Breaking into Planning
Learning from Arnie
In 1982, Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in his first real box-office hit, Conan the Barbarian.
Although the bizarre fight scenes and poor special effects make for hilarious viewing today, at the time this represented a cinematic achievement. His career change from world-champion powerlifter to movie star was one many had said wasn’t possible.
In hindsight, his transition from Mr. Olympia to Conan the Barbarian (then Terminator, then Governor of California…) seems like a perfectly coherent move for someone of such formidable character and talent.
In reality, it was a tough challenge. He’d been in films, but as a muscle man, a heroic ideal. In his first role in 1970 as Hercules in New York, he had lines dubbed over his heavy Austrian accent.
Agents repeatedly told him that because of his mountainous physique and strange accent he wouldn’t fit into the movies as a real actor. They said his bodybuilding career precluded him from being a Hollywood star. He needed someone brave to take a gamble on him and give him a break.
Like Arnie, I’ve been chasing a career change. Albeit a much more modest one; to break from account handling into planning. Something I can now happily say I’ve accomplished.
This story is to help those, who like me, want to break into planning from account handling.
I’m not trying to say that account handlers are like bodybuilders or planners like actors. Or that my move is as impressive as his blockbusting leap to stardom. Many before me have made the switch. Some with much greater ease than me, I imagine.
The parallel I’m drawing between my experience and Arnie’s is that we both encountered nay-sayers in trying to switch careers, and relied on someone taking a gamble on us to do so.
One planning director told me that because I’d been trained as an account handler, there was no way I could be a planner.
“Our client handlers are trained to be client handlers, not planners. If we’re looking for account people, we’ll be in touch.”
I met with this sentiment a few times in the process of networking with planners. I see these individuals as similar to the agents that told Arnie his bodybuilding career meant he couldn’t be an actor. Their view is all the more narrow minded, as there are numerous accomplished planners that switched from account handling.
Another more compelling reason for me not to become a planner came from a creative services director.
“How can another middle-class white man bring a unique understanding of consumers to the agency? We’ve got enough of those in the planning department already.”
Diversity debate aside, I’d like to think I gave him a smart enough answer to overlook my background (along the lines of how I’m far more interested in micro/sub-cultures than your average middle-class white man!).
At this point, I want to make a clear distinction between nay-saying and realism. If you’re in the same position I was in, you should expect to be challenged and have to prove yourself to CSOs and planning directors. You’re an account handler going for a planning job; they’re taking a risk by hiring you.
“I relied on a progressive and brave head of planning taking a gamble on me.”
The lesson to be learnt here is this: make the best of the chances you get in front of progressive and brave planning directors, because they don’t come around often.
Having said that, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some inspiring people on the way who’ve believed in me and and helped me get to where I want to be.
For the record, though my previous agency couldn’t offer me a planning role, they kindly put me on their APG membership, and invested in training for me.
For what it’s worth, here are my tips that should go some way to helping you land a job in planning.
1. Don’t listen to the nay-sayers
In keeping with the Arnie theme. Seriously though, it’s a good lesson, and he makes a mean motivational speech. Watch this…
2. Find a mentor
I was lucky enough to befriend an expert who couldn’t have helped me more in landing a role. From questions about interviews and your CV to working out whether planning’s for you, you can’t better the advice of a seasoned planner.
3. Be proactive
Nobody’s going to come knocking on your door to offer you a job.
Go to the APG’s Noisy Thinking events, send speculative emails to people, and take every opportunity to make contacts. It’s not just about getting into directors’ consideration sets when roles come up. Some of the most instructive advice I’ve had in my search has been over a coffee with a planner who was kind enough to take ten minutes to chat to me.
4. Start your own project
To stand out from the crowd, take up a personal project.
This could be anything that showcases your thinking. A blog (Junior Strategy), a social community, a record label; something that gives you a talking point and gets planning directors to take notice and make time for you.
5. Read more
I think novels are important in developing human understanding. One of my philosophy professors at York taught me that we round out fictional characters with our own experience of the real world when we read. In this way, literature is able to extensively and powerfully explore the qualities of being human, and illuminate truths about our own experience of others.
At the business end, there are so many great books and papers out there to help you form an opinion of creative work, effectiveness, and the world at large. Check out Martin Weigel’s Planner’s Guide to Reading for a great look at the kinds of reading planners can benefit from.
My marketing must-reads are:
Made to Stick by Chip & Dan Heath. (A book about what makes great ideas.)
Marketing in the Era of Accountability by Les Binet & Peter Field. (Indispensable reading to understand the theory behind effective work.)
Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahnemann. (The behavioural economics text. A lifetime’s wisdom of a Nobel laureate.)
How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp. (Essential science to dispel marketing myths.)
6. Join the APG
The APG run stimulating sessions and courses pitched at varying levels. Join up and join in. Having just finished this year’s Essential Planning Skills course, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a fantastic way of meeting like-minded people and expanding your knowledge of strategy and planning.
7. Find a (good) recruiter
Good recruiters are worth their weight in gold. Sarah Owens and the team at Direct Recruitment were very professional and supportive in helping me find a role. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
If you’d like to get in touch, reach Max at email@example.com