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Dec 22, 2011

Planning is an odd job title

Fern Miller, head of planning EMEA at LBi, explains why good planners are usually in great demand...

When I took up my new job at LBi, I used a Facebook status announcement to advertise to my social network that I was interested in recruiting new planners. The response rate was gratifyingly strong, but included several pitches from good, highly capable, friends of mine who work in event management, office services and other useful, organisational roles.

Planning, they all said, was exactly what they were good at. This was personally surprising and professionally interesting: as I say, these were people I have known for some time and who must presumably be baffled at my job title, since I am probably the least organisationally skilled person they have ever met. How on earth did they think I'd managed to hold onto a job for so long let alone become a head of it?

And on a more professional note, it was another reminder that what I call planning doesn't have much to do with what anyone outside an advertising agency might call planning. As I told my friends, what we do in planning in the companies I work at is more like strategy, or creative thinking, or consultancy. Few of us could organise our way out of a cardboard box.

Unlike my previous employers, my new company doesn't define itself as an advertising agency. At the last count, LBi's services included social media strategies, website design and build, CRM strategy and delivery, online communications, branded content development, managed services, analytics, user research, SEO and media, technology and several other disciplines I have no doubt missed off the list... it seems that the deeper you engage with your clients' digital futures, the more things there are to think about. The elegant simplicity of the Pollitt/ King agency account team has fractured into a proliferation of specialists and all-rounders, working together in a variety of combinations according to client needs.

Yet at the same time, there have been a series of industry-wide warnings that planners haven't made themselves invaluable or even necessary to clients. Some of these proliferations of specialists have come together without strategists present at all, and appear, to the general consternation of the planning community, to be functioning rather well. Perhaps our strange title hasn't done us many favours in defining what the point of our role is. Perhaps we have too long harboured an assumption that we'd be required, as the 'clever people'. Perhaps we've become a 'brains trust': awfully intelligent, but not awfully useful...
So, how do our 'new-fashioned' planners make themselves most useful? It seems to me there are many useful ways a smart person could help an agency. Providing a simple understanding of how ordinary folk respond to the messages your brand is putting out in all these newly available channels would be a good start.

As Jeremy Bullmore recently pointed out in his speech at the ICA, this would be an extension of the original vision of the planner as a dedicated member of the team whose job was to consider response rather than stimulus in the creation of marketing campaigns. There are useful roles in providing connections between disciplines too: I see my new colleagues in strategy working with teams comprising user-experience creatives, technologists, mobile specialists and media buyers, providing the overall strategic thread for the team.
There are also fantastic opportunities for those who can use their consumer insight to invent new ways for companies to express themselves, or even to invent new products and services altogether. Lastly, given the current economic climate, people who can use the many sources of data now available to define the value and relative effectiveness of any marketing activity should find themselves highly sought after.

The truth is, good planners are usually in great demand, whichever agency you work in. That's what prompted my original advertisement for more of them. And if they're any good, there will be people throughout the business tugging on the sleeves of people like me to send more of them in their direction.
In light of this, the upcoming IPA course, Excellent Account Planning, is going to call upon those people to tell us what they want from planning, so that our bright young things can consider how they can continue to develop the discipline in the future. My hope is that they'll think of new things to do altogether. Or at least a new job title that makes more sense to my friends.