It's official. British planners are People of Extraordinary Ability. At least, that's according to some US immigration lawyers, who are using this category intended for Nobel scientists to wangle Green Cards for their planning clients. But Jon Steel is unimpressed and even a little embarrassed.
Steel, the author of Truth, Lies and Advertising and an ex-planning director of BMP (London) and Goodby Silverstein & Partners (San Francisco), has just finished an 18-month sojourn as the global-roving-brain for WPP and is about to take up the post of vice-chairman of Berlin Cameron (New York).
So he is more qualified than most to talk about British planners in the US when he expresses his reservations: "The problem is that a lot of planners believe their own INS submissions."
A mystique has built up around the British planner in the US. This started with Chiat Day bringing Jane Newman over in the mid-80s and positioning planning as a great new business tool. Suddenly every agency wanted to jump on the "we've got a British planner" bandwagon and the situation has self-perpetuated since (helped by the accent which many in America still see as inherently authoritative).
Steel likens this approach to needing a chef and therefore hiring a Frenchman, regardless of whether he can actually cook. The reality in his view is that many of the UK-trained planners plying their trade in the US were enjoying less-than-dazzling careers when they were recruited, and saw the offer of a doubled-salary and big cheese-ship in a previously unheard of agency in America as an alluring easy option. As Steel notes: "If you look through history, there are not many armies who have been successful that have been comprised mainly of mercenaries."
But the problem isn't just mediocrity chasing money. Even if the best planning talent had taken the US bait, the outcome wouldn't have been much preferable, according to Steel: "There's a great arrogance in the UK that British advertising is better than anything else in the world. It's the same sort of arrogance that has people thinking 'we're going to win the football World Cup' on the 'we invented it, goddamit' basis, and it's about as accurate too."
In Steel's view, the best American advertising is better than the best British (although he concedes that the average British effort is better than the average American, "at least aesthetically").
But that's not really his point. He is more bothered that planning is being bought as an off-the-shelf one-(British)-size-fits-all solution when it actually needs to be tailored to the cultures of the agency and the market in which it needs to operate.
Steel feels that the discipline has been waylaid by too much posturing: "Too many planners have been trying to justify their existences by concentrating on being more intellectual than each other, than clients, than other people in the agency." He deplores the navel-gazing that leads to whole conferences being dedicated to subjects such as Planning as Aristotle Would Have Done It.
Despite attempts to make it so, planning was never supposed to be rocket-science. "It's not about how intelligent you are, it's about how useful you are to the process of making great advertising." Planning should never try to be an end in its own right.
Although principles such as these may be universal, Steel believes that a grasp of the theory won't in itself deliver usefulness: "Planning is all about understanding the connections between clients, consumers, creativity and media consumption." It requires a grasp of local culture that will always be elusive to the foreigner. It takes a lifetime of immersion to have at your fingertips all of a country's cultural references that are in everyday use.
And it's not just the local culture you need to understand. You have to be tuned into your particular agency and the way that it works. In Steel's view: "You can't have everyone in your department coming from somewhere else. It's great to mix cultures to make you more diverse. But the most successful planners are those that have been trained within the context of that agency to do the kind of planning that works for it." The job of planning is not about coming up with ideas, it's about facilitating their emergence by listening to and stimulating others.
Steel modestly admits that he's "hardly ever had any good ideas" in his life. He does say, however, that the one thing he is quite good at "is listening to other people and recognising when they have them". Despite the tendency of agencies to post-rationalise luck out of their case histories, Steel also acknowledges that sometimes "the planets just need to line up at exactly the right time."
Steel is dismissive of bland questions about the future: "I think there's an awful lot of good energy wasted thinking about the future of planning. Planning will have a good future if planners do a useful job helping to create good work." And, on that basis, the Stateside gravy train for those Brits of supposed extraordinary ability may soon be grinding to a halt.