What’s a Planner?

By Matt Van Hoven 

Yesterday we were asked to define what a planner is. The question followed news that W+K Shanghai hired planner Nick Barham for an ECD role. Turns out “someone who plans” is a bit vague, so we called a few notable industry pros to get their opinions. But first, a bit of history from a local ad guy.

Jane Newman, who worked at Chiat/Day in NYC in the 80s is generally credited with bringing UK-style planning to the US.

Originally “planners” &#151 the UK innovation from the 70s, were supposed to be the voice of the consumer. That was before social media gave the consumer a voice. But a good planner would be able to tell the client that “the consumer doesn’t care how many colors it comes in, she only cares that it smells good” and the client would nod in agreement, even if their marketing department was convinced that multiple colors was their key selling point.”

Or at least that’s how it was supposed to work.

Planning got coopted by BDAs in America, who basically renamed their old school Research depts and hired a British accented planner or two to oversee the whole operation.

At this point, it became a hybrid monster that fought with Acct Svcs to see who was in control of determining strategy (and therefore the client’s ear) while continuing to do the sort of research (eg testing animated versions of commercials) that clients paid big bucks for. They also weighed in on execution and developed a reputation for playing creative teams against each other.

Account people at BDAs did not like planners because they felt that planners served to make them irrelevant. Or at least take away the one part of their job that required intelligent thinking.

At many BDAs their job was nothing more than to justify the favored creative execution, developing a strategy that supported the ECDs new TV spot. Whereas at some shops, the planners ruled the roost and had a heavy hand in determining execution.

So the job function is truly all over the place.

Digital agencies employ “strategists” who do more of what your original answer implied &#151 determine the strategy which includes messaging, media options and promotional ideas, along with research into what consumers want.

Firms like Naked and Undercurrent only do strategy work, but don’t do any execution.

Bottom line is, the definition of ‘planner’ really depends on who you are talking to, since so many people have markedly different interpretations.

Now that you know the brief history, here’s how other industry professionals defined the practice. And by all means, correct the definitions.

&#151 People Ideas & Culture’s Domenico Vitale (a Jay Chiat Planning award winner): I think a great planner is someone who can solve a strategic problem from a completely, different informed point of view. In other words, innovation in problem solving…

&#151 From a digital shop: “A planner is someone who correlates a communication strategy with media buys. Determines which ad buys are most effective and deliver greatest bang for the buck.”

&#151 A west coast planner: A creative’s responsibility is to make the work good/creative. Account people are responsible for making the work happen. Planners are responsible for making the work work ie be effective. We do this by developing a strategy that is grounded in business objectives and works out what behavior we need to change in which group of people and how we are most likely to achieve this.

“In short, we try to provide creative people with the best ammunition to make interesting work that achieves objectives. This is a good intro paper done by the UK APG.”

&#151 George Parker: “Obviously the first requirement to be a planner…Is to be fucking BRITISH. Then, to repackage shit people have always known in such a way that it sounds new and insightful.”

That last one sounds more like a definition for advertising in general, but what do I know. Hope this helps at least one of you. Next up, please help us define