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The Rise of the Uber Planner

Jon Leach, Head of Planning at Chime, argues that more and more we do not have the time or resources to do proper, classical planning.

If planners are going to stay useful in this faster paced, leaner environment then they need to learn new skills namely those of the Boot Strapper, the Creative Dynamo and the Arch Persuader.

He argues that while these new skills may seem unfamiliar at first, he shows that in a networked age and with increasingly open minded agency cultures, they are available to any planner with a natural talent and a desire to upgrade.

He concludes that when equipped with these new super powers, planners can become more valuable than ever to their team mates, their clients and indeed society as a whole.

They can emerge as Uber Planners.


June, 2015, Paris, Midnight.

Rather drunk, I am in lolling in the back of my Uber, sobering up on free water from our charming Senegalese driver and, on my friend’s iPhone, tracking a glowing dot tracing our route back to our hotel.

This is my first ever Uber ride. I have seen the future and it works.

It was at this point that I should have realised that planning could also be done for half the price, at twice the speed and with considerably more customer delight. After all wasn’t that what my first Uber was giving me: faster AND cheaper AND better, than your average Parisian taxi ride?

Unfortunately, my digital native friend had worked out that I clearly needed a full digital upgrade and took me for another drink in the hotel bar where he demoed me the relative merits of various dating apps on his iPhone. And the moment passed.

Apart from it didn’t…

Faster, cheaper, better…planning?

I come to Praise Planning not to Bury It.

Now what follows some might see as heretical; a betrayal of the planning guild; a denial of the revealed, classical truths of Pollitt and King. But in my defence I was trained at BMP - the Sorbonne of Planning - have spent decades travelling the dusty motorways of Britain (and beyond) in search of the perfect focus group, and boiled an ocean of data sometimes with no more heat to use than the lithium batteries of my Casio calculator. I know what it is to plan, how can I put it, properly.

And, given the time, the people, the money, the project, the data, the client, (the good fortune!) I still love a bit of Classical Planning. It’s like a full on version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the RSC: wonderful, essential, timeless.

But also time consuming. Expensive. And maybe a little bit smug…

Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.

In the more recent, mercenary phase of my working life, I have worked with digital agencies, PR agencies, geopolitical consultancies, health marketing agencies, CSR agencies, sports marketing agencies and while I may not have seen C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate (Google it), I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe, depending on how close you yourself have stayed to the advertising mother ship.

They do things differently on the frontier. And as a planner, if you want to survive, you have to change your game. Or you get “retired” by some square jawed bloke resembling Harrison Ford.

But rather than let all those moments be lost in time, like tears in the rain (seriously, Google it. There’s a whole sub-text you might be missing here) it might be time to share.

Thinking six impossible things before breakfast

I’m not saying that planning was ever a 9 to 5 job, but these days it can be a 5 to 9 job : you get briefed at close of play and the critical meeting is first thing next morning. Responding to this sort of thing is of course impossible, irresponsible but also strangely exhilarating when you pull it off.

Speed planning. Planning on speed. Uber planning. What do you want to call it? (l will also place “light weight planning”, as a double edged sword, in your hand, if I may). But it’s definitely a thing these days.

They say a week is a long time in politics. Well in many places I’ve worked a week is seen as a ridiculously long time. End of the week is better. Or actually, what about tomorrow? Or maybe right now, given we are in a meeting with all the key players.

It’s not just the taxi industry that’s been disrupted. It’s us planners too.

Death of a Salesman

One of the problems with this Agile Planning or Punk Planning thing (there’s two more for you) is that we might need to dispel a few myths before you can really pick up your guitar and get into it.

Myth one: objectivity is essential. Well ideally yes, and I for one hate that style of “Gonzo” planning of the “I know what the kids are into ‘cos I am just so down with them. Trust me” type. But sometimes we don’t have the time or the resources to get to the objective truth before we begin the creative process (“You can’t afford the truth, Lieutenant”). In which case starting subjectively and sorting out the objective facts later might be a good tactic.

Myth two: planners are not creatives. Well maybe, and I frequently find that other people have better taste and craft skills than me (as Steve Martin put it “some men have a way with words and some men not have way”). But maybe we all should be allowed to be creative and see what happens. Many a pitch has been won by a lucky strike from a supposedly clumsy back. Well let’s try and repeat that luck more often… total football anyone?

Myth three. Do we do Strategy or Execution? Big ideas, long ideas, brand ideas, executional ideas. Sheesh – let’s just try and get the ball in the back of the net and see if we can win the game? Which is not to say that we are not a well-organised unit. The planner should be the most structured thinker on the pitch and organise all who play around them. But too many false zones of who does what can get in the way and these limiting lines are all in our own minds anyway. They are not rules. (Except in Netball. If you want to work in sports marketing, you will need to know this. Google it).

Myth Four: Charlie don’t surf and planners don’t sell. “Planners don’t sell they just create a propensity to purchase”, to re-purpose the civilised words of Stephen King. To which I say, quoting the rather more earthy, Gwen Guthrie, “ain’t nothing going on but the rent, honey”. So while planners need to bring considerable rigour to their proposals they also need to be persuasive too. Maybe this is a British thing, with planner culture having emerged out of genteel British academia, but as all Americans know, good ideas do not sell themselves. They need champions, and planners can play this role better than most. After all, they have the coolest moves and the most super powers…

Avengers Assemble!

It is interesting to look at a historic list of the roles that a planner might need to take according to the APG in 2007:

  • Market researcher

  • Data analyst

  • Qualitative focus group moderator

  • Information centre

  • Bad cop (to account management’s/client service’s good cop)

  • Npd consultant

  • Brainstorming facilitator

  • Target audience representative/voice of the consumer

  • Soothsayer/futurologist

  • Media/communications planner

  • Strategic thinker/strategy developer

  • Writer of the creative brief

  • Think piece polemicist

  • Social anthropologist

  • Insight miner

  • Knowledge applicator

That is a lot of super powers to accrue but, based on the costume that no doubt goes with each of these roles, the only one that really looks like fun to me is “Bad Cop” (with a distant second place for “Think Piece Polemicist” - feel the crushing power of his icy scorn!).

Maybe planners need some better costumes for these fast moving times, what with all these villainous deadlines and being hopelessly outnumbered by stacks of client briefs.

So when you join the Agile Planner assembly, will you be like “Boot Strapper” with her magical ability to conjure up insights seemingly out of thin air? Or maybe you will suit up as “Creative Dynamo” with an endless stream of ideas spinning off from your sparky brain? Or maybe The Arch Persuader with his almost mesmeric powers of persuasion is the mask for you?

Actually you probably need to acquire all three superpowers if you are going to do high quality planning faster and with fewer resources…

Xavier’s School for the Gifted Planner

What we are asking for here is not to cull any of the planning herd, but maybe planning needs to mutate and add on some superpowers to the core skill set listed above. How to do this? Well here’s some quick tips overheard at the APG academy in recent months:

  • Boot strapper: Have a robust model in your head that you can use to generate insights. Pilots use “aviate, navigate, communicate” in a crisis. I prefer to look in the four corners of my mind for insights : an upsight, a sidesight, a sideswipe and a down sight. If in doubt, think.

  • Boot strapper: Don’t worry about big data, but once you have a glimmer of an idea use Google to find a bit of small data on the internet that can support or twist your original thought.

  • Boot strapper: use Google trends, and all its levers, to check out the patterns in real world behaviour you are hoping to see.

  • Boot strapper: use Google Scholar to find an obscure study on just the quirky angle you are contemplating. Someone may have already done the work for you. Stand on the shoulders of giants.

  • Creative dynamo: back yourself. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single cliché, to be sure. So start writing. To ease the pressure of the empty page try to write at least one vaguely interesting word for each letter of the alphabet. (BTW use paper and pen, not PCs. Or Apples – don’t believe the hype).

  • Creative dynamo: use word plays. To get the creative juices working aim for an alliteration, riff with a rhyme, or top it off with a tongue twisting triplet.Help for heroes. Beanz meanz Heinz. Super Sundays. All started as one word looking for a partner or two.

  • Creative dynamo: Quantity. While you may only run with one idea, try to generate 12. Or more. Most will be rubbish but keep going, don’t judge, and when you do check them over, there may be a wheaty winner in with the chaff.

  • Creative dynamo: Steal with pride (just did). The world is full of great writers and with a word changed here or there a Shakespeare sonnet or an Abba classic may be just what you need.

  • Creative dynamo: Riff up and down the stack. Got a great executional idea? What’s the core idea behind that? And what then is the insight that is based on. And now, starting with that insight what other ideas could we have and how could we activate those ideas? Rinse and repeat.

  • Arch Persuader: At the APG dojo we worked out we had at least 50 street selling skills between us i.e.too many to write down here. So see your local sensei for a master class and see what they can teach you. But in the meantime watch out for these types of moves :

  • As a yellow belt get the facts right. Detail matters.

  • As an orange belt, use some word-smithing to give your ideas some zing.

  • As a red belt, start to twist and weave your idea into your audiences mind with stories, metaphor and colour.

  • As a purple belt learn to manipulate moods and stir their feelings with imagery, sound and video.

  • As a brown belt, mesmerise, seduce and charm with your personality and body language.

  • As a black belt, integrate all of the above into one persuasive s(p)ell.

We have the technology : we can rebuild you.

The thing about many of these techniques is that ten or fifteen years ago the technology wasn’t there. Now, data is everywhere (if you know how to find the good stuff), imagery and sound of the highest quality is free (if you know what your idea is), the cleverest ideas and deepest knowledge of all humanity is at your fingertips (if you know what you’re looking for).

We now have the technology and a blend of our human brains and the power of the web can – much like that other Uber – turn those who are prepared to enter the matrix into Uber Planners.

There is of course the minor issue of innate talent. It is no good being able to see all the dots if you cannot join them up in a new and profound way. Unfortunately googling “good idea” does not give you much (actually, it does point you at a Welsh wheel chair re-cycling charity with a penchant for weak puns, last time I checked).

So start with some core planning talent, graft on your superpowers of Boot Strapper, Creative Dynamo and Arch Persuader. Then, if you use them wisely, you will do the world proud.

The Wisdom of Total Quality Management

Which bring us to the question of what is “quality planning” anyway? Whether we are being Uber or Classic, how do we know when we are getting it right? What is “quality” anyway?

When should we be proud?

Now, there was a rather worthy management philosophy in the 1980’s - very popular in the manufacturing sector - called Total Quality Management. While it was rarely used in the more mercurial trades of advertising and design, it might be applicable to planners who are trying to engineer a great solution, no matter how fast they are trying to do it.

We want to build stuff that works, right?

The mildly subversive definition of “quality” in TQM was that it was defined by the customer not the producer. Quality, they say, is what the customer wants (or needs, if you want to give yourself some wriggle room). So the thing planners need to obsess about when thinking about quality is what do their customers need from them?

This is not as simple as it sounds, as the customers are not only your team mates and the paying client, but also the end user and, beyond that, the society in which marketing and commerce operates. To be hard on ourselves, if we are not useful to all of these groups then we are not doing our job.

So every day the Uber/Agile/Punk planner needs to ask themselves what do my colleagues need from me right now on this project? How is all this going to help our client and through them the people they are seeking to serve? And how does it all connect up to a stronger economy and society (and cosmic order, if you are that way inclined)?

This may be a demanding standard but it’s not an impossible one. Because when you practice your craft over a long time you do get better at it.

Especially if you fail a lot.

Kissing a lot of Frogs

Michael Jordan once said “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed”.

Converting Jordan’s profession into our own metrics we could say “I've had more than 9000 ideas rejected in my career. I've had 300 presentations fall flat. 26 times, I've been trusted to lead the pitch and lost. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed”.

Assuming we are looking at a planner with a 10 year track record, those numbers convert to burning through about 10 new ideas a day, bouncing back from 1 bad meeting a week and overcoming losing a pitch every 4 months or so.

People, I think we can do this.

It’s really just about having the courage to turn up when it’s game time.

As Jordan did. As Ali did. As you can.

Because if you don’t turn up with the ideas, there will be nothing to present. If you don’t put your ego on the line by arguing what needs to be presented then the pitches will be weaker. And if you don’t pitch against the very best then you will never know how great you can be.

That which does not kill the Uber Planner makes them stronger.

So, as the man put it, float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

Be great.

Be Uber.


Cultural Appendix

Back in the classical era, before The Great Fragmentation, we probably had a common pool of cultural references that you could use in an article and assume people would understand what you were on about. To compensate for our possible lack of collective cultural conscience here are links to some of the stuff I stole in this piece; they might make the text a bit less opaque

I have seen the future and It works

Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.

Ain’t nothing going on but the rent

Avengers Assemble!

You can’t afford the truth, Lieutenant


Faster, stronger,higher

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