What exactly is the job description of a strategic planner? What role do they play in the agency team? What are the skills needed to become a strategist? We meet the thinkers.
INSIDE THE PLANNER'S MIND
Strategic planners are generally viewed as the thinkers of the agency; the people who bring research and rationality to the creative process. The history of planning is strongly linked to the UK, where the first planners emerged at J. Walter Thompson and Boase Massimi Pollitt (BMP) in the late 1960s.
One of the “fathers of planning”, Stanley Pollitt, was a scruffy, balding chain-smoker who enjoyed a glass of wine with lunch and concealed a razor-sharp mind beneath a dishevelled façade. It was Pollitt who plucked researchers from the back rooms of agencies and sat them alongside account teams while campaigns were being developed.
In his book Pollitt On Planning, Paul Feldwick described this as “the greatest innovation in agency working practice since Bill Bernbach put art directors and copywriters together in the 1950s”.
While the planners did not come up with the creative “idea”, they provided strategic guidance based on genuine market needs, trends and behaviours. In Pollitt’s conception, the “account planner” brought the voice and desires of the consumer into the advertising process. They relied on data, first-hand interviews and wide reading. An insight from a planner could inspire a creative team and steer the entire direction of a campaign.
So what about now? How has the role of the strategic planner evolved?
A PROLIFERATION OF TITLES
Wybe Sallows, digital strategy director at J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam, says: “The proliferation of job titles and roles for planners hasn’t made it easier for aspiring planners to get into the business and understand what their role would be. It feels like it evolved for that reason, but in reality, planning hasn’t changed one bit. Read JWT’s guide to planning from the 70s and it is still as relevant as ever. Our understanding of the world, both from a cultural and technical standpoint, has evolved maybe. And the types of projects and what agencies deliver.”
Jean-Baptiste Bourgeois, strategic planner at We Are Socialin Paris, has a similar view. “The role has evolved very little since I started, but our scope of intervention has grown larger and richer. The planner is no longer just the ‘messenger’. He must justify the choice of format, platform and even the orchestration of the message.”
He adds that planners are getting closer to clients, too. “We’re expected to have a global strategic vision, sometimes to the extent of challenging the entire model of the company, and making the subsequent structural evolutions the subject of our communications.”
Dr. Rosa Kriesche, executive strategy director of Serviceplan Consulting Groupin Germany, says she’s seen different forms of the role in various countries and agencies. “Some agencies still see strategy as the one-trick-pitch-pony, others see a business model behind it that is competitive against consulting firms. The latter is definitely on the rise.”
PLANNING YOUR CAREER
So how does one become a strategic planner? As is often the case, there is no one distinct path.
Rosa says: “I admire people who have those crazy ‘from barkeeper to copywriter’ stories. My route is characterized by a rather linear, focused yet passionate and persistent search for beauty and originality. This quest brought me from watching Cannes Lions late night on a black and white TV as a child to studying marketing. I started off as a media planner but soon realised the job was limited in terms of creativity. Next I applied to an ad agency for something called strategy and new business. And although I had never heard of a job title like that in the creative industries, I immediately sensed it was what I was looking for. That was 10 years ago.”
Wybe of JWT says his first job at an agency was as a researcher working for strategy, business and leadership teams. “A dream start for any planner. Compiling reports on potential new business, running large social listening projects and feeding planners with insights for briefs. A skill set that has proven very valuable throughout my career and an easy step up to becoming an actual planner.”
As for Jean-Baptiste, he started out as a digital consultant at a marketing services agency, before being adopted as the go-to “cool kid” by the senior strategic planner. “This enabled me to discover numerous markets and to work for big FMCG brands on tangible communications issues, whose effectiveness could be measured directly, in the field.”
Having a sharp and curious mind is a prerequisite. But you need other skills too.
Jean-Baptiste says: “Intellectual rigour is the key to defending your strategic choices and convincing your colleagues internally, and then presenting them to the client in a simple and mathematical way. Ideally you should be able to present your choices as simply as one plus one equals two, which is often the most difficult.”
As a bonus, he adds that it’s important to be immersed in popular culture, constantly challenging your own tastes and preferences in order to appreciate new platforms “like (mobile video app) TikTok for example”.
Rosa says that what she looks for in a potential member of the planning team is creativity, logic, passion, charisma and team spirit. “The combination is extremely hard to find because you’re basically looking for a scientific creative that’s fun to hang out with.”
Wybe points out: “Beyond the cliché of being extremely curious and being well read, I look for dedication. Not just in work but especially in what they want from their job. I see so many young planners who are still in doubt about the course of their career. Not really ready to nail down what they want to be good at and invested in developing one skill and career path. That doesn’t mean that your skill set and interests shouldn’t broad, because they absolutely should, as long as they add up to being one thing you want to invest in over a longer period of time.”
HOW TO SHINE AS A STRATEGIST
Whether you’re starting out or on your way up the ladder, how do you develop and hone your skills?
Wybe advises: “Watch insane amounts of work from all types of different agencies. Try to figure out what you like or don’t like about the work. Develop a taste and opinion. Try to understand what type of agency makes what type of work and decide which ones you’d want to be a part of. If you know that you are already way ahead of everyone else.”
For Rosa, there are four things to bear in mind: “One: Team up with somebody you like and work well with. Together work isn’t just more fun, but your output also gets better. Two: Choose your mentor. Identify the person in the company you feel you can learn the most from and let them guide you. If you can’t find one, leave the company. Three: Read. Never stop reading.”
And the fourth? If you’re a woman, it’s going to be tougher. “Be aware that you are applying for a job in an industry that has a ridiculously low female quota in leadership roles.”
Finally, Jean-Baptiste warns against getting trapped in an elite cultural bubble. “Don’t confine yourself to following news and views on Twitter. Watch the evening news on TV to get a real insight into the anxieties, the needs and the desires of consumers, and the reasons why they might choose one product over another.”
As we discovered right at the beginning, behind every good strategic planner you’ll hear the voice of the consumer.