea isn’t always the best answer to the briefing. The problem however is that most of the time, the impact of their thinking on the rest of the agency and on clients is very limited.

Planners lack respect on three levels

There’s a couple of things wrong with how we as agencies organize strategic planning today. I want to address these first and then I would like to propose a couple of ideas on how we could fix this.

1. Creatives don’t respect planners

Rory Sutherland once famously quoted “Both planners and creatives drink from the same well of inspiration: but planners get to piss in it first.” Inevitably planners would come up with a creative brief that sounds smart and bullet proof and creatives would read it, ignore it and come up with a funny ad instead. In my agency, time and time again I felt that strategic planners and creatives had a different mental model of the job that needed to get done. And as a result the impact on each others work was very very limited.

2. Clients don’t respect planners

The number one frustration with senior planners is that their impact on the business strategy of clients is extremely limited. Clients associate agency people, including planners, as people who know a lot about creativity, but not about the business side of things. Apparently we as agencies face a serious branding and reputation problem. And frankly I think we’re responsible for it, because in the past we rarely had to take responsibility for the impact of the work we’ve created on the business of our clients.

I never understood how a senior planner can allow it to happen that the agency get their campaign ideas to be reviewed by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. We somehow keep insisting that our job is to convince clients of the originality of our ideas. And so we end up with product managers, consultants and C-level people with very limited knowhow on campaigning, killing the ideas on the basis of the wrong arguments, like „this is not really our brand essence”. The planner’s job — keeping Russell Davies quote in mind — is to get people to do things, and that includes persuading clients that the agency knows what its talking about.

3. Entrepreneurs don’t respect planners

Successful entrepreneurs already know for a very long time that the lineair model (strategy > creativity > production) is a flawed model. Instead they run experiments. All. The. Time. Every idea, whether it’s a strategic idea, a tactical idea, a pricing idea or an idea that aims at impact and reach, is an idea that can be tested and validated whether or not it has an impact on the business. Eric Ries points out in the Lean Startup (video) that the difference between startups and classic marketing people is that the former develop strategy through validated learning experiments, while the latter execute strategy. And very often one can do a great job in executing the plan, but still achieve failure in the end. A VC once told me, after I shared with him a well crafted investor pitch „yeah whatever. Just give me access to your analytics and I’ll call you next week”. Planners urgently need to get used to the idea that it has never been easier to sell evidence instead of smart sounding assumptions.

„yeah whatever. Just give me access to your analytics and I’ll call you next week”

So it’s safe to say that there’s a couple of things terribly wrong with how we organize strategic planning. And yet more than ever agencies are desperate for smart T-shaped thinkers. Planners are actually in the best position. Most planners I know are obsessed with combining knowledge from multiple disciplines: behavioral psychology, conversion metrics, consumer decision journeys, agile and lean thinking, design thinking, etc… By virtue of this multidisciplinary view, planners tend to understand the complexity of the game of influencing choice and buying behavior. Furthermore, planners tend to be less obsessed with originality (aka award fetishism) and more with the effectiveness of the work.

The solution: Kill the planning department

So what could be the solution to this broken model? How can we make planning more relevant? I think the best possible idea is to get rid of the idea of a planning department. Planning is too important to put it in a department. It just doesn’t work. If we think of the job of an agency as developing ideas, technologies and tactics that affect buying behavior — instead of the narrow definition of creating creative communications, than the whole agency should think very strategical about the job that needs to get done.

Everyone familiar with conversion tactics know that even the smallest of design details could have a profound impact. (You might have heard about the 300 million dollar button. By changing the text on a button, a US online retailer had increased its annual turnover with 300 million $). So planners should be part of the creative process. Rory Sutherland wrote about this dilemma:

I think there are really only two types of people in advertising agencies. Good people and crap people. Hence I am a little wary of debates about “what sort of crap people should we employ – crap planners or crap creatives”. It’s more important to have good people than to obsess about what they do.

According to VC Dave McLure, the ideal startup team is a combination of hipsters, hackers and hustlers. The hipsters are obsessed with making things beautiful, the hackers should be obsessed with making things work and the third once with getting things done. A lean startup team is a multidisciplinary team organized around launching a product as fast as possible and making it better through validated learning. Advertising agencies should adopt this structure and method. The current agency model is designed around ideas. The future model should be designed around making and experimenting. So in stead of a planning department, a creative department and a design and development department, we should start working with hybrid teams of planners, digital marketers, UX designers and developers. They should make stuff, try stuff, test stuff and develop strategy through experimentation.

Tom De Bruyne
Co-Founder SUE Amsterdam,
A grown-up agency with a startup mentality

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.