Following on from Heather’s series of Get Your Digital Planner On posts, Amelia’s How to get your first job in Planning and Andrew’s How to be more creative, I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring too.
Since I’ve spent the last eleven years working as an Account Planner in three different regional integrated agencies, I think I’m pretty qualified to offer some advice for Account Planners who are working or want to work Outside That There London:
1) Wear many hats
Desk Researcher, Qualitative Researcher, Futurologist, Data Analyst, Librarian, NPD Consultant, Workshop Facilitator, Management Coach, Journalist, Business Development Manager – I’ve worn them all at one time or another.
In an agency with only one Planner (or if you’re very, very lucky, a Head of Planning, a couple of Planners and a mini Research team), anything vaguely strategic that the agency’s Board of Directors don’t fancy dealing with will eventually find its way to your desk. On the upside, you can bill stuff like Workshops and Trends Presentations back to clients (it’s always nice to have some billed income to help justify your existence), or use them to cement client relationships. On the downside, it won’t leave you as much time for actual proper Planning work.
2) Get good at plate spinning
On average, I’ve always had about six projects on the go at any one time, split between clients I stayed involved with on an ongoing basis (usually on some kind of agency retainer), client projects (that needed short term Planning support) and new business. Plus all of the other stuff I mentioned above. Get good at managing (and protecting) your time as you will have to be your own Traffic Department.
3) Ask yourself – “if it was my money, what would I spend it on?”
Outside London, budgets tend to be six rather than seven figures. Which means that the 12 group creative development research + U&A tracker are probably out of the question. As is attending all the lovely APG workshops or encouraging the Creative Department to write ads that start “we open on a palm fringed beach”.
It also means you’re going to get involved with Channel Planning and even Media Planning as (unless the client hates TV or their National Account Manager has promised Tesco a Clubcard promotion) your insight will help decide where the best place to engage your target audience is.
4) Try not to make enemies
If you live in the London area, chances are that most of the major agencies are commutable. Up here in the regions, unless you enjoy spending four hours a day in your car you’ll have a choice of, at best, half a dozen places to work. We do have lots of agencies, just not very many that are big enough and smart enough to employ Planners.
So try really hard not to fall out with/slag off/upset anyone in the local agency scene because Sod’s Law says that a) the next juicy Planning job to pop up will be where they now sit on the Board, or b) they will be your new client (I once went on an uninspiring blind date with someone who unexpectedly turned into my client, v. awkward), or c) you’ll end up working alongside them all over again two years down the line.
5) Be prepared to let others take the credit
The average regional Planner does not have a groaning shelf full of industry awards. If your agency is prepared to invest time and money in letting you go for an IPA Effectiveness award, that’s great. But it can be really tricky to track down data to prove your effectiveness point (see 3), some clients really can’t see the value and no regional agency is going to stump up for econometrics and the like.
There are loads of regional awards like The Roses and national client industry dos like the FAB Awards, but nothing that really rewards Planners, except perhaps The Drum (its like Campaign for Outside London) Marketing Awards and getting clients to get excited about entering that can be, um, shall we say, hard work.
6) Find excitement in even the smallest, most boring project or client
I don’t think that Sony, Nike or Honda are likely to suddenly up sticks and move their account to an agency in Leeds, Cardiff or Glasgow. So the brief for the omnipresent, multi million pound, talk-about-it-in-the-pub campaign is never going to cross your desk.
But I’ve worked for Warburtons, Britvic, Del Monte, Kellogg’s, Asda and McVities in the last four years alone. It was just on the not-quite-so-high profile stuff like low budget NPD launches, press ads, trade press and DM.
Some of the stuff I’m most proud of is for businesses you’ve probably never heard of. Like the industrial & commercial equipment company that I repositioned, who not only now have a lovely new brand identity that is helping their businesses grow, but who also liked my proposition so much they (after research) adopted it as a positioning line on their brand identity. I know it’s not exactly an ideal way to go about things, but I still get a buzz when I drive past one of their lorries on the motorway. Don’t underestimate smaller businesses that move quickly and can give you the ‘I did that’ buzz.
7) Get your Qual on
Whether or not you have the luxury of an on-site research team, you’ll have to do some qual. And not necessarily for clients you have anything to do with. I’ve babysat a viewing room full of a dozen clients who’ve never seen a group before, done telephone depths with senior trade union people, carried out accompanied shops with ‘heavy’ continental cheese users and know rather more about sausages and cream cakes than is entirely healthy.
You need to be able to take one for the team and help out. This includes quick and dirty qual of the new business / my-client-has-no-budget variety when the venue is an office meeting room and the respondents are friends-of-friends (best case scenario) or colleagues (worst case). It’s up to you to decide where the line is when ‘research’ becomes ‘making stuff up that looks good for a pitch’.
8) Roll your sleeves up
Lets say you and an Account Director are working on the early stages of a project. Nothing is in Creative or Production yet, so there isn’t an Account Manager working with you. The Account Director goes on holiday. Who is the client going to call? Welcome to your role as Emergency Account Handler. In addition to this, you will also become Evening Receptionist (Reception will go home at 5.30 and let the phone ring and ring) and Crisis Copywriter (try not to let on that you can string a sentence together for as long as possible).
9) Learn to post rationalise
With one or just a couple of Planners in situ versus an entire agency constantly churning out work, there’s no way you are going to get involved in everything. Sometimes you won’t get involved until the creative is at scamp stage and the client presentation is 48 hours away. This is when you will be asked to come up with a strategy or positioning that connects the client brief and the creative and/or channel plan being presented. I kept a toolbox on my desk of useful charts, theories and case studies for just such an occasion when inspiration fails and the clock is ticking.
10) Its all about Integration
These days, the communications channels crossover and cross fertilise so much that every agency has to have a go at everything. Regional agencies that have been around for a while are particularly good at this as in Ye Olde Days they often had to be able to handle a client’s advertising, DM, PR and media buying needs in order to make enough money off them to make the account worth bothering with. On the downside, a lot of these agencies still operate as discipline ‘silos’ with cross-charging, internal fighting for fees and so on. And the new fangled digital department will probably be out in the car park having a fag and wearing a lot of black while all this is going on.
Your job is to try and make sure all these disciplines / departments / specialisms are working from the same insight and towards the same goal. You need to make everyone in the agency believe that you really are Insight Queen (or King) – and that you can help to make their lives easier and most importantly the communications better. Because if you aren’t helping, for heavens sake get out of the way.