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How to be a great planner

How to be a great planner

By Tod Norman (pictured), partner at brand response agency Watson Phillips Norman.

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 Centauri. 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 working’s out’.   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. But they also know that this isn’t what other marketers want from planning.  What they want and need are clear, simple conclusions with straightforward, comprehendible supporting evidence.
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. 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.

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.

Why great planners have to be open to persuasion.

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 melt down.
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 there 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.
It’s my contention that the very best planners – particularly in Direct Marketing – are not ‘bright young things’ who quote Maslow and Cholmsky. 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.

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