Where have all the planners gone?

Neil CottonIn this guest post, Neil Cotton wonders why good advertising planners are in such short supply in Asia. 

Where are all the good planners? Were there ever that many of them? And, if so, where have they gone?

I’ve been out of big agency life for a few years now, so I’m not sure I’m in the best position to answer the first, and likely most controversial, part of that question – so I’ll leave that for someone closer to big agency planning departments to answer.

Oh, screw that, I’ll give you what I knew to be the truth when I was running big’ish planing departments around the region. There were never enough, nowhere near enough decent planners to go around at any time. The networks I worked in always had two or three that tried to hold things together, but it was always hand to mouth.

The more interesting question and, I guess, the point of the article is why and what can be done?


I think good planners, or interesting strategists or creative thinkers, are kind of unusual people. Their skill sets are a bit out of the ordinary and, when bundled together, quite rare.

If you accept that as a starting point, it’s no wonder they are in short supply.

Also, not that many people want to be planners – or if they do, maybe they don’t understand why or just think it might be more lucrative to switch from doing something else related.

Good planners need the ability to operate, even thrive, in a semi-permanent state of ambiguity. They are called upon to operate without much of a map often feeling their way in the dark to some not very well understood place. On the flip side, they’re expected to be lucid and be able to summarize a complex and previously ill thought through situation quickly and with pretty handy copywriting skills thrown into the bargain. They are expected to be able to talk business strategy with a client, research with the marketing intelligence people, present like a TED talker and, increasingly, run meetings while the account leads are off setting up the next meeting…

I’m exaggerating somewhat to make a point…but I’m not exaggerating that much.

Think back to the birth of planning; when suits understood the client’s business better than the client did and the planner was the “voice of the consumer”. In the intervening 30yrs, the planner’s job has expanded exponentially – and I’m not sure for the better.

Maybe we don’t have all the great planners we want because it’s unreasonable to ask one person to wear so many hats comfortably at one time. I think this is ESPECIALLY so when younger, less experienced planners are thrown into mix without help or a solid sounding board to help them out when they get lost.

I’m not suggesting that planners are the only ones suffering from job-creep, I think creatives are too- especially in the area of digital.

I could go on, but I’ve been told by my business partner not to make this a rant and try to make it ‘constructive’!

Here goes.

Here’s a handful of things we could do to build and support planning and planners a bit more – in no particular order.

1. Fund more planning head count – I don’t have a beef against account people at all; in fact, a good account person is worth his/her weight in gold. But, why is the ratio of actual numbers of account people to planners so out of whack in so many agencies (NOT EVERY AGENCY, but many?). I don’t get it?

2. Planning is not the deck writing department and so long as it is seen that way and utilized that way you’re not going to get the best out of people.

3. Planning is NOT the thinking or the strategy department; that’s everyone’s job. If strategy resides solely in the one or two experienced planners you have, you will drown them and deprive really smart young things in other departments the chance to grow and learn and show their talents.

4. Train more – long gone are the days of sending folks on big training courses, but that doesn’t stop senior management taking time to nurture people. Planning pen pals, mentoring around the region or actually throwing some money at it once a year can work wonders for skills and morale.

5. Use your geography – twice I’ve seen genuine planning talent flourish majorly simply by giving them the experience of a big mature planning market like the UK or the US. It’s not cheap, but each time everyone learnt and everyone benefited.

6. Look outside the business – David Ogilvy always said “the cracked ones let in the light”. Or something like that. Look outside the traditional streams of people for the odd ones out and see how they could help the organization become more strategic – better ideas, after all, come from diversity of experience and opinion.

7. My last point is more of a rant – a rant against the blight of creative awards and how that surreptitiously builds up unseen barriers and disenfranchisement (that’s two $10 words in one sentence)!

Creative awards are for creative thinking and effectiveness awards are for planners and suits. That’s dumb.

This should all work as one big recipe with lots of ingredients.

If it’s not effective, who gives a crap if it’s creative – so effectiveness is as much the ECD’s job as anyone else’s.

If it’s not creative, it likely won’t be be effective, so creativity is as much the planner’s or the suit’s job as anyone else.

The notion that this can all be deconstructed so clinically is stupid and is a silent, but terrible, disservice to non podium members of the team who walk away with nothing but mass catering on awards night.

Anyhow, it’s a hard issue and a complex one and I’ve likely used a hatchet when a scalpel would be more appropriate – but hey, that’s what makes for exciting editorial in our business!

Neil Cotton is the CEO and founder of strategy and innovation consultancy Liberty Networks. He was formerly regional chief strategy officer for Bates, Lowe and Y&R.


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