Find your voice and get your story straight
The many voices of Planning.

The many voices of Planning.

“Planning is the voice of the consumer.”

The stock, clichéd answer to the question “what do agency planners do?”

Well, in addition to being stock and clichéd, it also happens to be true. It is accurate but not wholly so. The truth but not the whole truth.

Done well, there are several voices of planning.

An effective planner these days speaks with many voices, representing many valuable agendas. I can think of six, which I have outlined below. These are roles that, in my view, sit most comfortably with Planning. Not uniquely maybe, but definitely most comfortably.

Thanks to Martin Weigel and Noah brier whose respective posts on radical thinking and first principles got me to pondering these things.

The many voices of Planning.

1. The voice of the consumer.

I can’t add to this. It’s where planning came in. Martin puts it well in his post;

It [planning] devoted itself to developing a real and rounded understanding of the consumer, rather than simply selecting and polishing selling propositions. 

It sought to place thinking about the response of the consumer at the heart of strategic and creative thinking.

It shifted the focus of advertising development from finding ways of selling people stuff, to finding ways of making stuff buyable.

The fundamental job of planning was to care about the people on the receiving end. It still is. In fact this role has become more important rather than less. At my agency the User Experience (UX) discipline sits across the Design and Planning departments. UX and service design are defined by caring about the human beings on the receiving end. UX planners are the voice of the user.

And God knows the consumer needs a voice when brands stubbornly, stupidly (still!) take their broadcast, message-based, advertiser mindset into social media. Good social media planners are the voice of the otherwise occupied and the not easily impressed.

The voice of the consumer set the agenda for planning. We care about things that matter, but which often get overlooked. And people, whether you call them consumers, users or followers are the prime example.

2. The voice of commercial purpose. (The voice of “Why?”)

Planners are strategic thinkers. Planners “do” strategy.

And strategy is just a plan for how to achieve a set of goals.

Unfortunately it is all too common for planners to dive straight into the plan without thinking hard enough about the goals.

Our industry has a dangerous habit of confusing means with ends. Advertising is treated as an end in its own right, rather than a means to achieve some higher commercial purpose. So we jump straight in and start planning advertising without thinking long or hard enough about defining the problem.

There is an insidious assumption that advertising, PR, direct marketing, social media or whatever means the agency is set up to peddle is always the solution. The answer’s advertising, now what’s the question?

But how a problem is framed has a huge influence on the quality of the solution. This is obvious, simple, but far from easy to do well. Our industry is so obsessed with its output that we don’t pay enough attention to the quality of input. Namely defining problems that deserve and lend themselves to great solutions.

Don’t be a planner of pointless campaigns.

Don’t be the hapless strategist caught holding the mouse when the client CEO oh-so-innocently asks, “Just remind me why we’re doing this.”

Front load your thinking to ensure that your means lead to valuable ends.

Be the voice of commercial purpose.

3. The voice of how it works. (The voice from under the bonnet.)

I adore this quote from a recent post on the adorable Math With Bad Drawings blog:

I used to play ping pong every week with a computer science professor. He was a very smart, no-nonsense guy. I told him about my tendency to ask a lot of questions, and how it was sometimes a bit much. What he told me has stuck with me till today: some of the smartest people I know ask some of the dumbest questions I’ve heard. Because they want to be absolutely, 100 percent sure that they get it.

Nir Friedman

I studied chemical engineering at university. I am hard-wired to insist on knowing how things work. To the point that not knowing is stressful. I need to know how things work at a mechanical level, but also in terms of the fundamental physics. And I brought this under-the-bonnet curiosity with me to advertising.

I have never been satisfied with the trite “if they like the ad they’ll like the brand” school of how advertising works. I want to know the fundamentals, the psychology and the neuroscience.

Back in the 90’s Allan Leighton, CEO of Asda, was vilified by the creative community for proclaiming his love of “wallpaper” advertising. But if you read what he said he was just an intuitive proponent of low involvement processing. Low Involvement Processing is a model of advertising planning based on theories about how the subconscious effects of advertising can be more powerful than the conscious. It is most associated with Robert Heath, with whom I had the pleasure of working on a Standard Life campaign back in the day. Leighton understood that unwavering adherence to the catchy Asda Price jingle alongside the pocket-patting visual mnemonic would indelibly associate his brand with value in the eyes of the shopping public. As CEO he cared passionately about Why and had strong (well informed) opinions about How.

Sadly, scientific rigour is not as common as you’d expect in an industry that, in the eyes of a cynical public, is all about the manipulation of minds.

There is the same apathy around the question of “How will it work?” as there is around “Why are we doing this?”

Maybe there is less of this assumptiveness latterly, now that the fields of neuroscience and behavioural economics have become more mainstream topics in client and planning circles. But if planning doesn’t concern itself with these things, no-one else in the agency will. It should be an important part of the job.

4. The voice of precision

It drives me nuts how sloppy and imprecise the language of strategy has become.

Planners should say what they mean and mean what they say. Unfortunately this is another thing that sounds simple in theory but which is not easy in practice. Some very bad habits have set in and infected the whole industry.

Here are but three examples.

Most brands do not come anywhere close to having a “community” as I would define it. Talking at people who have foolishly liked your Facebook page is not a conversation with your community. You need genuine fans to have a community. Pop stars and sports teams, entities that people genuinely care about, have communities. The fans talk to each other about the entity, away from the entity’s spaces, when the entity is not present. The vast majority of brands, with notable exceptions like Harley Davidson, just don’t have communities. So don’t kid yourself that they do or can.

Return On Investment (ROI) is a percentage figure based on money earned in relation to money spent to earn it. There is no other acceptable definition. It is perfectly acceptable to define alternative currencies in which to measure success. But don’t talk ROI unless you’re talking money.

And don’t even get me started on engagement. I presented a chart to a client marketing department recently that had a non-exhaustive list of verbs, each of which is a form of “engaging”. There were thirty words on that chart. There is always a more precise, less ambiguous way to explain your desired outcome than “engagement”. All forms of the word are banned in my department. The casual use of engage, engaging, engagement remind me of the infuriating use of “like” by my teenage daughters. We like say engagement like all the time but because it like means like everything it like therefore means like nothing.

Being the voice of precision can make you appear pedantic at times but rare is the strategy that wouldn’t benefit from a heavy dose of constructive pedantry. Your strategy will be much more effective and your evaluation frameworks much more useful if you dedicate yourself to precisely defining your terms.

5. The voice of creative opportunity.

This is why I’d rather be a planner than a strategist. This is where the rubber hits the road. I don’t think I could work in an environment where the strategy didn’t get turned into something. Something elegant and effective, something the agency can point at and say “we did that”. A fully rounded agency planner needs to know how strategy begets creativity. She or he needs to know how to come up with a plan that both solves the commercial problem and provides a solid, liberating platform for the ideas people to work from.

That is not the same as making your strategies “creative”.

There is a lot of pressure within agencies to “own the thinking”. That is how people, particularly planners, impress and progress. This, in turn, creates its own pressure, a pressure to make the thinking “clever”. Which is fine as long as it doesn’t get too clever for its own good; up itself in other words. And this happens a lot. Intellectual onanism is the enemy of effective creative strategy.

I enjoy working with creative teams but I’ve never wanted to be “a creative”. I have a reasonable understanding after 25 years of what makes them tick, the really good ones that is. The really good ones have a strong intuitive sense of whether a strategy is sensible and sound or over-intellectual, wishful thinking bullshit. I try to provide the former.

At the creative end of the process I see the planner’s role as that of Sherpa. You do the heavy strategic lifting. You have a sense of mission. And you have enough creative nouse to guide the ascent. But at some point you’ve got to leave the guys to it and hope that they are good enough to make a spectacular push to the summit – on strategy but delightful and surprising.

6. The voice of context

Last and probably least is the voice of context. Least? How so? Context is a big deal in marketing communications right now. It has certainly been a hot topic at every conference or seminar I’ve attended recently.

And context is obviously important. The cultural context, the media context, the technology context in which our work lives should all have an influence on how the work is conceived and executed.

Context is also very interesting. Big numbers for technology adoption. “Insightful” cultural trends. Apparently seismic shifts in media consumption. Context provides colour to strategy and Powerpoint presentations.

The trouble is that context is easy. It’s easy to Google and it’s easy to “Magpie” from Twitter or a speaker’s conference slides. And it’s easy to agree with because it doesn’t mean anything until it is applied to the job in hand. So there is a very human temptation to place too much emphasis on it.

For my money, context is about nuance and fine tuning. Really powerful strategy, strategy with longevity, is based on more fundamental things. As Martin said in a brief Twitter exchange, “Context without something fundamental in the middle is just… waffle.”

So by all means by the voice of context, but keep context in perspective.


These are my six voices of Planning. Done well, planning is highly valuable. A planner who consistently masters these voices will tend to have the most important voice of all in the eyes of the client – The voice of “Getting It”. Clients occasionally say things like, “So and so just gets it”. And that’s the kind of language a client uses when they would move their business to follow you.


The many voices of planning. Handwritten.
The many voices of planning.


  1. Pingback: Baudrillard, one of the first planners? | Planosophy

  2. jamie

    Excellent post Phil, be interested to know how you think ‘planners’ and ‘strategists’ differ, if you’re talking about account planners rather than comms planners that is!

    1. Hi Jamie

      The two titles appear to have become interchangeable as far as I can tell. Either that or what each title actually means will vary by agency. In the context of this post I was using the two titles to draw the distinction between strategists as people for whom strategy is the end product, the deliverable, and planners for whom some kind of creative work, which is the lovechild of their strategy, is the end product.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.


      1. Heather LeFevre

        Hi Phil,

        Great post. My latest bugbear is the planner title. I get your point, but “planner” scoffs at precision. I’ve been reading “Lords of Strategy” and consultants have had a long run with this word when they really seek efficiency. I think we could rightly own the word without it meaning we aim to only create a strategy without caring if it is followed.

        I care so much that I’ll likely rename the survey. Curious to hear your thoughts.


        1. Thanks Heather. None of these titles is perfect but in agency-land “Planning” has some of the attributes of a brand. It mostly means the same, mostly accurate and mostly relevant things to most of the people in the industry. Whereas I’ve dabbled with Consultant as a title in my own department and it just seems to cause confusion, particularly for clients. And I’ve met far too many “strategists” who have also either been “charlatans” or barely out of puberty for that title to carry credibility in my eyes. So, for me, planning isn’t perfect but it’s the least likely of the obvious alternatives to play to prejudice or negative stereotypes. Hugs back. Phil

  3. Borophyl

    this is typical, overly complicated (but far from complex) bullshit planner speak. planning wouldn’t exist if agencies were run by people with any business acumen. it only exists now because no one took the time and worked out how to charge appropriately for creative after media took itself out of agencies, so they loaded up the fee on planning. if planners acknowledged this, they might be less tiresome in their attempts to turn waffle into sense.

    creatives make the ads, everyone else makes the arrangements…except planners. they just look stupid trying to convince everyone that they’re necessary.

    1. Hi and thanks for taking the time to comment. I wish I knew for sure whether you are male or female. If it were the former I would say “thanks for the comment son” with as much patronising tone as I could muster. You’ve been working in the wrong agencies.


  4. Pingback: We Love the Internet 2014/20: The Unexplainable stock photos edition | Curiously Persistent

  5. Lisa Sutherland

    Hi Phil

    A bit late to the conversation but to complicate things in a non-planning fashion, I would also add ‘planner as chameleon’. Client’s tend not to be sure what a Strategic Brand Planner, Communications Planner, Digital Brand Planner, Media Planner, Creative Planner is – however, they want value, benefit, service and clarity. The ‘planner’s’ ability to deliver that and more, requires a flexibility and skill set that is mandatory. Like a chef delivering a meal to a hungry person, who isn’t sure what they fancy to eat, the planner must use as many ingredients at their finger tips to fulfil that Client’s appetite and stimulate the taste buds, as well as leave them satiated and satisfied. No such thing as a free lunch after all! Stephen King (JWT) once said ‘A product is something that is made, in a factory; a brand is something that is bought, by a customer. A product can be copied by a competitor; a brand is unique. A product can be quickly outdated; a successful brand, properly managed, can be timeless.’. It is an art and a science and planners need to be apt at both.

  6. jem tw

    Thanks Phil,
    A sense of sense.
    I’d agree with almost every word, and my -nearly 30 years of- experience would have you right about most things here.
    I think you’ve charted everything right with planning, and, if only by omission, everything that’s gone so wrong recently.
    I’ve never thought about, nor worried about the difference between a ‘planner’ and a ‘strategist’ before, but I think you’re right, and I’d add that the worst planners I’ve hired in the past have been strategists that take no ownership nor care of the creative outcome.
    I think we have to go far deeper into ‘how it works’ and the psychology of ‘why it works that way’ (consumer decision making, cognitive bias and mental heuristics, and a deeper knowledge of Kahneman rather than just the ability to quote the back cover) because this is the only context that really matters, and if it isn’t our job, whose is it?
    While I’d ignore Borophyl, I suspect his/her frustration come from experiencing a whole flotilla of planners who are experts in the ‘interesting and irrelevant’ rather than the useful. If you work in places where planning never brings anything to the table then you’d feel the same way.
    Either that or he’s just out of school where they harp on about that kind of shit.
    Your problem, if it is one, is that you’ve only worked in ‘the right agencies’ and maybe have created the right kind of department.
    Good stuff

  7. Pingback: Did I do a strategy? - a planner's checklist

  8. Pingback: My very own planning handbook - Phil Adams : Brand Strategy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.