I had another one of those emails asking for advice. Once again, it's humbling that anyone cares what I think. Once again, I think it's worth sharing my response. This is fast becoming a new approach to blogging, just cut and paste emails.
(picture from Russell)
Anyway, this time someone wants to move into planning from another department and isn't sure how much craft skills matter v characteristics, what happens in inteviews and how to make the move happen.
Not much then.
Here's what I replied. Natarally, this is based on my own experience. Yours will be different. If it is, if you have anything to add or want to pull me up on giving wildly bad advice, please do in the comments. Open source etc. This is meant to be as helpful to the individual and anyone else out there as it can be.
My first response is that if you’re already doing and enjoying the ‘creative work before the creative work’ you’re probably a planner already, you just don’t call yourself one. I can only speak from my own experience of course– but before the symbolic new job title, I was already working with research agencies, writing briefs, doing briefings and ‘shaping’ the process at each stage to make sure the work would work. Everything I’ve gained since is simply experience, apart from getting better at organizing and doing my own research – from moderating my own groups (something I do less of now because I think they’re largely a waste of time) to becoming something of a professional observer, talking to and watching the specimen in their own environment, the Mum at the playground with kids, the tired commuter on the train etc..and seriously getting to grips with quant. There was much to learn about structuring a questionnaire and making the most of out of omnibus surveys like TGI.
But yes, it’s true that you need the right characteristics AND craft skills but most planning directors you’d want to work for will know that craft skills can be taught while characteristics largely cannot. Those characteristics in my book are:
- Insatiable curiosity
- Ability the think in the abstract and think conceptually
- You can’t escape some sort of skill with numbers – I don’t mean a geeky mathematician but I do mean able to spot patterns and look for the story in data
- A genuine interest in creative work – not just ads by the way – and specifically how they work
- Great presentation skills, able to persuade people with logic rather than dogma or charm
- No ego since people have to invite you to things
- A love for writing and a half decent skill for it
- And above all a genuine interest in people, culture and an ability to get interested in any subject and make it interesting to anyone else - you want people to want you in the room, which means knowing lots of stuff about lots of things. If people think you’ll have something fresh and interesting to say, they’ll want you around, be they creatives, suits or clients.
If you don’t have these qualities, or don’t want to develop them, don’t bother. Some you can’t learn, some you can, but that’s the difference with the craft stuff, you can learn that and a decent planning director will appreciate your qualities and want to teach you the things you don’t know yet.
Those craft skills are, broadly and debatably:
- You know how market research works, you have an opinion on it and can organize and carry out (the qual side at least) yourself.
- You’re in touch with popular culture and know the kind of stuff your audience(s) are interested in and what issues, wants desires and needs happen in their real lives – and where and how they consumer it
- You have an understanding of how brands work and what they can/can’t deliver for a business
- You can marry all this to recommend THE best use of the budget and communications tools available – what to say/do, who to/with where/when and, critically HOW
- The HOW is of course the creative work, so you need to be great at:
- Creative briefs that are both clear and inspiring
- You can do briefings that are both clear and inspiring…apart from presenting stuff to the client, the brief and briefing is your core output, apart core bits of client presentations, like the killer ‘strategy in one page’
- And unfortunately, you must be good at moderating workshops. Don’t get me wrong, I hate them, but you’ll be asked to do them at some point, you just won’t be able to avoid it
- Finally, you’re continually finding out interesting things, thinking laterally about them and helping others, usually creatives, apply them. This is becoming more important as the media explosion we’re going through makes it all so complex. How used to be more important than what – tone of voice etc, these days, WHAT is more important than how – you’re more likely to make something or start something off and THEN advertise it than just ‘do advertising’ in fact, if you wanted me to describe so called 360/integrated thinking, it would be what I’ve just said.
So, what do you do about ‘becoming a planner’? There are three routes available (I think).
- Migrate departments at the place you work now. This is good because you don’t have to adjust to a new culture, you know the planners already (I hope) and their boss. This is not good because you’ll always have more to prove than anyone else. It depends on how much you like where you are now and how porous your departments are, or could be.
- If you’re in a place without planners, the suits and/or creatives will still be ‘doing strategy’ there just isn’t a formal role. Find out what scope there is for a standalone role and show you can do it. It will be cheaper than bringing in an established planner and they might send you on some courses. This was my route, I was able to learn on the job, work with some good research companies and got sent on some GREAT APG courses, But basically, I just did more of what I was good at – thinking, and less of what I wasn’t – doing. It was hard though, I had to establish an appreciation for planning in a culture that wasn’t used to it. It took time to get suits to relinquish some control and appreciate that taking your time and taking the tougher option – namely great work BEFORE the great work. It paid dividends as I was able to do it my way, since I didn’t really know ‘a way’. The downside is if and when you want to move somewhere else that has a planning culture. I struggled sometimes to perform some of the bollocks some planners in some places are expected to. Waste of time workshops, stupid flowcharts that means nothing, process that doesn’t make any sense. Agencies are conservative, long established agencies even more so.
- Get a job as a planner at an established place. This might be the hardest of the lot to achieve, since many, not all, but many planning directors and the like want ‘good agency planning experience’ whatever that means. That’s at least as much about ‘fitting in to how we do things around here’ as it is actually being any good. There is no doubt that getting a big name and big clients on your CV pays dividends for future opportunities. It’s great to get grounded in some basics and to some meaty stuff with guidance, there’s no question though, just never stop questioning and striving to find your own voice. If I had to do it all again, I’d still have gone to somewhere established a lot earlier as a planner and got the ‘rules’ and stuff out of the way. I wasted too much time as a suit before making the transition . There are not many good planners around unless you live and work in somewhere like London or New York, and even then, there are not multitudes, they just think the postcode automatically makes them better, so good bosses are always looking for people with the right potential- there are lots of ads for planners where they say, “You might be and experiences planner or a strategically talented suit”. It can be done – it all come backs to your experience and what you have already been up to.
Now this brings me to my big point. It doesn’t matter what age you are, or how long you’ve been working in your current job title, not all agencies are right for everyone. I think the average time someone stays in a job is about two years, some of that is down to a payrise, some down to boredom or the chance to work on X client, but much of that is simply down to wanting to join a different culture. Some like the politics and routine of a Leo Burnett or JWT, others like the thrill of the grinding, cut-throat pressure of a BBH or Fallon with their relentless drive for excellence, others like the oddball coolness of a Mother or Crispin Porter. You have less choice than most if you want to be a planner late in the day. You want to find a place that appreciated attitudes and potential over titles and politics for example. So here’s what I would do:
Decide what geographical area you’re prepared to work in, then have a look at the work you like done by agencies that live there. Ignore the rest.
Find out what sort of culture they have – it’s easier these days with industry blogs- and what would fit you and how you want to work.
Find out who the planning directors are and badger them until you get a meeting. Planning directors are (almost) without exception generous, kind people who will give up half an hour to have a chat over a coffee or tea. Not only can you sound out if they’re open to someone like you, they won’t be able to help themselves give you all sorts of useful advice. If there’s anyone who wants the right attitude and aptitude over ‘classical’ experience, stay in touch until there is some kind of opening you can interview for.
In the meantime, start a blog. It might be a bit old school, but start sharing thoughts, not just about planning and stuff, but what you’re interested in. Join the conversation elsewhere. My two most recent job moved were easy because I didn’t have that much to prove, beyond a few CV ticks and personality checks – they had read the blog. Make some noise. Be provocative, be interesting.
Now, what do you talk about in interviews and stuff? I don’t think it matters if it’s an informal chat or very formal interview, it’s mostly about your attitude and aptitude. First and foremost, people need to know they can work with you and you will either fit in, or add to their culture. Mostly that means being yourself, don’t pretend, or you’ll find you hate where you are and have to continue pretending. But do show you have an interest in the agency, talk about the work they’ve done you really like and why – from a strategic perspective. Think about why you want to work there, make it compelling.
You’ll be asked why you want to be a planner, Make that compelling and credible. You’ll be asked what you could add to the place, think about what a fresh perspective could mean. Be able to talk about campaigns and ideas your really admire, from a planning perspective.
You’ll be asked what skills you have, how can you make your past experience as positive (but truthful) as you can? How can you cover a lot of those craft skills? But be honest about what you want to learn quickly and how you would go about learning it. And don’t forget, if you have experience with clients, big this up, many planning directors love people,. Think their ace but can’t see them representing the agency, big this up.
Talk up what planning you’ve already been doing, show how you think by deconstructing the work and THEIR work you admire. Practice this in your spare time. Look for great work, think what the strategy would have been and write the brief for it.
Finally, you can cover the craft bit as well as you can, but you will be hired for your characteristics more. Think about how you can talk about your experience in terms of what’s been highlighted above.
So finally, be prepared for this kind of interview process – a loose talk with the planning director, which my double as a first interview. A more formal interview with same director and maybe another planner and a senior suit. Finally, you might have to meet the chief exec and or someone else from the board. They might ask you to present something (my last job I presented what the future held for digital planning) – they’ll be looking for how you come across as much as what you say. Be memorable, be succinct, be provocative, show you want to hear their opinion.
Sorry this is quite a string of consciousness. I can’t think of anything else (lucky for you)