Planning all over the world

UK account planning talent has long been sought after by agencies in other markets. Three UK-born planners offer an insight into their experiences around the world, while an Aussie provides his view of the discipline in London.

Planning all over the world

San Francisco

Gareth Kay
chief strategy officer, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners

I’ve been working in the US for nearly a decade now. Here are four small differences that have made the biggest difference to how I work as a planner.

1. You can’t forget that planning is still a relatively new discipline in the US (it has just hit its thirties). Not every agency, by any stretch, has planners and it has perhaps been invested in less as a discipline here than in the UK. As a result, you constantly have to prove the value of planning both inside the agency and with clients. You have to embrace the uncomfortable truth that planning is something that is seen by many as being superfluous. You have to be driven by the belief that planning done properly makes great work, not just good work, more likely to happen more often.

2. Advertising operates in a different context in America. In the UK, people see the stuff we make as entertaining or useful. In the US, advertising’s standard operating principle has been to shout very loudly at as many people as possible about how great your product is. Planners here have to stop the industry making spam and champion the fact that people don’t appreciate what we do because we don’t start with them. We have to take a lesson from Hollywood and Silicon Valley and start with what people are interested in, not what our clients or we make.

3. There is a paradox that, while it is a very serious business here, we seem to be less interested in proving advertising’s commercial contribution in the boardroom. This starts with how we evaluate effectiveness. The Effies, the American equivalent of the IPA Effectiveness Awards, are more a celebration of correlation than causation.  Perhaps if we took a small amount of the time and money we invest in ad-pretesting and the creation of case study videos for award shows, we could build a robust body of evidence that might be more welcome to chief executives and chief financial officers.

4. On a more personal note, location has made a huge difference to me. GSP is 23 miles away from Silicon Valley. We’ve been lucky to work with some of the most interesting technology companies in the world (from Netflix to Google to Adobe) at various stages in their development. These companies, not Madison Avenue, are our guiding star as a company. They keep us relevant and forever entrepreneurial. And I’ve learned more about better ways of planning – for example, the addition of speed and experimentation to rigour – from them than from anyone else.


Rob Campbell
head of planning, Wieden & Kennedy

So how has a man from Nottingham ended up as a planner in China?

It was down to a bunch of happy – and not-so-happy – accidents. After a few years of working in planning, I left England in 1995 to chase an Australian woman I thought I couldn’t live without. Unfortunately, within weeks, it became apparent that she could live ridiculously well without me, so instead of going home to face the smirks of my friends, I decided to try to get another job in planning and see what happened. That was 18 years ago and, since then, I’ve lived and worked in Australia, the US, Singapore, Hong Kong and China.

Oh, China. Wonderful, mad, vibrant, crazy, brilliant, weird China. A country of extremes and paradoxes where tradition and ambition struggle to live side by side. It is one of the most magical and frustrating times of my career. Magical because I really feel I’m learning, growing and developing. But it’s frustrating because things don’t always go as you want, plan or expect. There’s the barrier of language and culture, the lack of trustable data, the general disbelief regarding the commercial value of creativity, the attitude that whatever the client wants to see, they get, and a planning discipline that’s still relatively young.

Apart from being an amazing country, I feel you can create something here – something big, exciting and meaningful. But here are ten things I’ve learnt to navigate working in advertising in China.

1. Don’t think you can learn everything in the first few months. You can’t. You’ll be spending too much time trying to work out how to open a bank account.

2. Never pretend you know everything. You don’t and you’ll look a fool if you try.

3. Don’t relate everything back to your own frame of reference. Those little things you think are small differences aren’t that little.

4. Listen and learn from people who know what’s really going on in societies’ heads. Remember few will be from adland and even fewer will be from your homeland.

5. Never say "you’re only going to be there for two years". Apart from not sounding very nice to colleagues and clients, you probably won’t be.

6. Respect the culture. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with all of it, but respect it.

7. Be inclusive, not exclusive, but always lead by example.

8. Be open to change, but not where your standards are concerned.

9. Explore, experiment and enjoy.

10. Have a very understanding wife.

New York

Sarah Watson
chief strategy officer, Bartle Bogle Hegarty New York

I’m sitting in Bartle Bogle Hegarty New York’s 19th-floor office in Tribeca’s Art Deco former AT&T building as the sun sets over majestic Midtown. It’s a great perspective from which to give a high-level view.

Where to begin? The US is mind-blowingly big. It spends 10 times more on advertising than the UK. There are agencies such as Ogilvy & Mather New York with 1,800 people, and there are single account teams that are bigger than the top five London agencies. All this has big consequences. On the one hand, there is more money to try stuff. A digital/social media budget doesn’t have to be painstakingly scraped together – the scale just makes sense of it.

On the other hand, there is the accompanying management of risk that scale brings: the repeated Link tests, the focus on optimisation – it can be harder for clients to throw caution to the wind.

The type of clients spending money is different too. Only really during the Super Bowl, the Oscars and the big sporting moments do you see the sorts of work we joined advertising for in the UK – the rest is dominated by pharmaceuticals, car dealership and quick-service restaurant ads. It’s all ruthlessly sales-focused.

None of this is what you bring the Brits in for. There is still an (embarrassingly) remarkable representation of London expats in American planning departments – especially at the top. However, they’re not doing the heavy quant, the retargeting, the real-deal MBA stuff. The Americans have got that covered, client-side and agency-side. The Brits seem to play the role of translator: knowledgeable of research without being specialist and able to bring that learning into the creative process. Planning as we Brits know it can still feel like a fresh new discipline here.

Finally, it is worth flagging the fluidity of the employment culture. A client moving an account team of 50 people can have a devastating or transformative effect on an agency. On top of this, New York is famously an "employment at will" state: notice periods of more than a couple of weeks are seen as an effete European luxury – right up to the C-suite. So, you can lose your job in a day – but you can probably find one too.

Apart from all of that, there is the idea that America lives with its eyes firmly on the future, which Brits find intoxicating. Just being in New York feels akin to being reborn. There is no sense that the best days are behind us – everyone comes here to create the future and make things happen.


David Hackworthy
chief strategy officer, Fallon

I seem to have had a British planner’s education in reverse. I didn’t go from university to a London agency, to a big job in the States, then Down Under. I did it the other way around.

But spending more than a decade in Sydney and New York as a planner before coming to London has taught me some valuable lessons on how to best approach the discipline.

 You don’t need planning to create great work. There is a sense of entitlement in British planning that you are necessary to the creative process. This has never been the case in America or Australia. Financial and cultural pressures have meant that planning has had to sing for its supper in other countries. This is liberating, as it focuses us on having to add value to survive.

Planning is best when task-based rather than relationship-based. When you sit in a New York agency with 300-plus staff yet only a handful of planners, you soon learn to prioritise where planning can best be put to work. You don’t have the luxury of planners and account men holding hands on every decision being made on an account. I like this model, as it means planning gets judged by content, not just by how comfortable the relationship with a client is. I reckon British planning would benefit from adopting more of a task-based model. It all seems too cosy here.

There is no one way to plan. I lapped up "How To Plan Advertising" volumes one and two in the early days in Australia, learning as much as I could from the received wisdom in the UK. But, over the years in the States, there seemed to bloom many and varied styles of planning. The big creative guns in the US have all adopted their own version of planning, with greater emphasis on things such as cultural insight and building brands as "living business ideas". That gives planning a wider remit out of which interesting new ideas can grow. British planning does seem to follow a preordained pattern quite often, which can be a little self-defeating.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think the UK is the best place to work as a planner, and there is no disputing the pedigree is here. I think the best British planners are the smartest planners in the world, and there are fantastic creative departments too. So it is vexing that UK creative work no longer dominates the world stage. Are we too parochial? Do we need to get out more? Or maybe we just need to mix it up a bit. Perhaps an English chief executive, an Australian planning director and an Argentinean creative director… that sounds promising.