Anxiety is the secret to great planning
A view from Richard Huntington

Anxiety is the secret to great planning

Great planners are wracked with anxiety about their work. They are never entirely sure unless and until they absolutely know something to be true.

"Let’s face facts, Perce," as Edmund Blackadder was constantly saying to his hapless companion, the division of labour in advertising agencies borders on the bizarre.

In no other industry is the thinking, creating and doing delivered by different people, with different titles, often in different departments. You don’t see the farmers, the architects or the solicitors dividing up the essential aspects of creating and delivering their product in this way.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t one of those limp and lifeless "ideas can come from anywhere" rants. Or a well-rehearsed argument that traditional agency departments are moribund in a beanbag world of collaboration. Far from it.

We maintain this division of planners, creatives and account handlers, or some variation on the theme, because we aren’t looking for the sort of ideas that come from anywhere. We are looking to locate, create and deliver outstanding ideas. Ideas that are transformational, not simply transactional.

The healthy tension between people who want to make it right, people who want to make it magic and people who want to make it happen is the engine that generates our best work. It’s the classic and timeless triumvirate, whether populated by three people or 30, but it’s also fit for purpose as our industry navigates its way to the future. And it works because the people in these disciplines are wired in distinctive ways that are often contradictory but always complementary, creating a sum that is greater than the parts.

Asked what makes a great suit, one of my favourite suits maintains that it’s the value of paranoia. By inhabiting a world where the worst is always imagined, the paranoid account handler ensures the worst rarely happens for the relationship, the work or the results. After all, who needs an account handler who crosses their fingers and hopes for the best?

Asked what makes a great creative, one of my favourite creatives insists on the value of resilience. It’s the ability to endure the criticisms, the objections and the absence of backbone from others in order to ensure that the best ideas survive and flourish. The ability to bounce back also comes in handy when you face up to the maths of the creative process, where one idea in 100 makes it out of the building and one idea in 10,000 makes a real dent in the universe. Surviving those odds requires a big dose of resilience.

And as for planners? I have long maintained that great planners are wracked with anxiety. It may annoy virtually everyone else but the truth is good planners are never entirely sure unless and until they absolutely know something to be true. There is always a better insight, a more potent consumer behaviour, a clearer path to purchase, a more interesting strategy or a better plan. Until there isn’t.

Anxiety about the rightness of an idea makes a planner keep searching for something better and stops them taking the easy path or making the obvious choice. Because, to be honest, the greatest diseases of the planning community are laziness masquerading as certainty and dogmatism pretending to be clarity. Indeed, the guiding philosophy of any planner worth their salt should be "strong opinions, lightly held".

Paranoia, resilience and anxiety are a weird combination of attributes for an industry that sells optimism and possibility (though it makes an interesting name for a start-up). But the secret of advertising excellence doesn’t merely rest in phenomenal feats of imagination or exquisite craft skill, it also lies in the values that keep us on our toes, bouncing back and permanently dissatisfied. 

At least that’s what I think I think.

Richard Huntington is the chief strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi London.