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On Proper Planning & Post-Planning Planning

I’m excited and honoured to be here tonight, representing Google, at this largest gathering of what is without question the industry’s secret weapons: account planners.

I’m here to introduce this year’s Special Prize for Creative Bravery, sponsored by Google.

But before I do that I want to take 2 minutes to offer some light observations and ruminations on what was easily the most enjoyable and inspiring two days of my whole year.

Having the privilege to judge the final round of this year’s APG Creative Planning Awards.

Almost 9 years to the day after leaving a formal planning role, I was reminded, more than anything, about what I most loved - and most miss - about advertising. It’s the planners!

I was fortunate to be surrounded by some of my heroes. Some whom I knew, some of whom I’d only admired from afar. Digitally. Secretly. Martin Weigel. Vicki Holgate. Matt Tanter. Jason Gonsalves. Jim Carroll. And of course Sarah Newman. This was simply a gigantic treat in itself.

And we were *all* spoilt in being served up with 27 reminders of why planners are the true architects of the best and most creative work in our industry.

Some came and presented with their department heads or planning directors.

Others were so senior they WERE the department heads, if not in some cases occupying honorary planning legend status.

Some of the more junior authors came and presented alone. They must have been nervous - I would have been terrified. But without exception, they were gutsy, brilliant, and persuasive presenters.

I could dwell on the sartorial rules of the planner - which remains . . . ‘distinctive’.

The planners’ sense of humour - which remains . . . ‘unconventional’.

The semantics and semiotics of planning - the way sentences are structured and words wielded as weapons. The pleasure taken in doing so.

Or the mercurial zip of the planner - the sheer processing power and invention of these amazing people.

But more than all of that I was struck most by one unifying feature of every single presentation: the absolute humility and down-to-earthness of the presenters.

Judges repeatedly shepherded the presenters back to talking about THEIR contribution, what planning brought to the party, the breakthrough moments THEY shaped, the ideas THEY disguised then gifted to the creatives.

But it was hard work. And required concerted and coordinated shepherding from the judges.

Because planners are not just the unsung heroes in all this.

They seem HAPPY being the unsung heroes.

In this 50th anniversary year of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon I was recently reminded of one of my all time favourite Volkswagen ads (indeed, favourite ads, full-stop).

It’s hard to imagine a simpler execution of a more powerful idea than the image of the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module with the line underneath, ‘It’s ugly, but it gets you there’.

It would be wrong to draw parallels between creative strategy and the Apollo 11 mission.

But hey, I am going to anyway. Because while it’s the creatives who get to pilot the spaceship down to the lunar surface, plant the flag, take the photographs, get the accolades and awards (well, most of them), the real engineers of success are the planners.

Their equivalent on Apollo were the nerds at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. who helped create the extraordinary Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), figuring out how to to simplify every possible command that would be required so that the entire mission could be run with a computer possessing just 1/10,000th of the processing power of an iPhone. Or Pixel.

So this year’s Creative Strategy Awards are, yet again, a tribute to curiosity, simplicity, resilience . . . and to account planning! It might be ugly, but it gets you there.

What is planning?

I want to turn briefly to a connected topic. And another ontologically quintessential planner preoccupation: the question - what is planning?

Over the course of two fantastic and highly stimulating days in early September we were fortunate enough to see this concentrated demonstation of planning power, of weaponised insight and planning craft.

And so, both across the two days and in the few weeks since, I have been chewing through what, exactly, planning is these days.

In particular, during judging we raised and discussed two schools - or possible schools - of planning.

Proper Planning.

And Post-Planning Planning.

There were papers and presentations where everyday planning was to the fore: qual, quant, insight, briefs, briefings, collaboration, comms planning, measurement, effectiveness.

Excellence in craft. In the canon of planning. 'Proper Planning'.

And there were papers and presentations where the planner was more of a one person special forces team, parachuting behind enemy lines with a rucksack containing not just creative briefs, insights and data, but creative ideas, production expertise, diplomatic skills, project management techniques. Almost literally, a wide range of different hats.

These were the planners who, in a game of Account Planning Top Trumps, would perhaps fail to score 10 for more than a single or pair of core craft skills but would get 7s, 8s, 9s across the board. Across all 8 core of the categories on the Top Trump card.

[Note: the Account Planning Top Trumps cards don’t exist. But perhaps they should.]

And we were all - not just me - left asking ourselves: is the future of planning “proper planning”? Think: a beautifully sharp machete.

Or, is the future of planning actually “post-planning planning“? Think: a Swiss Army Knife.

And - unsurprisingly maybe - I think the answer is both.

Or either.

But - crucially - it’s not “neither”.

It remains a rare gift to be trained in the art of proper planning. And so if you are, you’re incredibly lucky, and you should consider doubling down on the craft skills that make you as such. And wielding them like the giant asset they are.

Equally, if you’re more of rogue planner - a post-planning planner, let’s call you - then your value is just as high, but differently realised. You’re a connector. A bridge builder. A pace setter. An instigator. An imagineer.

You might well be called a rogue. You could well be misunderstood. But you’re also probably of inestimable value to your company.

It might be because I’m not sure I approached excellence at proper planning that I conveniently place myself in the post-planning bucket. And that might be because my job now more resembles post-planning planning.

But I also secretly wish I was - or had been - a proper planner. A specialist.

A thought: if pressed, which camp would you be in? Proper? Or Post?

The Google Award for Creative Bravery

Talk of proper planning and post-planning planning brings us to the winner of this year’s Special Award for Creative Bravery.

Because this paper was slap bang in the middle of the Venn diagram of proper planning, post planning planning, and creative bravery. It was literally the equivalent of the Reuleaux triangle - the intersectional shape in the middle of a Venn.

Proper planning came first.

The spark was the tiny firework in culture that was UK tennis star Heather Watson identifying ‘girl things’ as the reason for crashing out of the Australian Open. The first person to acknowledge publicly that having a period actually affected her performance.

This got them thinking and plotting. And looking for insights. And as they unpack in the paper, they discovered evidence from lots of places that - as they put it - “everything about periods was cultural dynamite”.

They worked this into the first breakthrough moment, in 2017, the simple but challenging idea of showing blood, not defaulting to blue liquids. They called this bloodnormal.

Then in 2018 they started work on their most audacious and disruptive chapter of thinking. Viva la vulva.

As they put it, “a joyous and unashamed ode to the vulva, challenging the gap in truthful, positive representations of women’s genitals through an infinite diversity of shapes and forms“.

Not just to shock.

Not just for the sake of it.

But because - as they note - without a positive relationship with the most intimate part of our body, we can’t have a positive relationship with ourselves.

Their work was censored.

Their work was derided.

They should have given up.

Played it safe.

But they didn’t.

And this is where post-planning planning kicks in.

Firstly, in going outside the toolkit of the day job. Beyond qual, quant, academic papers, the media landscape. To their own their own life experiences and callings.

Secondly, as provocateurs, troublemakers, and instigators.

As Margaux and Bridget state in the paper’s preamble: “Sometimes, it’s worth pissing people off - if it’s making things right for so many more”.

And so they fought with - and pissed off - clients.

They fought with - and pissed off - stakeholders.

They fought with - and pissed off - media owners.

Breaking taboos is never easy. That’s why they’re taboos.

But if we can learn anything from this fantastic paper, the remarkable work on which it is based, and the brilliant pair of planners - and their many colleagues who helped make it possible - it’s that fear, rejection and negativity can be used to fuel bravery, impact and optimism.

Huge congratulations to Margaux Revol and Bridget Angear from AMV BBDO, winners of this year’s Google Special Award for Creative Bravery for Bodyform/Libresse.

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