Reasons for being grumpy


Jon Steel is an Account Planning legend. He is Group Planning Director at WPP, Chief Strategy Officer and Vice Chairman of George Patterson Y&R. Over the course of his career, Steel has been involved in some prolific campaigns, most notable of which was the ‘Got Milk?’ idea for the California Milk Processor Board in 1993.

In recent years Steel has been witness to a number of changes that, he feels, undermine not only planning, but also our industry as a whole. And so, as part of the APG Noisy Thinking series, he presented his ‘Reasons for being grumpy’.

Google Planners

Nowadays, there’s too many ‘Google Planners’. Planners shouldn’t be sitting at their desks. They should be out there in the real world, talking to consumers, sitting on buses listening to people, watching movies, running focus groups etc.

Poor research

Good planners should be good moderators. They should know the difference between what’s being said and what is meant. Equally, they should know the importance of what’s not being said.

Lack of training

Good training doesn’t happen by osmosis. Agencies need to dedicate time to actively training junior planners.

Closed doors

Clients used to walk into agencies before a pitch to get to know them. Some would even be present at the first creative review. Agencies should be partners to the client – act as brand guardians. Agencies used to be so involved in their client’s business that new marketers were sent to the agency to have their brand induction.

In the 10 years Steel was at GS&P, they won 90% of their pitches. Steel felt this was in part because they turned down 4 out of 5 pitch requests. For GS&P, it was about finding a client they knew they could work with, as well as knowing they wanted to do the work.

“In this digital age, we need to remember that the fundamentals of human nature haven’t changed.”

Pitch consultants

Pitches are as much about the chemistry between client and agency as it is about the work. Pitch consultants remove any sense of romance in the process, turning it into a functional – output driven process to save cost. Ultimately, clients are left with the lowest bidder, not the work they need.

Cost cutting

With increasing financial pressures on agencies, planning teams are shrinking. Individual workload is increasing. Steel recommends that Planners should be working on 2-3 active accounts at any one time. Any more than this and they simply cannot immerse themselves in that product or area at a deep enough level to find the most meaningful insights.

In-house planners and out-house researchers

The best insights come from well-trained planners who are skillful moderators. They need to see things from a human point of view. Be close enough to the creative work that they can take creative approaches in the research. Agency Planners know the questions to ask to get the answers that the creative team will ask.

“Objectivity is significantly overrated.”

Spending too much time on one account can lead to the Planner thinking like a client. Some clients assume that others share the same depth of enthusiasm and interest for the product as they do. When one client was telling the agency team about a revolutionary change in the production of the Club biscuit which gave them 0.5mm more chocolate on each bar, a member of the agency team apparently replied “it’s only a fucking chocolate biscuit!”.

Efficiency vs. effectiveness

Efficiency is doing things the right way.

Effectiveness is doing the right things.

Remember the difference.


Nowadays, marketers stay in their roles for an average of 2 years. That means they want results quickly. They don’t want long-term campaigns that will peak in 5 years, when their successor’s successor will reap the rewards. This leads to short-term thinking and applies an unnecessary pressure to the communication objectives.

‘Blue-thumb’ effectiveness

Almost all case studies now proudly proclaim the number of Facebook likes that the campaign achieved, the number of twitter impressions made etc. But if this doesn’t correlate into a tangible result, e.g. more sales, more calls, more visits – what use is a Facebook like as a measure of effectiveness?

“We’re creating brilliant solutions to the wrong problems.”

Lack of conscience

The role of the planner in the agency is to make sure the agency does the right thing for the client. This could mean we take the form of the agency conscience – bringing them back to brief, or it could mean we become a pain in the arse – but fundamentally we need to remember our role in the agency.

Now all I need is to find where the local rheumatologist’s like to hang out and I’ll be on my way.

Dimuthu Jayawardana | Strategic Planner

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