Planners Unmasked | James Lees

26 Aug 2016

 

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR JOB TO A 7 YEAR OLD CHILD?

The same way I try to describe it to drunk people at parties when they go “Creativestratawhaaa?” ...  I usually pick up two bottles of beer from different brands and say, “I try to create the difference between this, and this, in your head, in order to make you want one more than the other.”

 

(If I was describing it to a 7 year old I might use non-alcoholic props…)


 

WHAT 3 SKILLS SHOULD EVERY GOOD PLANNER POSSESS?

So there are core planning skills which I guess most strategists would recognise in each other. But, if I had to point to three ‘skills’ which I’ve tried to develop because I’ve personally found them invaluable, it’d be these:

 

1. Copywriting.

Solid writing skills are pretty essential whether you’re creating a brand or just writing a presentation. Practice, practice, practice makes great writing. And yeah, images, gifs, videos etc. are great tools. But when used well, words can work like grenades.

 

2. Face to face qualitative research.

It’s harder and more scary speaking to people you don’t know about why they do something or how they feel about something than it is to use Google, Warc, TGI etc.

 

But no one said the job was easy.

 

It’s sad that actually speaking to consumers is a skill that’s supposedly dying out a bit with strategists considering the origins of the job.

 

3. Devil’s advocacy.

It’s easy to agree with people when you feel the same way. But it’s useful to understand why you feel that way. So I try and disagree with myself and others all the time. At work it gets me to better ideas and strategies that are easier to defend (if they need defending). It goes down less well outside of work…

 

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR CAREER HIGHLIGHT SO FAR?

Can I have two?

 

No.1: Getting to work with Cartoon Network on a variety of projects across their portfolio of brands. I spent much of my youth glued to Cartoon Network, and getting to work on brands that I grew up with and love at Sword & Stone has been a joy and a privilege. (They also send us loads of xmas swag that turns me into an 8yr old again.)

No.2: Launching Group Think with an amazing team of smart, creative folk that I admire. And getting told by members that we’re helping them out.

 

AND WHAT MAKES YOU CRINGE WHENEVER YOU THINK ABOUT IT?

First few weeks I was working for my boss Christian, we had a meeting with another agency that we were collaborating with on a global brand project. He asked me to take ‘notes’ during the meeting. I was so concerned about missing stuff out that I audio recorded the meeting and gave him back a 12 page transcript…

 

He laughed his ass off. Naturally he still brings it up.

 

WHO OR WHAT IS THE GREATEST INFLUENCE ON YOUR CAREER AND WHY?

All young people starting out want a mentor.

 

I started working for Christian Barnett nearly 4 years ago when it was just him running his own creative strategy consultancy after leaving WPP.

 

Jon Steel does a better job than I can of describing how lucky I am:

 

“Working with Christian always reminds me why I wanted to be in this industry in the first place […] He’s not only an effective strategic and creative problem solver – he’s also an excellent leader and teacher. Many generations of WPP Fellows have benefitted from his mentorship, and it’s a measure of his commitment that some continue to do so, even after he’s left the company.” (Jon Steel, Group Planning Director, WPP)

Imagine that, pretty much 1 on 1, for nearly 4 years.

 

A great mentor is professionally and emotionally committed to your development.

 

Christian let me come up with the name of our agency, at 23…

 

His commitment to me is why I am always keen to help young planners starting out however I can; particularly by getting them mentorship with those who have had, or would have killed for a mentor (http://www.group-think.co.uk/our-initiatives/).

 

HOW DO YOU WIND DOWN?

I’m blissfully hobby-less unless I can count running Group Think? I spend most of my time outside of the office exploring the city (currently failing to catch a few Pokémon), and catching up with friends. However, probably 50% of them are also strategists so I’m not sure it ever 100% counts as total ‘wind down’… I guess the job can be all consuming like that.

 

I’d rather it be that way than work as an Accountant that tries to live an exciting life at the weekend…

WHICH BOOKS ARE MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU AND WHY?

If I’m honest, the answer to this question isn’t going to be a ‘planning book’ although Gladwell’s stuff usually makes for a good audiobook to fall asleep to (they’re all on YouTube)...

 

Most important book to me of all time is ‘A Million Little Pieces’ by James Frey.

 

Visceral, memorable, emotive. An author who knows that by breaking the rules you can create something surprising and potent. (Something we often strive for at work?)

 

There is one scene where he describes having a root canal done without anesthetic (he’s a recovering drug addict, so isn’t allowed any addictive substances). Frey lets you imagine that, vividly. You read this one long sentence and you feel pain:

 

“I clench my eyes and I bite down on my existing teeth and I think my jaw might be breaking and I squeeze my hands and I dig my fingers through the hard rubber surface of the tennis balls and my fingernails crack and my fingernails break and my fingernails start to bleed and I curl my toes and they fucking hurt and I flex the muscles in my legs and they fucking hurt and my torso tightens and my stomach muscles feel as if they’re going to collapse and my ribs feel as if they’re caving in on themselves and it fucking hurts and my balls are shrinking and the shrinking fucking hurts and my dick is hard because my blood hurts and my blood wants to escape and is seeking exit through my dick and my dick fucking hurts and my arms are straining against the thick blue nylon straps and the thick blue nylon straps are cutting my flesh and it fucking hurts and my face is on fire and the veins in my neck want to explode and my brain is white and it is melting and it fucking hurts.”


Words like grenades.

 

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