Friday, 18 February 2011


Since, I've been in America, I've discovered a huge confusion and debate about the difference between planning and strategy. I always thought my job title was planner, but what I was doing was called strategy.

The apparent distinction seems to be that planners do creative stuff and strategists do
business stuff. In most instances I think the difference is as simple as some agencies chose one title, and others chose the other title. Where there is a real distinction - I agree - it is usually whether they get involved in the creative process or not.

In the UK, where account planning began, the difference only really exists in digital agencies with American roots. UK planners have had to consequently develop broader skillsets. With bigger budgets on this side of the Atlantic, many agencies can afford to have both types of people.

I'm not sure if there is room for both roles in the future, as margins continue to shrink in the digital world. It'll be interesting to watch. It's likely that digital agencies will experience the same thing that happened with account planning in advertising agencies- which had two original inventors and cultures. My view is that the distinction will disappear in digital agencies.

Account planning started in the UK in the 1960s by Stanley Pollitt and Stephen King at JWT. It gained a foothold in the U.S. in the mid 80’s - through Chiat/Day - and has been growing ever since. King would have aligned himself much more closely with what they call Strategists, here in the US, and Pollitt, would have aligned himself with what they call Planners here. The distinction has now disappeared.
I worry for the account planner who knows nothing about business, or the strategist who doesn't understand consumers. Do these people really exist, and how do they survive?

This post was a follow-up to an answer I contributed on Quora to a question entitled: What is the difference between an account planner and a strategist?

It's no surprise there is confusion. If you watch the videos below filmed here in New York you'll notice a few things:
- Most of the planners are British
- The videos aim to show consensus, but they don't really agree on very much
- The Planners all have different answers for what we do in concrete terms. Other professions find it easier to describe what they do. A film director would say 'I direct the actors and crew in the making of a film'. An architect would say '
I plan, design and oversee the construction of buildings'. Planners all have very different answers.

Here's a series of videos from PSFK on Skills of The Rockstar Planning that spotlight the differences in definition.


Charles Frith said...

I'll go even further Tony. When I worked in Germany all the suits wanted to be planners. They were smart. Knew the business and could do the job.

A few days ago it occurred to me that with diminishing margins there's a logic for a suit and planner role like Mother's model. I don't mean Suit execution which is laborious. I mean the big picture suit role. Frankly it's not a problem for people like me who don't think that advertising is rocket science.

Kate Davids said...

This is a very interesting post. I am American and will likely have to go back to the US to find a job, but I discovered my dream job, planning, here in the UK. I didn't realize the two countries had such different views on it. I happen to think knowing the customer is the most important, but it will be good to be prepared for both definitions. Thanks!

shib said...

I always like to think of it been liking a chinese finger trap. You're holding both side together - business and creative excellence.

You need to know about the clients business goals, you need to know about the "consumer" and be to mix the thinking into anything tthat comes from the creative department.

At least that's how I try to work!

Tony Effik said...

Hi Kate

Depends on whether you work digital or traditional. Ad agencies tend to only have planners, but I have seen some people in ad agencies called strategists.

Look me up when you arrive in the USA


Holycow said...

Hey Tony good to see you blogging here - long time since those heady days at JWT with Dan and the crew!

I would say that there is a difference between the two - planning is about connecting consumer insights to amplify the most interesting thing you can 'say' about a brand - the other is strategy where it is about connecting the dots to amplify the most important thing you can 'do' to solve a business objective.

Occasionally they are aligned and do the same thing - Craig did this at AMV with Sainsburys but more often than not it is defined by the relationship the agency has with the senior client team. Its a silo thing really.

Hope this helps.


Tony Effik said...

Thanks Mark

Very helpful. I struggle with the practicalities. How many clients want us to do business strategy versus communication planning?

Also can any agency really afford both types sat on the bench, waiting for work to come in?


chandra said...

Plan the work and work the plan.. strategy's comes once the plan is made!

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Maria Teresa Salvati said...

I think the solution is "creative strategist"...which is what I'm kind of doing...
So, you do planning and definitely get involved, if not actively participate in the creative process, but you also write the strategy...

Ville said...

Hah - really really great post Tony.

It brings a different thoughts to mind...

I think this conundrum definitely relates to agency culture more widely and even creative teams specifically. Does the creative team view itself as a "beautify the planner idea" or are they themselves "problem solvers"? The answer will frame the role of the planner - do I simplify/identify the core business problem and indicate where i think the creatives should look (more 'strategist') or do I create simply/identify the solution - the famous 'planner idea' - which the creatives use as a springboard to the final creative solution (more 'planner'). In either case, good planners/strategists need to be able to do both - basically use the tools that are needed to solve the problem.

Some time ago (probably a few years ago now) we were discussing what the core disciplines WITHIN digital planning are. I hope I recall correctly but they were something like: a) creative planning (ala communications planning) b) experience planning (ala journeys planning and data planning) and c) account planning (ala business planning and team planning). I still think these are still pretty valid, and stellar digital planners are good at all three pillars.

I think we'll find over the next years is that integrated ad agencies will continue to rely on "planners" (because at its core its advertising idea outwards) whilst other digital agencies will need teams that cover all the bases (because its communication idea outwards).

Tony Effik said...

Great points Ville. I'm liking the dichotomy you illustrate:

"simplify/identify the core business problem and indicate where i think the creatives should look (more 'strategist') or do I create simply/identify the solution"

I think this is analogous to my metaphor of "pointing out the window to creatives and telling them to look in the field or telling them where to look in the field"

The second option doesn't always go down well if you don't have a self-confident creative director, or if they are hubristic.

We have the data, the insights the consumer - so we can direct the creative process to somewhere relevant, rather than it being purely intuition and usually irrelevant. To quote Bill Bernbach: “Dullness won’t sell your product, but neither will irrelevant brilliance.”

Dhiren said...

Personally, I think it’s getting more confusing in the UK. I’ve got friends titled Digital Strategist, Creative Strategist, Account Planner, Creative Technologist and Communications Planner. To add to the titles, the lines between different agencies are blurring: everybody does Social and “Digital”.

IMHO, Creative agencies need more business minds, and people that understand the nuts and bolts behind the web. We’re getting to a point where smart clients are truly questioning the value of ideas and, simultaneously, the best ideas require people that understand the difference between Facebook Connect, Open ID or “Like” to make them effective.

It’s not about titles: It’s about integration, knowledge applied and an interminable hunger to keep learning.

Egle said...

Very interesting videos! Personally, I feel Clayton Ruebensaal put it very well "ability to find that peace of information that client's customers need and want and crystallize it in a way that is useful for clients so the client knows it - that's what my customers want and here is what I need to do." I think this is a really strategic perspective. Everything else about the communications, etc are also valid points but not the essential ones.

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