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Meet the new APG Chair, Michael Lee

I still have a sense of extraordinary fortune and relief that I happened to discover a job called planning at the age of 27. At that stage I had 6 inglorious failed career attempts behind me.


My second stroke of luck was that my first job in advertising, let alone planning, would happen to be at a tiny start-up with three clients called VCCP.


As novice employee No.23 freshly installed in our cramped enclave on the first floor of an office in Victoria, I was instantly exposed to the entire world of agency life, witnessing the evolution of a blank sheet of paper, via multiple lively discussions and sometimes fiery arguments, into a brilliant, fully fledged creative campaign.


To this day, I still struggle to succinctly communicate to my friends and family what brand planning actually is. Much as I love the idea of an official APG-approved definition of our profession, in reality I love the fact it’s a job that is so multi-faceted, that demands us to use so many different parts of our brain, and apply so many random bits of our own life experiences, that it defies easy definition.


If you were to ask me to boil planning down to its core essentials, I would say that original and inventive thinking, cold-hearted analytical skills, and an intuitive understanding of human psychology (not forgetting the ability to write a fine case study and present like Obama) are the daily, multi-varied lot of your average planner. I’d also argue til the cows come home that the expectation that all these capabilities could be housed within one individual is pretty damn unlikely. But it does happen.


It’s also the reason why I think planners have emerged from these two years of horrific uncertainty and disruption with our reputation enhanced. Without wishing to blow our collective trumpet too hard, think about what’s asked of our agile minds; multiple different briefs for a Christmas campaigns based on 4 different scenarios of what the world might look like in 9 months’ time, based on how the client’s business itself is doing, and still not knowing if we’ve got a media budget of £10m or £10. Oh yes, and remembering to make sure it remains consistent to the brand positioning. This is not a skillset that many of our clients can access elsewhere.


The 2021 APG Creative Strategy Awards papers had evidence of that in spades. I was deeply impressed by the range of outstanding strategic thinking that led to so much original and effective creative output, much of it under the toughest constraints we’d ever faced.


Another cause for optimism is opportunities for planners. When a tech giant would swoop along with their massive salaries, stock options and free bircher muesli to remove one of my planning colleagues from our department, it used to royally piss me off. I still feel the same way, but I also acknowledge it as a sign that our profession is in good health, that our skills have high perceived value well beyond the world of adland. Planners have so many different paths they can take, at different stages in their career; in agencies, client-side, or collecting experience in the world of tech and start-ups. The APG represents all of this.


Something that I find more frustrating about planning than anything, is that so few people know it exists. It was only by a sheer quirk of fate that I discovered planning. That it even happened at all is 95% down to the fact that I already lived in London and knew people who worked in marketing.


Those two critical factors still hold sway today. It means that a huge swathe of exceptional raw planning talent beyond the South East of England, beyond the existing marketing diaspora, has appallingly low chances of ever discovering that this is the career that they are destined to flourish in and love for years on end.


I’m concerned that if this trend continues, the gene pool of incoming planners will become even more narrow and homogeneous. Okay, let’s cut to the chase. I’m not sure we’re as socially diverse as we could be. Given how much diversity of personal experience is critical to creating original thinking, in the long run I believe it will not only diminish the quality of our output, but also what makes planning so distinct and unique.


If there’s one thing I hope to achieve over the two years of my term as Chair, it is to try to broaden the awareness of our profession beyond the traditional circles. To engineer more wonderful discoveries of this job than we’re currently achieving. And to try my hardest to ensure that no-one is prevented from getting into our profession just because of where they live or what university they did or didn’t go to.

Beyond that, I just want to end by saying how proud and honoured I am to have been asked to chair the APG. I am, to be honest, also slightly petrified as I do feel like it’s the equivalent of being asked to take over from Alex Ferguson, given that Vicki Holgate has been such a phenomenal Chair over the last two years.


These two years have required the APG to make many crucial, instant judgement calls on how to adapt and transform how we operate, how to remain as relevant and useful as ever, and how to deliver a pandemic affected 2021 APG Creative Strategy Awards that ended up receiving a record number of entries. Vicki’s calm and inspired leadership has been at the heart of this success, and I would be delighted to be able to emulate even half of her achievements.


I couldn’t finish without paying tribute to the mercurial Sarah Newman and her exceptional team.

In terms of providing brilliant training, mentoring and best-in-class case studies to enable everyone from aspirant strategists all the way up to CSOs to progress and continuously learn, the APG is an absolutely outstanding organization that we are hugely privileged to have representing our industry. It’s little surprise that under Sarah’s stewardship, the APG has an ever growing global reputation and presence, and whilst Chair I’ll be doing my best to help the APG consolidate its flourishing global reputation.


So here we go!


* And if you were wondering what my six failed careers were: management consultant for a telecoms industry specialist; radio promotions assistant for Warner Music; sponsorship and database manager for England’s failed bid to host the 2006 World Cup; business development for a failed dotcom; freelance documentary maker: freelance sports and entertainment PR. And yes, in that chronological order.


Michael Lee

APG Chair, 2022-2024

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