Planners often come from odd and eclectic backgrounds. One of the best planners I ever met, who is now head of planning of JWT Tokyo, was a former documentary film-maker. Others I’ve known came from media studies at places like the New School in NY. One had even been a train conductor. Yours truly worked in theatre, film and in youth advocacy before becoming a hybrid of account guy and planner. Some planners had academic training in psychology, anthropology (my original field) or sociology, others did not.
What they all had in common was an inherent curiosity about human behaviour at both the individual and collective level, and a paradoxical interest in, and skepticism about, market research. Armchair planning is not the best kind, so while planners do need to review research and be well read, they also need to be fully engaged in the world. They need to be out and about, meeting people, reading different kinds of publications, observing and participating in human interactions, habitually putting themselves into other people’s shoes, even if those shoes are a bit uncomfortable.
It is therefore a combination of curiosity, empathy, intuition and observational skills that form the basic ingredients of a good planner. And a keen desire to see, at the end of the process, a noticeable shift in the audience’s behaviour and/or attitude as a result of communications. The planner is therefore an applied social psychologist. What is the mind of the market and how do we use that insight to influence said market?
The ways in which a planner gains insight into relevant consumer attitudes and behaviours are many. These include focus groups, interviews, online panels, polls, surveys, street intercepts—and after the advent of the internet, social media analyses, web analytics, etc.
A planner needs to exercise good judgment, however, as to what kinds of research are suited to answering certain kinds of questions. For example, polls and online research are notoriously bad at predicting mass behaviour for a product or brand that has not yet been released. People simply don’t know how to answer hypothetical questions about what would get them to buy a product not yet in market, or these methodologies cannot transmit sufficient information to respondents for them to accurately assess.
In my experience, many good senior planners will even personally conduct one-on-one research with consumers in the target audience, and ask a variety of questions, including contextual questions, so that a picture of the audience’s context emerges. Empathetic and perceptive planners have an innate sense of what to ask for, and refrain from arriving at an opinion until they’ve absorbed sufficient information about what the audience’s life is really like, and what might be the unmet need or desire that the brand in question will fulfill.
So, what do planners actually do? In a smart agency, they will:
1) Work closely with the account team and client to ensure that the right kinds of research are designed and conducted to acquire consumer insight.
2) Pull the relevant insights from research (and from their own observations and intuition) to develop a creative brief for communications
3) Work closely with the creative team to ensure that creative concepts and execution are aligned with the brief
In the next post, we’ll get into how the role of a planner in this decade has evolved further to include the insights and remarkable opportunities that the digital age has now afforded us.