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Lessons from the Jazz Age

This is part of a series of posts selected by Jim Carroll, our APG Guest Editor during October 2017, surrounding the theme of

'How To Get On: Advice on how to manage a strategist’s career in a creative business'

Read more posts here

Archibald Motley, The Octoroon Girl

The test of a first rate intelligence, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

The best planners, I believe, not only have a first rate intelligence, they are also adept at reconciling opposing ideas. Great planners are as comfortable with art as they are with science, as interested in data as design. Often introverts by nature, they are eloquent before an audience. Innately curious, they must also be masters of reduction. The age of clickbait encourages binary thinking; resist it. Good planners contain multitudes.

Embrace the new but respect the “old”

To be a successful planner is to be curious, to read voraciously, to be intrigued by new ideas. Yet now more than ever it is critical that strategists have a fundamental understanding of how communications work, that we earn the credibility than comes with craft skills. Yes, it’s important to know your AI from your AR. But it is equally important to know your IPA Works, your regression analysis from your R-squared. Seek out the experts in your organisation and spend time delving under the skin of research and modeling techniques. It’s great to be the first to know about the latest virtual pop up sneaker store (you can pay with an instagram!), but a strategist is more than just a magpie.

Be skeptical but not cynical

It’s easy to get carried away with the latest shiny object and important to retain a healthy skepticism. It’s good to ask tough questions - What’s the sample size on that? Is that claimed behavior? Why would any human do such a thing? Equally though, it’s important to avoid cynicism. Nothing kills creativity faster. When ideas are embryonic, or technologies in their infancy, sometimes the best thing we can do is suspend disbelief and cheer them on.

Embrace complexity but pursue simplicity

As planners it is our job to look beyond buzzwords and stereotypes, to build deeper understanding of industries, consumers and technologies. It is important to understand complexity and acknowledge ambiguity. Yet, as Einstein once (almost) said, if you can’t explain it your Mum, you don’t understand it well enough. Simplicity is disarmingly valuable in a world of jargon. Simple is memorable. Being memorable is another useful trait for the aspiring planner. Ask yourself, when writing a deck or giving a talk: What are the hooks? What are the key provocations your audience is going to walk away with (or tweet out)? If they alliterate, so much the better (trust me).

Hold strong opinions lightly

Always have a hypothesis. Always be prepared for it to be bettered. There is never one true and perfect solution, and the best answer is the one that excites and unites your team. Remember too the importance of convergent versus divergent thinking. There are times when we are in blue sky mode, when the role of the planner is that of provocateur, asking “why not”? Equally, there are times when our role is to build consensus, to summarise and codify. Learn to identify which stage a project is in and adapt accordingly.

Build your brand but don’t forget the work

It’s never been easier for young planners to build a profile and a presence. Twitter, Medium, Wordpress or Instagram, there are endless opportunities to make yourself heard. Never forget, though, our business is all about the work. It’s fun to pontificate, but without the work to go alongside it, it may all ring a little hollow. As an old boss of mine once asked of a hapless researcher, “Where’s your reel?”

Think big and small

Planners today need a more diverse skill set than at any point in our history. We need both the breadth of thinking that allows us to develop big, business changing ideas, and the granular thinking (optimisation, iteration, segmentation) that ensures those ideas land in market and deliver results. Seeing the world through both lenses is not easy. Remember - a tactic is not a strategy, but a strategy is nothing without execution.

So that, in a nutshell, is my advice. Reconcile opposing ideas. Resist the urge to pronounce the death of this or that, to assume that because one thing is true, another must be false. We spend a huge amount of time online. We also watch more TV than ever. We can target in more interesting ways than ever before, but we know that most brands grow through reach. We live in an age of perfect information, but we know most decisions are fundamentally emotional. So as planners, let’s embrace the duality. I’m confident we will retain the ability to function.

Patricia McDonald

Consultant and Futurist, former CSO of Isobar UK


I worked with Patricia many years ago. She commands fierce intelligence, Pre-Raphaelite looks and a maverick personality. She never wears trainers. Here she expresses what I think is a profound truth: that planners must learn to embrace duality.

- Jim Carroll


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