On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Do you believe the most brilliant planners are born or cultivated? Are there some personal characteristics that the best planners you have ever known share - and, if so, what are they?

A: They all have good minds. I imagine they're born with them. But people born with good minds use their minds to improve their minds. I've never been convinced by claims for the self-sharpening knife but brains are cleverer than steel. All the best planners have self-sharpening minds. The more experienced they are, the sharper they get.

Their characteristics include an enjoyment of antinomies. An antinomy may be defined as "a contradiction between two statements that seem equally reasonable". Brand planning comes up against antinomies all the time. Weak planners can't cope and settle for one or the other. Strong planners go along happily with both - at least for the time being. This makes them laugh: and all the best planners have a well-developed sense of the absurd. They like playing games. One great planner invented Brandicide. If you want to explore a strong brand's potential territory, conventional planning lists possible, compatible brand extensions. Brandicide requires the group to devise brand extensions that have the best chance of killing the master brand stone dead: much more fun and far more revealing. After Eight bubble gum tells you far more about the After Eight brand than After Eight liqueurs.

Rigour is essential. Just as essential is the wisdom to know when that rigour is best applied and when it's best withheld. Flexible rigour is what the best planners employ. If rigour is applied too soon, speculation is stifled at precisely the time that wild speculation is most demanded. But before a client is invited to commit tens of millions of pounds to an untried hypothesis, the case for doing so must be rigorously tested. Post-rationalisation is not only respectable: it's a professional requirement. The best planners will challenge their own proposals with far more painful questions than those advanced by the most sceptical of clients.

A good planner's interests are infinite in number. James Webb Young was a brilliant planner 40 years before planners were given a name. He wrote: "No limits can be placed on the kinds of knowledge that are useful to the advertising man. Indeed, it can safely be said that the broader his education, and the better stoked his mental pantry, the better at his job he is likely to be." Every section of a ten-section Sunday broadsheet will contain something of value to the serious planner.

Curiosity keeps them ahead of change, social and technological; they're all, personally, early adopters. They neither fear numbers nor worship them. They have an insatiable appetite for quantitative research because it tells them what other people do - but what they really want to know is why they do it. A Theory of Mind is the professional term for the ability to see things through other people's eyes. Great planners can; which is why they're seldom surprised by unpredicted reactions to exploratory creative work. They think instinctively in terms, not of propositions or promises but of desired audience response. The greatest gift from a planner to a creative team is an inspired insight. It won't tell them what to put but it will give the purpose of what to put a blinding clarity. One creative director sees the planner's role as making the perfect pass, so all the striker has to do is fire the ball into the back of the net: still requiring rare skill but with the opportunity provided.

The great planner is not a poodle. Planners are not there to add indiscriminate intellectual support to self-indulgent whimsy. The best planners are prepared to be unpopular; only by incurring occasional unpopularity will they retain the respect of others. An unrespected planner is nothing but a drag and a complicator.

These are just a few of the characteristics of the brilliant planner. Nothing to it, really.

Q: What's your least favourite cliche or bit of advertising and marketing jargon?

A: The most important study for anyone in marketing is the study of people. So what do we do? Over and over again, we use language that de-humanises them. Almost everyone who uses that vile word consumer apologises for doing so - yet it seems to be as ineradicable as bindweed. How could a member of a target group bleed or fart or experience emotions? Have you ever fancied a demographic? Even the laudable exploration of why people do things is called Behavioural Economics. As the great Dave Flower said: "At the beginning and end of it all are people. Forget that and you forget everything."

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4919.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.