Planning. If You’re Still Doing It In An Agency, You’re Doing It Wrong.


This article originally appeared in Admap magazine. It won a commendation for the 2012 Admap Prize.

To realise their true value, planners need to escape their agency shackles and start up a McKinsey-type creative consultancy.


Advertising Age recently published its list of the best work by the shops shortlisted for Ad Agency of the Year 2011. There wasn’t one ad in the list. Most of the ideas didn’t need regular production teams. Some didn’t even need creatives. The list was crazily eclectic. Furniture assembly manuals delivered on Twitter. An epic model railway construction project. RFID tags in clothes that triggered music in changing rooms. And an offer that expired when a poster (containing a product shot and a price -hardly troubling the print production department) sank through a frozen lake.

It’s banal to say the advertising industry is changing. If a top advertising magazine’s best work of the year doesn’t contain an ad, then, well, duh. What clients value about advertising is changing. The way brands build value has changed utterly. As a planner, you have a choice. On the one hand, you can realise the value you bring to this new world and leave the old structures of the agency world behind or, you can try to make that happen from within, honing the crafts passed on to you by a previous generation, being a good team player, being one department among many.

Creatives made the last advertising revolution. Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy and Charles Saatchi caused it by leaving their agencies and setting up new ones. I believe there’s a similar opportunity now, the first for nearly half-a-century. Only this time it won’t be the creatives who do it. It will be you planners – if you can only see what’s right in front of you.

It’s all a question of who you’re trying to impress. Your colleagues, or the world in general. Let me tell you a story about that.

In Hollywood legend, Frank Sinatra replaced Eli Wallach in From Here To Eternity after the producer found a horse’s head in his bed. The truth is much more interesting. Wallach backed out of the movie to perform in a small play written by Tennessee Williams. He sacrificed box office stardom for the purity of his art, and admiration of his colleagues. Sinatra was an outsider who didn’t care what actors thought of him. He took the role, won an Oscar and made another fortune. After that, whenever they met, Frank Sinatra used to slap Wallach on the back and say: “You crazy actor.” So, slap – you crazy planner.

As an outsider and formerly a copywriter and creative director for about 15 years, from the Paul Arden-era Saatchi in London to the Steve Hayden-era Ogilvy in New York, when I look at advertising planners, I see a bunch of extraordinarily talented people doing an extremely valuable job. And I’m wondering why you’re not going after bigger prizes.

Those prizes exist. If you were a stock analyst, or a corporate law partner, or a senior management consultant, you would be more valued by more important people in the world’s biggest companies. You’d also be paid more.

I believe that closing that gap between being valuable and being valued is the logical next step for planning. If you want to know what’s holding planning back, then look around you. It’s the rest of your agency.

Why? I think the answer is clear if you ask those big, serious questions that good planners ask every day about their clients. What are we selling? What are people buying? What are the flat earth theories in the category? What can we do with these insights?

What are we selling?

A friend of mine once asked TBWA’s Jay Chiat: “What do you actually do all day?” Jay told him that his job was really quite simple. “I figured out that an advertising network needs about six or seven people who can help global corporations make really big leaps that transform their businesses. Those people can be great creatives, or planners, or account handlers. Frankly, I don’t care what their job title is. I just need six or seven of them. So my job is to make sure we have those people in our company. When you have that, everything else follows.”

I think that’s a pretty phenomenal description of what a planner sells. You have the creativity to make big, bold intuitive leaps. You have the numeracy to make a business case for what you’re doing. And you have the chutzpah and charm to sell it to a nervous client who’s just survived three years of restructuring and has been given an absurd stretch goal by her billionaire CEO.

To see the value added by great brand strategies, look at case studies from Warc and the APG. Johnnie Walker overtook Chivas as the whisky brand leader around the world, most recently in China – that’s not down to the taste of the liquid, but the idea that drinkers are buying into. Look at Lynx, carving out an enormous global customer base on the back of the dream it playfully sells teenage boys. Or Old Spice, fighting back against Lynx by helping men negotiate the seas of masculinity. Some products are great because of great technology, or design, or value. These are great because of the ideas that people like you grew around them.

But before you get too self-congratulatory, let me ask you this: If you’re so clever, what the heck are you doing in an ad agency?

What are your clients buying?

Clients outsource the things that they don’t want to do themselves. These broadly fall into two categories: the things they don’t have the skills to do and the things they can’t be bothered to do. Category (1) might include global supply chain optimisation or retail architecture. Category (2) might include booking flights, cleaning the office and Christmas party entertainment.

Once, advertising agencies fitted clearly into Category (1) with maybe a little bit of (2) thrown in as a favour. Media booking was a speciality best done by agencies buying in bulk. Ad production and post-production was a mysterious art practised by tanned directors on Los Angeles soundstages and pasty-skinned wizards in dim, snack-filled Soho lofts. Creatives did something mysterious in sticky-floored offices. All very Category (1).

Then media got outsourced – the smart media people left, set up their own agencies, made money, sold themselves back to agency groups and headed for the beach. Television and print production followed. So who’s left? The creatives. The account people. And you.

When clients look at an advertising agency today, what do they see? Creatives: people who do clever things with Macs, just like everybody else on YouTube. And account people: described by Steve Jobs as, ‘the overhead’.

When clients are buying those people now, they’re buying Category (2) workers. Which leaves you, Mr Billion-Dollar-Brand- Transformation. Ms Jay-Chiat’s-Big-Six-Member. You’re a Category (1) thinker in a Category (2) business.

On a good day, a planner fits instinctive, emotive, intuitive ideas into a business plan that might involve a billion advertising dollars. Which will contribute to growth measured in tens of billions. McKinsey, Accenture and Bain can’t do that. I know, I work with them. Management consultancies have risen with the growth of the knowledge economy. Spreadsheets enabled them to do financial modelling. Computer networks have enabled them to help companies to work in smarter, leaner ways.

Now we’re told we’re in a Creative Economy. Richard Florida pinpointed the Creative Classes as the key drivers of growth in the US economy, and NESTA is pinning similar hopes in the UK. Adobe and Apple have done for creative production what IBM and Visicalc did for business planning. They’ve freed agency staff from many of the costs and time-consuming manual drudgery of creativity, just as spreadsheets freed accountants from the tedious business of adding up columns of numbers. You are now free to charge for ideas, not for the process of grading a TV spot.

So where is the creative McKinsey? What’s stopping you from becoming it? I’ll tell you, by answering the next plannery question:

What are the flat earth theories of the category?

Here’s my candidate: You think that you are in a service industry. Whenever somebody in an ad agency has a great idea, their first reaction is: “Who can I sell this to?” Then they become disappointed when they present it to a potential client who treats it as meeting fodder. “Hilarious. The ad agency had a product idea. Cute. Anywaaaaay.”

Of course they say that, it’s not what they’re looking for: they are already putting dozens of ideas through their innovation process. They don’t need another, no matter how good.

Imagine you weren’t a planner. If you have an incredible idea for a new soft drink, why would you take it to Coke or Pepsi? What do they have that you can’t outsource? Distribution? Go to bottlers. Capital? Two words: Private Equity. Need something manufactured? China. Marcoms? The internet.

Everything is outsourceable in the globalised world. Sony doesn’t make Sony laptops. Third parties design them, spec them, manufacture and even distribute them. People pay a premium for a Sony logo. They could be paying that premium for a brand that you devise.

But isn’t it a bit complex, creating a multinational business? Well, yes. Complex for other people. Simple for you, if you outsource. Need a distribution network? DHL. Global sales? The web. Supply chains, accounting… you can delegate it all.

In short: Branding is the last uncommoditised part of capitalism. You are better at branding than your clients. Why sell to them when you can take them on and crush them?

What can we do with these insights?

There are several routes to freedom that I can see. But you’re a smart person, so you may well be able to see more. That’s the talent you hawk out every day after all.

The most obvious route is to go the way of media companies and independent production consultancies: set up your own brand strategy agency, charge higher fees, start to compete against the likes of McKinsey for really big briefs. That’s the space being carved out by Prophet, S-Y Partnership and my own company, Sense Worldwide.

A less obvious, but potentially far more lucrative route, is to team up with a big private equity company. Imagine a powerhouse that scanned the world for failing brands, bought them, reinvented them and relaunched them with the flair of a top advertising agency. Even better, imagine a company that invented brands, and outsourced the creation of branded products and services to white-label producers.

This model is up and running. Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures generates technology ideas and raised more than $5 billion to back them over the past ten years. Jay Walker’s Walker Digital and Bill Gross’ Idealab are in the same business. Walker and Gross are billionaires.

There’s nothing that Walker, Gross or Myhrvold can do that you can’t. Yet there’s things that you can do that they can’t. You don’t need technologies to transform categories – you can do it with the alchemy of great brand thinking.

Bankers’ attempts to model the world have failed. The management consultancies can analyse existing ideas, package them as best practises and make billions helping corporations to implement them. Both of these giant industries are packed with clever people, but there’s one thing they can’t do: unite capital with the magic spark of a truly new idea.

Walker, Gross and Myhrvold can. But there’s room for lots more: this is an industry at its beginning, like banking in the 18th century, or management consultancy after the First World War.

McKinsey created the University of Strategy. The world doesn’t need another University of Strategy. It needs what people with your skills can do. A place combining magic and logic, numbers and dreams, madness and method. This is the time to go and start up The Hogwarts of Strategy.

If you’ve read this far, and you think it makes sense, then we might want to hire you. Please contact us on LinkedIn to find out more.

Reproduced with permission of Admap, the world’s primary source of strategies for effective advertising, marketing and research. To subscribe visit  © Copyright Admap.

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