Graft and craft: What makes a planner

Architects, painters, sculptors, we must all return to crafts! For there is no such thing as “professional art”. There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman. By the grace of Heaven and in rare moments of inspiration which transcend the will, art may unconsciously blossom from the labour of his hand, but a base in handicrafts is essential to every artist. It is there that the original source of creativity lies.”

So declared the architect Gropius in his 1919 manifesto that defined the objectives of the new Staaliches Bauhaus school.

He was merely articulating afresh what artists, scientists, engineers, musicians, designers etc. have for centuries understood. Namely that the inherited skills and traditions of their chosen domain – be it notation, draftsmanship, editing, lighting, writing, composition, art-directing, and so on – must be mastered before they can be challenged, built upon, or gone beyond.

The notion of technique and craft might seem unimaginative – they are after all acquired and perfected through repetition. Yet as the sociologist Richard Sennet reminds us in his book The Craftsman, for those who have become highly trained, technique is in fact intimately linked to expression. Indeed it is the necessary precursors to the artist’s creativity.

In contrast, one might just occasionally be forgiven for thinking that planning is merely rhetoric, opinion, posturing, and the recycling of fashionable opinion.

Of course planning must be stimulating, imaginative, intuitive and opinionated. But the fact of the matter is that at the heart of the planning discipline lies a set of craft skills. These skills allow it to inform the creative process with an understanding of the real world in which communications is to appear. And it is the fact that it is knowledgeable rather than merely opinionated, that gives the planning its source of authority.

The means by which this understanding is accumulated is simple: research – “the investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts”.

Planners should for example, be expected to be able to:

Intelligently interrogate buyer data and apply it to the development of communication strategy

Have a least a passing knowledge of some of the fundamental laws of markets and the dynamics of brands

Decode tracking data and usefully apply it to the development of strategic recommendations

Have point of view on how and when to use quantitative research – and be able to articulate to clients which companies to use and why

Interrogate customer segmentation data

Commission quantitative projects

Write a research recruitment screener

Design both qualitative and quantitative questionnaires

Know the different the types of both qualitative and quantitative research available, their methodologies, uses, and the suppliers thereof

Conduct their own qualitative research

Bring to bear an informed understanding of how different kinds of communications work in different kinds of circumstances, for different kinds of brands, across different kinds of channels and touchpoints

Develop effectiveness models for campaigns and activity

Formulate recommendations on how to evaluate the effectiveness of communications

Provide an informed perspective on the new and emergent models of effectiveness

Understand the methodological differences between the principle copy-testing suppliers (know your enemy)

Evaluate the commercial impact of communications activity

Have an understanding of econometric modeling

Just to be clear – the planner is an advertising person. Planners work with research, but in advertising. Ultimately, they must be able to interrogate, synthesize and apply this information and insight to the development of creative work. And that does of course involve the application of intuition and imagination too. For as Stephen King wrote, “the whole process of advertising is not a safe, cautious, step-by-step build-up.”

But planners do not have the monopoly on enthusiasm and intuition and cannot justify their existence based on those traits alone. After all, there are plenty of clever account, creative, or media people with both.

Being able to quote Clay Shirky and Malcolm Gladwell, point to the work that everyone else is saying we “should” be doing more of, quote from our industries luminaries, recycle the latest buzzwords does not make a planner authoritative. It just means they have access to the internet. Like everybody else. And being able to put together Powerpoint or Keynote ‘decks’ makes you a deck writer, not a planner.

Of course there are many ‘softer’ skills that one should certainly expect from a planner. For example, the arts of distillation, synthesis, and persuasive articulation are vital if planners are able to transform what they know into something that is useful in the development of strategy and creative work. But they don’t define the disciple.

So if it is to be taken seriously – if it isn’t to become as Merry Baskin once put it, ‘bozo planning’ – planning cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that it is based on (but not defined by) a set of craft skills. Or allow those craft skills to become eroded.  For without those craft skills we are reduced to just another – equally wrong or equally valid – opinion.

The skills listed above are not acquired overnight. They take time to develop. And acquiring them can sometimes feel like a long and arduous journey. Sexy and cool it ain’t.

The implications should be obvious:

If you don’t have a boss who can teach you these craft skills, move on.

If as an agency you’re not investing in the craft skills of your planners, you’re failing them.

And if as a planner you’re not interested in acquiring the craft skills and find it all a bit tedious, you’re failing yourself. Worse, you’re in the way.

For Goya said it best:

Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”  

36 comments

  1. Phil Adams

    Very good because it’s very useful. I’m sure this will be widely shared.

    I double-checked to see whether “touchpoints” was one of the words you hate. I thought it might be, but apparently it isn’t.

      • Andrea

        I love the post and the last 3 ideas are killer career advice. But a genuine question about co-creation actually. It’s probably the most complicated to explain since it’s a way of describing a process, rather than just a pet peeve of a word. The rest get lost on the internet and in common because no one’s actually agreed to what a word describes or measures, so it’s used in all sorts of contexts in all the wrong ways (engagement was one of them).

        Would like to know if you have a point on why no good will come out of it, or what’s flawed in the idea of co-creation. Depending on what some people mean by it, I sense it’s almost a tautology – but that’s a bigger conversation than these comment boxes allow.

  2. Thomas Wagner

    This is a very useful post indeed, and, I guess, handy to have in mind when sitting at an interview. I wonder, however, how many planners are 1) able to do this, 2) allowed to do this by their agencies, 3) willing to do this and 4) willing and able to teach this to their juniors. And given that many agencies who emphasize the craft don’t run grad schemes or hire juniors anymore, I (honestly) wonder where to pick up, learn and hone these skills.

    • Martin Weigel

      Hi Thomas,

      If planners are either unable or unwilling to do this, I’d be inclined to use that staffcost on creatives instead.

      As for where to get a training in the basics/essentials, yes, it’s hard. The UK is at least blessed with the APG and IPA that run excellent training courses in the fundamentals that make up for agencies’ inability to train or unwillingness to invest…

      • ashlystewart

        If you can’t get a class with Merry Baskin at APG in London, you might check out “A Master Class in Brand Planning- The Timeless Works of Stephen King.” Merry taught a week of my university ad classes years ago and gave everyone in our course this book. I remember reading parts of it some time ago before I had any real experience. I found it interesting, but if I’m honest it went over my head a bit. This post inspired me to revisit it and needless to say after a more thorough introduction to advertising and account planning, it has made a lot more sense. I think it’s a very good start to self-training.

        http://www.amazon.com/Master-Class-Brand-Planning-Timeless/dp/0470517913

        I’d be very interested if our valuable senior strategists in the Netherlands would bolster our new APG with some courses aimed at junior and mid-level planners. (hint, hint, wink, wink) Martin, what do you say?

      • Martin Weigel

        Wholeheartedly agree! Every planner should know the works of Stephen King. Amidst all the change, as well as competing rhetoric and advice, his is a voice of enduring sanity and clarity. Oh, and Merry Baskin totally rocks.

      • ashlystewart

        I see how you politely dogged the APG Netherlands course. I’ll sort this out, don’t you worry 🙂

  3. Steven Bayley

    I am in the process right now of putting all this together. Step one is to recognize that these skills are necessary. It seems the few planning training programs there are in the US might be a little on the light weight side. In order to fully develop these skills, I recognize ill need to piece together training from a variety of sources. Im in New York, finishing up the Miami Ad School Bootcamp for Account Planners, and it is a great jumping off point, but perhaps a little light on research. I feel the next step is some RIVA or Burke research training to augment the overview. It has to be an ongoing professional development that really never stops, particularly if you want to cultivate the necessary digital skills as well. If you love the discipline though, You’ll never want to stop. Theres always something new to learn. Thats what keeps me going. Great article!

  4. Simon Shaw

    Useful and interesting.

    Q: Should aspiring planners spend the first 5 years of their career in a (decent) research agency?

    I reckon junior researchers will get these miles on the clock quicker than junior planners.

    Just saying.

    • Martin Weigel

      Hi Simon,
      I did spend 5 yrs in research, so I’m slightly biased.
      And whilst it was occasionally grueling, it was invaluable.
      But I’d pick the research agency carefully.
      Having some of them on the CV/resume would be a reason NOT to hire!

      • Thomas Wagner

        Hi Martin,
        Now if you could email, DM or publicly call out those, that’d be really helpful. (I’m only halfway joking. Information like that really is valuable.)

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  6. Sarah

    Brilliant stuff – thank you. This list is now pinned to my wall as a reminder! 🙂

    However, while I understand that you’re making the point that research craft skills are necessary to influence the creative process, aren’t there some craft skills involved in analysis, distillation and articulation side of things that still need to be taught and refined? Surely the way that the information/knowledge is conveyed is almost as important as that deep understanding of the facts?

    • Martin Weigel

      You’re very welcome, Sarah.
      I don’t think I’ve ever had ANYTHING of mine pinned on a wall before!
      Completely agree with your point… which is why I stressed that “there are many ‘softer’ skills that one should certainly expect from a planner. For example, the arts of distillation, synthesis, and persuasive articulation are vital if planners are able to transform what they know into something that is useful in the development of strategy and creative work.”
      Facts alone are not enough!

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  9. Jessica Summerfield

    The Sleep of Reason Engenders Monsters – bloody hell, Goya knew what he was taking about. Lovely stuff as always. Now I’m off to unpack my hotpants.

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  11. ajven

    Martin, greetings from Russia.
    Loved your post, very true and correct thoughts that cause worry. The problem with most of our agencies as strategists in the fact that it is the writers of the facts from the Internet, but not the planners.

    Say, can I translate your article into Russian for publication on our blog dedicated to strategic planning?
    Needless to say, with reference to you and blog as the source!:)

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