Account planners and strategists: what do they actually do?
If you work in account planning and strategy, you get asked this question all the time, and if you Google this question, you get a lot of answers from planners’ blogs, planning communities and planners’ trade organisations. The more you look into this, the more you start to get the impression that planners feel that they have to justify their existence a lot of the time – and that they do a lot of navel gazing and agonising about their existence.
Perhaps this is because, a lot of the time, it might seem that we don’t produce anything tangible – except perhaps lots of Powerpoint presentations. And because we aren’t the people who make the thing that the end user or target audience actually sees (although this is debatable – some strategists are ‘makers’ – see the bit about Google product managers here) then you might well believe that all we do is spend a lot of time researching, thinking and writing and, yes, making Powerpoints.
‘Never mind all that stuff, can’t we get on with coming up with ideas?’
Does the impression of strategists as ponderers (and sometimes unfortunately confusers) come from the fact that we are of an academic personality type? That we would rather get buried in research and learn about our target audience, do lots of discussing things without settling on anything, get tangled up in the finer details on our clients’ markets, and get bogged down in brand theory and modelling, than actually get on with it and make something?
Apart from the fact that academics do eventually make things (albeit mainly things that inspire more thinking and discussion), there are several reasons why thinking of yourself as an academic is something you can work to your advantage as a strategist – and a lot of them are about having the luxury of time to think:
- You have the time to explore the questions other people don’t have time to
- You have time to find the data to back up your hunches
- You have the time to go out and meet your target audiences, and really understand who they are and what makes them tick
- You have the time to hone an argument down into something compelling – and narrow it down further into the elevator pitch, or a tweet
- You have the time to discover ways to present your thinking in new ways, and to help people feel they are breaking new ground
- You have time to innovate and iterate, before anything is ‘set in stone’
- You have the time to discuss everything, with other strategists, with your account team, and with creatives
- You have the opportunity to lead the thinking, and own the argument
Everyone who knows me knows that I am a frustrated academic – I started a PhD once upon a time and there is nothing I like better than having a couple of glasses of wine and debating the big questions of life, the universe and everything. I love critical theory and disappearing up my own arse wondering whether anything is true.
As a graduate student, I did all my research and was really into my subject but I never actually got around to writing up. The main reason was down to time – I was also working full time and getting the head space to really get into writing my thesis was pretty impossible because I also wanted a social life…
And perhaps because I was only a part-timer, I didn’t like the pace of academia. Even if you have all the time in the world, it takes years to get something written, let alone published. In commercial strategy, we get to be academics with purpose – we do the thinking but we don’t do it within a bubble, in an ivory tower. If our thinking is good, and focused, it gets used, and we can see how it benefits the creative work pretty quickly. Therefore, if we stay focused and come up with something clever based on our research, those distinctive, usable, unique and true insights become things that can transform our clients’ communications and make a difference to their business. And in a small way, we impact on the world around us on a fairly regular basis.
To summarise: if we accentuate the positive aspects of being like academics, we can demonstrate our value by being able to research and avenues that might not be explored in a strategyless agency. We can use data to prove that our hypotheses are correct and we can spend time helping creatives to believe in their target audiences with our own creative approaches to bringing personas to life. Most importantly, when we can see how our work helps to improve what our agencies produce we can use that as evidence for our value, both internally and externally. And then perhaps the big question could change from ‘what do you do’ – to ‘what shall we do next?’