Perhaps historians make the best planners
A view from Sue Unerman

Perhaps historians make the best planners

"Have you noticed how the best planners are often biologists?" - Rory Sutherland.

This throwaway comment, from the Grand Rory, gave me pause to think.

Biologists? Really? Rory believes they best understand how the brain works. A biology graduate would have great expertise in the reptilian brain, for instance, which helps to explain "system 1" versus "system 2" thinking that many consider crucial to predicting behaviour.

The very notion that the best planners are graduates of higher education is worth challenging. I have worked with brilliant planners whose education was at the school of life.

If there is a debate about which university subject is the best fit for a planner, then we must consider maths. Sir Martin Sorrell’s remark that the advertising industry is populated by "math men not Mad Men" has been quoted frequently. Without a doubt, a grasp of maths is essential. Even an understanding of  algorithms: this year's explanation for nearly everything clever. Recently, I have been surprised when I fired the once notorious entry-level interview question at a couple of very senior executives (what is 70 per cent of 7?). They could only give me an approximation of the correct answer.

Let's not bring a degree in advertising into this. Rory's point is around what non-vocational degree best suits planners.

Psychology trains you in what really motivates. English, drama and film studies all help with crucial skills in storytelling. In our global economy, a geography degree will at least mean that you know what continent you're being sent to in order to put out fires or grasp a palm.

In my opinion, history gives you the best preparation for life as a planner. A student of history grasps how to interpret research and how to balance information from wildly different and subjective sources. They will understand the impact of new technology on civilisation (eg. the printing press, often acknowledged as the first time technology allowed radical thoughts to be democratised to the masses). The role of celebrities in culture, from Cleopatra to Mrs Simpson*. Politics, economics, kingmakers, revolutions, the power of the meme and how communication spreads. Good historians are curious about everything. Above all, history gives you perspective and, of course, understanding of how important it is to learn from the past, the good, the bad, the successes and the mistakes.

* a) Marge; b) Edward VIII’s missus; c) The mum of Fightstar's lead vocalist?

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom