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A Planner's Playbook - Everything I learned about planning at Miami Ad School New York

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After being in advertising for 4 years, I needed some new guidance and inspiration as a strategist. And that is exactly what I found: I spent the summer of 2013 with 17 other (soon to be) planners …

After being in advertising for 4 years, I needed some new guidance and inspiration as a strategist. And that is exactly what I found: I spent the summer of 2013 with 17 other (soon to be) planners from all over the world attending the Account Planning Bootcamp at Miami Ad School New York.

Thanks to the 38 industry heroes and instructors that shared their knowledge and coached us in those 3 months, I learned more than I ever could imagine about planning. 

'A Planner's Playbook' is my attempt to summarize all that wisdom in 30 short nuggets (or plays, to stick with the metaphor of a playbook) and share it with you. I left out all the difficult frameworks and models and kept in simple by just stating, in my opinion (and in that of my instructors), what a planner should be and do. 

Enjoy reading.

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  • 1. A planner’s playbook. Everything I learned about planning at Miami Ad School that you should know about. by Sytse Kooistra.
  • 2. Hi I'm Sytse, a strategist from The Netherlands. After being in advertising for 4 years, I needed some new guidance and inspiration as a strategist. And that is exactly what I found: I spent the summer of 2013 with 17 other (soon to be) planners from all over the world attending the Account Planning Bootcamp at Miami Ad School New York. Thanks to the 38 industry heroes and instructors that shared their knowledge and coached us in those 3 months, I learned more than I ever could imagine about planning.  'A Planner's Playbook' is my attempt to summarize all that wisdom in 30 short nuggets (or plays, to stick with the metaphor of a playbook) and share it with you. I left out all the difficult frameworks and models and kept in simple by just stating, in my opinion (and in that of my instructors), what a planner should be and do.  Enjoy reading. Sytse Kooistra
  • 3. 0: Be a strategist, not an account planner. Let's be honest: account planning is a ridiculous name. You would expect more from a job whose title has its origins in the same country that invented the English language. We'd rather be called strategists. Or thought-ninjas. You choose. (For your convenience and confusion I will keep referring to planning and planners throughout this playbook.)
  • 4. 1: Make change happen. Planning is all about making change happen. The strategy takes you from A to B by crossing whatever barrier there is. It sounds easy, but it's not. There is always a reason why situation B isn't the current situation. So prepare yourself for endless research, crushed hypotheses, irrational behavior and looping thought-cycles. But also for learning new stuff every day, AHAmoments and all-round awesomeness. That is what being a planner is all about.
  • 5. 2: Make the work effective. Making it work is your job as a planner. It's what separates advertising from art. Always define the objective and determine how to measure success. What should the outcome be? Work back from there to come up with a strategy that gets you to that point. Remember: you are there to make the work effective. So you better know what effectiveness is.
  • 6. 3: Be ‘and’ not ‘or’. You are probably better and more experienced in certain fields. And maybe your job description decides what tasks you are executing. But as a planner you have to be a lot of different things. Especially in this post-specialist era. Your job description doesn't justify you saying no. Be whatever you need to be to get the job done. Know something about everything that goes on in your company and be ready to learn more .
  • 7. 4: Be a trader in doubts and questions. Never just assume. What seems obvious to other people, should raise questions to you. Hunches and gut feelings are good, but you have to back them up. So don't take anything for granted and ask questions. Lots of questions. It's the only way to find the real issue and solve it.
  • 8. 5: Spend most of your time on the problem. The problem is seldom as simple as we'd like it to be. And the client usually doesn't know what the real problem is in the first place. Spend most of your time finding out what the problem is. You can't come up with the solution if the problem isn't clear yet. Why is the target group not doing what you want them to do? In the process of discovering the real issue, you will most probably find (part of) the solution.
  • 9. 6: Understand the business. Do whatever you can to understand your client's business. How does their business model work? Where does the growth come from? What are the possible opportunities? Try to find the game changers in their category or inspiration from other categories that you can apply to innovate. If the brand is a leader, try to broaden the category. If the brand is a challenger, find a way to steal market share from competitors. And if you’re pitching for their business, find out what the reason is for the pitch. There is always a reason and you'll give yourself a better chance by knowing it.
  • 10. 7: Don’t make shit up. Since it's impossible to know everything about everything, you have to read and do lots of research. It's essential for every single thing you do as a planner. You need data to understand and solve problems. And people need to trust the things you say. Even when there is no budget or data available, you still need to do it. Scrappy research is research too. So talk to people on the streets and ask friends and family. Make the effort and it will pay off, even if it just to confirm your hunch.
  • 11. 8: Get out from behind your computer. You won't find the answer by sitting at your desk all day. Planning is about understanding human behaviour and interactions with brands and products. The only way to experience that in real life is by going out in the real world. Don't limit yourself to your computer, go out and explore! (And bring your laptop)
  • 12. 9: Distill the chaos. Whatever the project, you as a planner will have to process a ridiculous amount of information. Not every piece will add up and sometimes the essential pieces are missing. It will give you a serious headache. Don't freak out. That's your job. You distill the chaos into something that is concise, makes sense, gives direction and inspires the creative process. Oh and makes the client happy. Again, don't freak out. It gives you the best feeling when you succeed.
  • 13. 10: Forget about linearity. The process of writing a creative brief is far from linear. Planning is about finding all sorts of information and inspiration before being able to connect the dots. Maybe you find the key piece on your last day. Maybe you thought of the strategyline on the first day and have been finding evidence to back it up during the rest of your time on the project. Linearity is your friend when telling the story, but gives you the finger during the process of actually getting to that story.
  • 14. 11: Aim for a precise target. Men between 25 and 65 is not a target group you can work with. Do your research and make a decision. What are pivotal moments in their life when they are more likely to change their behavior? What are their hopes and dreams? What are they struggling with in life? Find an interesting (cultural) tension that gives you more insight into their lives and is relevant for the brand. Most likely the creatives are not the target group themselves, so bring them to life in a way that makes the creatives get it.
  • 15. 12: Find white space. As a planner you have to find opportunities. Find white space that you can make the playground for your client, yourself and the creatives. There is no point in joining the existing clutter; how will you get noticed? A technique to find this white space is 'disruption': to interrupt the normal course of unity. Every category has its own conventions. Define the conventions and find a way to do the opposite. Disrupt, get noticed and gain an 'unfair' share of mind.
  • 16. 13: Find a true human insight. If you want to change human behaviour, you have to find a human insight. Easier said than done. Insights aren't just things you find. A finding or an observation isn't enough. That's just the input. It's about connecting the dots to uncover a human truth. Hard to explain, obvious when found. Be aware: there is a lot of thinking involved in this. You will be asking yourselves the question 'but why?' a lot.
  • 17. 14: Touch their hearts. Of course rational benefits are still important. But at the end of the day people buy things based on how it makes them feel. That means you as a planner have to find an emotional connection. What do those rational benefits mean to the target group? Or can we find a larger sense of purpose where the brand and its audience can connect? Touch their hearts and their minds will follow. We are all feeling machines that happen to think.
  • 18. 15: Explain what it is like. If a picture paints a thousand words, an analogy is worth a million. An analogy is one of the most powerful weapons to bring your idea to life. This applies both for creatives as for consumers when you want to point their thoughts and feelings in a certain direction. Why explain something if the explanation is already in the listener's head?
  • 19. 16: Eat strategy for breakfast. Be aware of what is going on in (pop) culture. Try to find the bigger picture by looking for the cultural relevance of the target group, the brand and the category. Use a cultural insight or momentum as a springboard for your strategic idea and it will always trump an idea that isn’t based on culture. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
  • 20. 17: Don’t keep strategy for yourself. Don't wait to talk to the team until you think the strategy is done. Input and inspiration can come from anyone. But when it comes down to owning the strategy: that's the planner's job. You are responsible for the strategy and it’s your job to make sure the team knows it by heart. If the final work is not on brief, it's your fault. Not the creatives'.
  • 21. 18: Don’t separate creativity from strategy. As a planner you have to be creative. In everything you do - your research, coming to the insight, defining the strategy-line, briefing the creatives etc. The solution has to be creative, so you have to be as well. Creative ideas can come from anyone, especially a planner. Always have thought starters and 'bad' planning ideas. It will inspire the creatives and challenge them to do better. And maybe, just maybe, your idea will end up being the winning idea.
  • 22. 19: Do your homework, don’t show it. To get to the creative brief, there is a lot to be done: understand the brand, know its history and heritage, understand the target group, read up on all previous research, find out what the real problem is, talk to the consumers, talk to the target group, use the product etc. There are no shortcuts, you as a planner need to know every single thing. But when it comes to making the creative brief, not every piece of information is essential. Be as concise as possible and tell a story that makes sense and inspires. Don't show all your homework, no one cares about that. (Except for your boss.)
  • 23. 20: Master the art of speed planning. Most of your projects don't allow you the time to do all the research you think is necessary to come to a brilliant insight and strategy. Get over it, that's the way it works. Especially in pitches. And it probably keeps you from procrastinating all day. But that doesn't mean you can't come up with the brilliant insight and strategy you need. Try to come up with a hypothesis quickly and direct your research to either validate your hunch or make it better. Act as a mythbuster and find out what happens.
  • 24. 21: Don’t brief with just a document. A creative brief is so much more than a document or a slide deck. The form of a brief can be anything that is needed to let the strategy come to life and inspire the creatives. Is the target group teenage girls? Maybe brief the creatives in a High School hallway. Is the big idea about male bonding? Take them out rock climbing and brief them on location.  Remember, the creative brief is first and foremost for the creatives. They are the ones that have to make it come to life, so make it as clear and inspiring for them as possible.
  • 25. 22: Always tell a story. Stories make sense, and when told really well, they stick. Study the anatomy of a story and apply it to the way you present your briefs, case studies and work. Be ruthless in your decisions and leave out certain parts if they distract from the main narrative. Remember: whilst you may have worked full-time on the project for the past month, your audience probably hasn't.
  • 26. 23: Don’t lose interest after the creative brief. Stay involved with the project. Don't think your job ends after the creative brief. Show your face regularly and ask what they're struggling with. Maybe you can help or change their perspective. Or maybe more research is needed to help the creatives make the ideas better. Don't be afraid to slightly adjust the strategy and make the creative work shine more. That's what a planner does.
  • 27. 24: Don’t plan for ads. It's 2013. We're not solely in the advertising business anymore. A planner’s job is to solve business problems. That means an agency has to sell outcomes, not tactics. Yes, the answer could very well be advertising. But if you limit your outcome before finding the answer, you might end up not solving the business problem at all. It's like the famous proverb: "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
  • 28. 25: Spot good ideas. We're in the business of ideas. You can't get in a person's head without an idea. A good idea, that is. So train yourself in spotting good ideas. They are everywhere and the simplest are usually the best. Analyze successful t v-shows, product innovations, children's toys, campaigns, mobile apps. Why are they good and how do people share them with each other? Learn how to nurture and grow the ideas you come across. Make yourself an idea expert and find inspiration everywhere around you. 
  • 29. 26: Make the presentation better than the idea. An idea is only as good as the way you present it. Presenting is one of the, if not the, most important part of your job. You have to be able to sell it to whoever your audience is. Whether it's your colleagues, your CEO, the client or your little niece: connect with the audience, show your engagement with the material and sell it. Make sure you prepare and rehearse. That's the only way you can be confident and do your magic.
  • 30. 27: Keep it simple. Don't hide behind big words. No good has ever come from big words when it comes to communications. Others need to understand you instantly. Make the creatives think you already did the hard work by stating the problem and the brief in simple words. How can you expect the consumer to share the story when you start out all fuzzy? As a planner you are the simple police, don't be a dirty cop.
  • 31. 28: Use research for illumination. Copy-testing and other forms of researching creative work is meant to inform your judgement, not replace it. It should be used for illumination and maximizing creativity. Of course, a client wants to know if the work is going to be effective when they're spending so much money. However, the only way to find that out is by running the campaign and tracking the effects. Research should never be used to minimize risk: it's better to have half your target passionate about the work than the whole target feeling indifferent.
  • 32. 29: Work a plan, not a job. Best career advice you will ever get. What's your plan? What kind of people do you want to work with? What is your dream client? With a little bit of luck and hard work everyone can land a job in advertising. But that shouldn't be the end goal. Look for the potential work you can do at an agency, not only at its current "coolness." Have a plan and make sure your career decisions are based on that plan. If you don't look out for yourself, who will?
  • 33. 30: Always thank the people that helped you. ✓ Aaron Wiggan, Strategy Director @ Droga5 ✓ Amanda K. Rue, Strategist @ Carrot Creative ✓ Anita Black, Co-founder @ the magnetic collective ✓ Archana Kumar, EVP, Global Planning Director @ BBDO Worldwide ✓ Ben Martin, Head of Planning @ Beyond ✓ Brent Vartan, Chief Strategy Officer @ Deutsch ✓ Brian Moore, Creative @ Droga5 ✓ Cheena Jain, Associate Creative Director @ Wunderman ✓ Craig Baldo, Comedian & Copywriter @ Freelance ✓ Daniel Berkal, SVP Innovation @ The Palmerston Group ✓ David Weinstock, Executive Creative Director @ MRY ✓ Gavin Mcinnes, Chief Creative Officer @ Rooster ✓ Harry Roman, Strategy Director @ Leo Burnett NY ✓ Jason Marks, Executive Creative Director @ Partners + Napier ✓ Jeffrey Peacock, SVP Strategy @ Sterling Brands ✓ Jeremy Daly, Executive Planning Director @ Y&R NY ✓ Lindsey Randolph, Brand Strategy Director @ Arnold Worldwide ✓ Lukas Derksen, Managing Partner @ Sid Lee NY ✓ Marian St Laurent, Founder @ Heavy Symbols ✓ Mark Pollard, VP Brand Strategy @ Big Spaceship ✓ Mark Rukman, Group Planning Director @ mcgarrybowen ✓ Mark Truss, Director of Brand Intelligence @ JWT NY ✓ Matt Basford, Director @ Beyond ✓ Matt Eastwood, Chief Creative Officer @ DDB NY ✓ Michael Chatfield, PRO Director @ Miami Ad School ✓ Nigel Rahimpour, Group Planning Director @ Saatchi & Saatchi NY ✓ Oliver Gibson, Strategic Planning Director @ Grey NY ✓ R.G. Logan, Strategy Director @ Carrot Creative ✓ RP Kumar, EVP Strategic Planning @ Ketchum ✓ Ryan Mack, Managing Director @ Carrot Creative ✓ Sam Joseph, Senior Idea Architect @ PI&C NY ✓ Sebastian Eldridge, Founder @ Rooster ✓ Shauna Axton, Strategy Director @ MRY ✓ Sharon Napier, Founder & CEO @ Partners + Napier ✓ Steve Badowski, Chief Creative Officer @ Carrot Creative ✓ Steve Becker, VP Brand Strategy @ DB5 ✓ Suzana Appelbaum, Creative Director @ Anomaly ✓ Teresa Edlestone, Co-founder @ the magnetic collective ✓ Vicky Baker, British & Planner @ UK
  • 34. Be a strategist, not an account planner.Make change happen. Make the work effective.Be 'and' not 'or'.Be a trader in doubts and questions.Spend most of your time on the problem. Understand the business.Don't make shit up.Get out from behind your computer.Distill the chaos.Forget about linearity. Aim for a precise target.Find white space.Find a true human insight.Touch their hearts.Explain what it is like.Eat strategy for breakfast.Don't keep strategy to yourself.Don't separate creativity from strategy.Do your homework, don't show it.Master the art of speed planning.Don't brief with just a document.Always tell a story.Don't lose interest after the creative brief.Don't plan for ads.Spot good ideas.Make the presentation better than the idea.Keep it simple.Use research for illumination.Work a plan, not a job.Always thank the people that helped you.