Why great planners have to be dumb
The brightest person I have met in marketing was a consultant who had a double first from Oxford in mathematics and physics. Brain the size of a planet? This guy's frontal lobe alone covered most of space between here and Alpha Centuri.
He had an extraordinary recall of psychological, sociological and marketing theory. He had an exceptional skill in dissecting and reconstructing problems. But he was a lousy planner for two very simple reasons.
Firstly, because he had failed to leave behind at school the need to "show your workings out". Whenever he wrote a document, he would evidence every theory, every matrix, every source material he had used. Even his presentations had footnotes.
He loved explaining the thinking process, tools and techniques he had applied in solving the problem. Which is great if you're talking to a professor. But less than helpful if you are talking to an art director, or even a time pressured, can-do marketing director. They listen, and conclude you are a boring show off they'd rather not agree with on principle.
The best planners I've met are fascinated by sociology and psychology, and typically very well read on the subjects. They can sit around a booze-covered table and argue for hours about the implications of cognitive dissonance in brand advertising. They know the difference between an Ansoff and Boston matrix, and when to use each.
But they also know that this isn't what other marketers want for planning. What they want and need are clear, simple conclusions with straightforward, comprehendible supporting evidence. Baffling them with bullshit, spraying forth psychobabble in Latin -- that's boring and rude, like a creative spending hours talking about Pantone pens or Quark. These are tools, not the finished product.
Yes, a planner needs to be bright. But they don't need to demonstrate it to prove their value. A great planner needs to be prepared to explain how they got to their conclusions -- but won't articulate it unless asked.
The other reason that a super-bright person often fails to be a great planner is that they surround themselves with other bright people. They only read the things other bright people read, see the things other bright people see. They can dissect, analyse and describe how less bright people see, feel, and think about the world. But they can't truly walk in their moccasins. They can't empathise with them. No matter how many times they sit on the number 23 omnibus, they are never really part of it. So their briefs will always be missing that fundamental insight about real people other than themselves.
Being dumb is often a real asset to planners.
Why great planners have to be lazy.
The first big planning task I did was to prepare and run an away day for an automobile client. I assigned myself the task of creating a market review. And boy did I work hard.
In those pre-internet days, I spent hours and hours tracking down reports from every information and intelligence source in the country -- Mintel, ONS, SMMT, EIU and probably 10 more. I interviewed editors of car magazines, went on mystery shops of dealers, got reels and reels of car adverts. I knew my stuff.
But on the day, after what I thought had been a glorious presentation, the marketing director (whose grimace I had misinterpreted as a smile) had only one question. "What's your point?" he asked. And I didn't have one.
What I had done was to provide information. That's not planning.
Years later, I was taught a very simple quote, reportedly from Barnes Wallace, the inventor of the bouncing bomb. One of the UK's greatest inventors, he was asked how he came up with ideas. His answer was simple: "I have never came up with a new idea. All I have ever done was to solve problems."
That is, to me, the essence of great planning.
Great planning starts with a clear brief -- a problem to solve, an opportunity to leverage. Without this, everything else is irrelevant.
To solve the problem, planners need information -- data, findings, results. They need this just like they need knowledge of psychological, sociological, and marketing theory. But great planning is about putting the three together to find the best way to achieve the goal. And scarily, the best way of putting them together isn't always by thinking about it. It often comes from indirect thinking.
Some of my best ideas come when I'm riding my motorcycle, watching a rugby match or working on a different client's problem all together. You have to catch the idea when it's unaware and not frightened off by the vigorous thrashing of your consciousness.
In short, you have to learn to be lazy. And for hard-working, diligent people, that can be very, very hard indeed.
Why great planners have to be uncreative.
It has been said that many planners are simply people that wanted to be creatives but lacked the bottle to choose that path. There is probably a lot of truth in that. I certainly think that the person who suggested that the proposition on a creative brief should be "an alternative headline" wanted to be a creative rather than a planner. And in one of my first creative brief formats, I put in a box called "the planner's starter for 10".
Creatives have a saying about this: "Both planners and creatives drink from the well of inspiration. But planners piss in it first."
The simple fact is that planners who articulate creative ideas to creatives are both alienating the creatives and insuring that the idea they have will never see the light of day.
The reason is simple -- What self-respecting creative would use the idea that the planner came up with? Doing so would suggest they have no value, or role or creativity, that they are art workers, not creatives. Giving the creatives your idea for an execution (unless asked for) is the ultimate definition of both egotism and disempowerment.
The job of a creative is to create. The job of a planner is to inspire that creativity, to guide it, to nurture it.
Yes of course, planners need creativity -- in their thinking, in their insight about consumers and brands, even in the way they inspire creatives. But planners need to be "uncreative" about creative work.
Oh and by the way, I've seldom seen a creative idea from a planner -- including me -- that was any good.
Why great planners have to be open to persuasion.
I hired a young planner years ago who had great potential. He was bright, insightful and well versed. But he didn't work out. Over time, most of the teams he worked for asked him to be taken off their business. Unfortunately, I didn't understand why until too late.
The fundamental problem lay in the fact that planning has no hard, tangible product. Yes we produce creative briefs, or communications strategies, or brand constructs. But these are ideas, proposals, recommendations -- not absolutes. We are a service to our agencies and our clients, not the ultimate authority.
This means that insecure or inexperienced planners can often only judge their own quality on how often they are perceived by others to be "right". That burden means they can become argumentative, defensive or closed minded when challenged. If their ideas are not accepted as "right", they take it personally. It's a recipe for meltdown.
Creatives too are challenged. They too are told that some of their ideas aren't right. But if they took personal affront at every idea they had rejected, they would be insane within weeks. True, they will usually have work accepted in the end, and have a tangible product to look back on. But they have (or are taught) not to feel that their self esteem resides in every idea they present. Planners need to learn from this.
Some of the best ads I've worked on have been spot on my brief. And some have been off brief, but brilliant. I'd like to believe that I inspired the later as much as the former, if only by triggering an opposing thought in the mind of the creative. But I doubt it.
Great planners tend to be in great agencies. Great agencies have great people in every department. And these people also have great ideas based on their experiences, intelligence, and insight. The planner who thinks he has to be right is not just egotistical -- he/she is, in all probability, preventing rather than inspiring great work in many cases.
And by the way, no one likes, or is inspired by, an egotistical know it all.
Of course, planners have to be passionate. Of course, planners have to fight for ideas they know are right. And they have to be prepared, on a few select occasions, on the truly important pieces of work that they feel absolutely, positively, "right" about, to go to the proverbial wall. But they also have to be able to open their minds, to listen and to be persuaded. Changing your mind is not a sign of worthlessness.
I have a new planner starting in a few weeks' time. She's someone who I have worked with previously. She has a degree in psychology and almost a decade of experience in account management. She's bright, hard working, creative and passionate. So my job is simple -- I have to make her dumb, lazy, uncreative and open to persuasion. Not as easy a task as it may sound.
It's my contention that the very best planners, particularly in direct marketing, are not "bright young things" who quote Maslow and Cholmsky. It's not the candle-burning academics that produce voluminous documentation covering every aspect of a marketing strategy and communications plan. It's not those who write great headlines in the box on the creative brief marked "proposition". And it's certainly not those who passionately and endlessly argue their case on each and every brief.
Any good quality account manager, creative or client could tell you that's not what they want or admire from planners. But try telling that to a new planner, desperate to prove his or her worth. They look at you with an expression that's normally reserved for politicians and estate agents. But it's true. And until they learn it, they will always be lacking.
So will I be able to take a bright, hard working, creative and passionate marketer and convince her to be dumb, lazy, uncreative and open minded? Wish me luck.
Tod Norman is partner at brand response agency Watson Phillips Norman
Latest jobs Jobs web feed
- Copywriter fishtank 25k to 40k per year GBP, Marlow, Buckinghamshire
- PR Account Director fishtank 40k to 55k per year GBP, Surrey
- Head of Marketing fishtank 45k to 60k per year GBP, United Kingdom
- Digital Search & Acquisitions Officer Topshop Up to £30,000 per annum + benefits, London
- planner > SHOPPER EVANGELIST > brilliant role for those SUITS looking to move across into PLANNING collectivo £30-40k + bens, London
- Marketing Executive Warner Bros £ Competitive + benefits, Holborn, London
Big Questions Live - Social Media, User Generated Content and the Power of Customer Insight (Webcast) External website
Brand Republic’s first ever online TV show, Big Questions Live wil...
The PR industry’s lack of success at the Cannes Lions festival 201...
Confused by hashtags? Tweetchats? Tweet walls? You’re not alone.Wi...
It’s fair to say we are truly in the age of content marketing, the...
As a nation, the UK is media and technology obsessed with over half of t...
All customers have the potential to become your brand advocates, driving...