Heather LeFevre was an Adams family house guest and a Blonde family planning guest for two weeks in August 2012.
I write this a week or so after she headed back home to Amsterdam. And, at the time of writing, Heather is part way through a world tour of planning departments in all kinds of agencies.
She is on a mission to learn, and then write a book to share that learning.
Given that she is a highly experienced and, not to put too fine a point on it, shit hot global planner in her own right she is also, unwittingly perhaps, on a mission to teach.
This is what I learned in two weeks with Heather.
Two heads are better than one.
As luck would have it, a couple of juicy planning projects landed in the office a couple of days before Heather’s plane landed at Edinburgh Airport.
This meant that Heather and I could properly work together. She could see my approach to planning in action, rather than have it described in theory. And I got a glimpse of what it must be like for creative teams to work together on briefs.
This probably shouldn’t have been a revelation, but it was.
Obviously I work with other planners all the time. We help each other out. We share ideas. We give advice. We act as editors for each other’s work. We collaborate. The daily functioning of a planning department.
But working with Heather was different.
The daily functioning of a planning department is collaborative, but it is broken into individual work streams. People help each other out but each individual is ultimately responsible for his or her unique to-do list.
Heather and I had a single, identical to-do list.
We were the planning equivalent of art director and copywriter.
“My” work was better by any measure as a result. And it was delivered quicker.
Which has me thinking.
Could a planning department be structured like a creative department?
Planning in pairs?
Identical to-do lists?
Better output, arrived at more quickly?
And this line of thinking begs all sorts of interesting questions.
How and when would these pairs form, especially if yours were the only agency operating in this manner?
Planners wouldn’t come out of college in pairs. So you’d need to have a system for recruiting and pairing up. How would that work given the various vocational and personal levels on which compatibility would need to be achieved? It would be like intellectual tissue matching.
And even if planners did come in pairs, how would they feel about going in pairs too? Would they, could they, move from agency to agency as a twosome? That’s the norm for creatives but it would be a new paradigm (obligatory wanky planner term) for planning.
Creatives get offered new jobs on the basis of a joint reputation earned with their partners. Maybe that dynamic could work for planners too. Planner X and planner Y earn a reputation for great strategy, stimulating great creative work, winning lots of pitches, great client relationships at Agency Z. From the outside looking in it is impossible to tell which, if either, is contributing more to this reputation. And so they are headhunted as a pair. Put like that it doesn’t sound too far-fetched actually.
But how would it work in a multi-discipline department?
A digital agency is not like the ad agencies I left behind.
Planning departments in those agencies were populated by similar generalists, differentiated not by job description or skill set but by experience and ability.
A digital planning department, if the Blonde sample of one is in any way indicative, is more like Fox Force Five (see below), a collection of vocational specialists collaborating so as to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. User Experience, SEO, and Community Management for instance all sit within Planning at Blonde.
So temporary pairings happen all the time, mainly because a particular project demands a particular blend of specialist skills not held by any one individual.
Permanent pairings would be much more tricky. Especially as I’m talking here about the pairing of equals as happens with creative teams.
It would be relatively easy to introduce a sensei/pupil system of planner pairings – that would work within specific disciplines like UX for instance.
But the permanent pairing of equals requires some further thought.
All I know is that it worked a treat for two weeks in August.
Heather taught me that.
I should have known better than to take on a native Texan in a Guacamole challenge.
I went smooth.
Heather went chunky.
Heather also went with orange juice and coriander (cilantro).
Heather taught me that.
Heather came to be mentored.
But she gave as good, actually better, than she got.
She made some sharp, constructive observations about the difference between my vision and ambition for planning at Blonde and the example I was/am setting.
Priceless advice that underlines the importance of the mentor role played well.
Heather taught, or at least reminded me of that too.
This final section is mainly for any other enlightened souls thinking of helping Heather with this project.
To friends, family and colleagues, the “staying at your house” aspect of all this was the hardest thing to come to terms with.
But it was always an important part of Heather’s vision for how it should work.
She was right.
She is undertaking this project under her own steam and at her own expense. She insists on her time at each agency being treated as free training for her rather than unpaid work for you. Couch surfing in this context is a fair and practical measure to control expenses.
But, as she predicted, the main value of couch surfing to the project was quality time.
She described our shared commutes as “golden time”, when we shot the breeze about planning philosophy, case studies, tricks of the trade and such like.
(After a while you get used to your train chat being recorded for posterity.)
And at home, at the dinner table, we reflected on the day in a way that would not have been possible had she gone her separate way to a hotel each evening.
Exactly what form the final, published output from this project will take is still crystalising in Heather’s mind. But she has a strong sense that getting to know each host as fully as possible will be an important component of each chapter.
At first I was a little apprehensive about being “got to know” in that level of detail. But it doesn’t hurt. And I urge any future mentors to welcome this part of the project.
I am grateful to my family for welcoming Heather.
You will be grateful you welcomed her too.
Heather will teach you that.