Life. Then Strategy

How impatience killed the planner

Hello there. It’s been a few months since new content breathed its way onto the site. Not only is this the first bit of writing I’ve done in New York, but it gets to appear on a new-looking site. Reactive launched the new site yesterday. I’ll get a post up soon about how it came together. I’m keen to hear your thoughts. Also, as I’m trying to do what scares me these days, I’ve put myself up for presenting at SXSW next year. I’d dig your vote: OK. Onto the thing you came here for.

Nearly every account planner and strategist that I’ve loved working with has had a few things in common.

More business poet than marketing mirror. Off-beat, idiosyncratic, with a tilted-worldview. They fell into planning rather than set out to be in it as a career move built from teenage grandiosity. Words and angles fall from their mouths like pieces of Lego waiting for fearless assembly. They know they’ll stay in it as long as it titillates their creative ego needs but are always thinking Plan B; and, because of this, they always have other options – but they don’t parade them in front of you all the time.

They can sound-bite their way through a strategy in 30 seconds and confidently use plain English – not marketing words – to do so. They constantly seek to get to their strategy more creatively every time. They don’t hog or kill, they share and fuel. I’d let my kids hang out with them because they’re good people.

And they’re nearly always impatient.

Why advertising isn’t currently built for the impatient

A few things have really struck me about account planning and strategy in the States (I just moved here – for more: Moving to a New York advertising agency) so far that don’t currently sit so well with the character trait of impatience.

Firstly, there are a lot of people involved in decisions. The stakes are obviously high: a single brand in a multi-brand company may have revenue bigger than a large single-brand company back in Australia. This leads to large client-side and agency-side teams through whom thinking has to funnel. Add to this the structural changes provoked by the Interwebs and you get additional teams and agencies involved in shepherding ideas through the system. There are agencies here dedicated to one brand that are bigger than most agencies in Australia.

Secondly, planning cycles are built long. FMCG and alcohol brands are a bit like this in Australia but, in the States, I’m hearing about 12-24 month planning/creative cycles as being the norm – with much discussion about how to change this. A friend who worked a decade in New York joked with me that an account planner here could spend all year watching research groups that other people ran. One of the challenges with these cycles, however, is that a marketer may only see one cycle through before being rotated onto another brand. This doesn’t incent hunger for brilliant work – it incents doing good-enough work that keeps the career ladder steady and bosses on side. The account planners I love want to do good work now – it’s why they’re in the industry; clients may be thinking more about their careers in ten years’ time.

Thirdly, and I think this comes from the incredibly educated nature of much of the marketing workforce here (MBAs everywhere), there seems to be a big belief in trademarked frameworks being the way to solve problems, and that the solving of these problems best happens in large groups. The account planners I love run rogue. They grab onto quirky interesting points and could write their strategy in a haiku if they had to – and you’d get it. Frameworks suck the life out of them – especially when edited by a committee.

Fourthly, due to the large groups – and I’ve talked about this with a few expats to see if I’m the odd one out – there can be less directness in group talk; a focus on keeping the group happy rather than getting to an incredibly interesting point of view. The account planners I love want it to be interesting from the get-go and throw inner tantrums (well, OK, sometimes outer tantrums) when things get vanilla and they don’t know what their bosses want them to do. There can also be excessive over-thinking and marketing speak in the group talk.

Finally, advertising is more of a long-term profession in the States. It’s not uncommon for account planners to stay in the one agency for well upwards of 5 years. In Australia, the average churn rate in advertising agencies according to a survey that the Communications Council did a few years ago was 18 months (slightly longer for planners from memory). It makes sense that if the planning cycles have traditionally been so long that people would stick through a few of them. However, due to this and due to the hierarchical focus of American culture (the VP, SVP, EP conventions), it seems that if an account planner hasn’t had the stomach for a long-term commitment in the past, they’d burn out and change industries, agencies or sides.

So, how much patience is enough patience?

Great question. Thanks for asking.

When I get frustrated and feel I’ve stayed frustrated for an extended period of time, I ask myself: “Have I put alternatives on the table in a constructive way? Have I done so in a way that hasn’t made other people feel unnecessarily vulnerable? Has some sort of progress happened?”

If I feel at a dead-end, I ask myself whether there are deeply structural things at play that I’ve tried to constructively address that simply won’t shift – usually due to politics, other people’s vested interests, unspoken stuff.

I then try again – deeply thinking about to what degree I’m part of the problem.

If I can’t make it happen then, in all honesty, I’ve surpassed my patience tolerance level.

This doesn’t happen linearly and rationally like the above may seduce you into thinking. But I do try to catch myself out using those questions above.

This is all in the context of an account planner who likes to make stuff (for more, read Why strategists should make stuff). Not all account planners are – or need to be – like that. Some planners are happy to do their thing, hope the work is OK and move into the next cycle. Some can do that for years. Not all of us are built like that – but each type of planner has his or her own strengths and weaknesses.

What to do about it

Great expectations made small

I think the best coping mechanism is simplicity. It’s having a simple answer to the question: “What are 3 things I want to achieve this year?”

It’s one of those stupid-obvious thoughts that I rally against day in and day out. Like you.

“I need to do this project better. I need a better way of working. I need a more powerful insight. I want to help the creative work move over here, or there. I should be writing more. Maybe I should talk at more conferences. Maybe we should change the brief. We need a better brainstorm process. But what if brainstorms dis-incent creative teams? Should we even have creative teams in the traditional sense? Should I go client-side? Maybe a digital agency? What if I started my own business? Back to the brief at hand – why do we even have briefs? Yeah, maybe we need a new brief template.”

I’ve spoken with and watched enough of us over the years to know that many of us probably had that internal discourse today.

But, like Kung Fu Panda in the sequel, inner peace won’t come from without. Focusing on a handful of clear, compelling goals may help.

Stop partying yourself into the ground

How many of us drink ourselves into escape every week – because of how we feel about ourselves and our work? From what I can tell, if you’ve done this in the past month, you’re unlikely to be the odd one out. You know it’s not useful. Tone it down. Just a little. Then book time in your diary every few days to do something you actually enjoy and don’t let anyone move it.

Keep score

I did this for a period a few years ago. Having spent much of my 20’s running my own business where if I had an idea – for a project, an event, a story – I’d simply… go and do it (for more, read 10 things about trying), I had to get used to being in agencies where it took time for doing to happen and the almost instant gratification I was used to took much, much longer (if it happened at all). So, I started to keep a little note of small wins. Just like writing about what you’re thankful for every day helps keep you in perspective, keeping score may also help.

Join forces

One of the key challenges for an agency’s leadership is to work out how to create the environment and culture to get the most out of account planners who want to do and make now, rather than wait it out for another planning cycle. But, I also believe that this is how non-TV-centric creative brains feel and that the solution should be shared between the agencies and their clients, who now more than ever need this odd, high-impact thinking in their businesses. Make the systems work around the people; not the other way around.

Got a coping mechanism?

Please share with your friends below.

Image courtesy GPY&R Australia.

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