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Become a Planner

Advice on how to start your career in advertising from professional planners

Illustration by Inga Ziemele

In an ad agency setting, a planner’s role is to develop and own the communications strategy for a particular client or brief to ensure its success. It’s about using your skills to identify the business needs of each client. This can mean commissioning and analysing research, liaising with clients and understanding both the product and the broader market. You’ll also need to be a confident communicator and speaker, as planners are often called upon for client presentations or to bring the product concept and strategy to the agency’s creative staff.

The role of a planner can differ from the role of a strategist in subtle but particular ways. A planner takes a more tactical view of the project, looking at the practical questions of what to do and how to do it, whereas a strategist’s view can often be more conceptual, focusing on the core message of a brief. However, in some contexts these two roles can more or less overlap, depending on how the agency itself defines them. Both roles suit the same kind of person: someone with an analytical mind, an eye for details, and boundless curiosity about people and the decisions they make.

We spoke to three planners working in advertising who told us everything they’ve learned about how to launch your career as a planner.

Think about what you bring to the table

Getting your foot in the door as a planner is not about your academic knowledge so much as being yourself. Ipeknaz Erel, Senior Planner at McCann London, has found that this can help make you stand out. “When you are entering into the industry as a novice planner, you are not expected to know everything,” she explains. “Your interests, curiosity for things, your point of view and how you can bring something different and interesting to your work environment all matter more than how many planning books you have read.” In the initial stages of your career, Erel says, “your human smarts are preferred to booksmarts.” So think hard about your people skills, your powers of communication and curiosity when you’re looking for your first placement or permanent role in this career path.

Learn by doing

Once you’ve made your first step in the industry, the real work begins. Since planning is a role that doesn’t result from a particular kind of education or training, you’ll be learning a lot of the job from practical experience. Erel thinks it’s all about learning through getting involved as much as possible. “Raise your hand up for projects, and if there aren’t any offered to you, offer your help,” she says. “Pitches are the best opportunity to get yourself into things. You will get fast-track practice, solve new problems and get exposure to working with different people you can learn from.”

For Kaylin Goldstein, EVP Head of Planning, Leo Burnett Chicago, the learning doesn’t stop there, either. “Be a lifelong student of great ideas,” she says. “Pay attention to the work out in the world that captures your attention. How did it succeed in cutting through? Reverse-engineer the brief and identify the insight and strategic approach. Send fan mail to the team that made it. Learn from the brilliant ideas already out there, but also push to invent something wholly new.” 

Turn statistics into a story

When the time comes to start putting work together, remember to include the human touch: storytelling. Natalie Lau, Planning Partner at McCann London, emphasises the role of narrative in planning. “Great planners understand how to consolidate a lot of information and statistics into a simple story,” she says. “People respond to stories, and clear narratives that take us on a journey can help us understand why we need to say what we need to say. So don’t stop at an interesting statistic and assume people know what to do with it — tell us what the challenge is, what the stat actually means in the context of the real world, and how it informs the key message you’re trying to say.”

Erel agrees, especially when it comes to presenting your work. “Take ownership of your presentations, learn how to craft a point of view and communicate it with confidence,” she says. “Advertising is very subjective, so there are often multiple right answers; it’s about how convincingly you tell your story. That is what the most senior people are doing. So as long as you establish your gravitas and confidence, you are on the right track.”

Immerse yourself in the real world

Mastering the art of storytelling requires a healthy dose of empathy. The best way to bring the human touch to your work? Curiosity for your fellow humans, according to Goldstein. “Enter into other people’s worlds,” she recommends. “Whether you’re going down a Reddit rabbit hole, binge-reading a novel or eavesdropping on the couple at the next table, being a planner means being curious about other people: what they believe, how they live, what matters to them.”

Lau agrees that understanding people is key to being a great planner. “The stuff I’ve found more inspiring and helpful in my briefs come from reading novels, watching TV shows and films, making friends with strangers on the street,” she says. “If the question is always ‘What’s the single most compelling thing I can say?’, then understanding what makes humans tick is the most important skill you can have.”

Don’t be afraid to be stupid

If the role of a planner is to bring insight to the table, then it’s crucial for you to be up to date with all the information that surrounds a brief. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that you know everything there is to know about a client’s brand. “Don’t be afraid to be wrong,” says Goldstein. “It’s easy to simply add to conventional wisdom, things like, ‘Moms are busy’; ‘Our country is more divided than ever’. But the best insights tell us something we haven’t heard before. It may be a stray remark from a focus group. Or a really good tweet. Or something that occurs to you when you’re taking a shower. Tell me something that makes me think. And then figure out how to prove it’s ‘right’.”

Lau believes in taking a similar approach to her thinking. “I think there’s sometimes an unspoken pressure for strategists to be the smartest person in the room,” she says. “But the truth is, being stupid has been my biggest superpower in this role—it stops us from assuming you already know the answer before the research, and it stops us from assuming we know all the context without asking any questions. It’s impossible to know everything about everything, but trusting that you know how to learn and think is a more sustainable way to approach this role.”

Get more advice and tips from professional creatives and learn how you can land the creative job of your dreams.

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