The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Are Planners All Kidding Themselves?
November 13, 2015, 6:00 am
Filed under: Attitude & Aptitude, Brand Suicide, Comment, Perspective, Planning, Standards

One of the things that blows me away about ad agencies is how many people they many have in them.

Of course, part of this is that every 5-10 years, we invent a new discipline to incorporate.

Digital Strategists.
Communication Planners.

Can you see the theme?

Yeah, they’re all bloody planners.

We sit there pontificating about how we add to the work – elevating conversations or connecting to audiences – but what if we ultimately exist just to help our agency bosses pull back some of the fee they’ve lost by selling the value of creativity down the river?

OK, so I don’t think planners are useless [even though I would say that, wouldn’t I] but the fact is, when I look at the amount of people inside an agency, I wonder if the quantity is driven more by the managements focus on creating process [which creates money] or this is what it takes to play in the modern communication World.

I may be cynical, but I think it’s the former.

When we started cynic, we did an incredible amount with just 4 people.

Sure, we farmed a lot out.

Sure, we were reliant on collaborating with other specialists.

But the amount of work we did as a foursome, was easily on par with the output of agencies with 10 times that number of staff.

And in terms of quality – both in terms of idea and execution – we were miles ahead of so many of the agencies, which was reflected in the projects we ended up being given to work on … from helping design airport lounges for Virgin to helping NASA position themselves to get more cash from Congress to building mopeds with Piaggio that were designed around a countries needs rather than just a riders.

But here’s the thing … as we got bigger, we got slower.

We found ourselves allowing processes to impact our creation.

We looked at ‘how to get things out the door’ rather than what will make the biggest difference.

Sure, some of those processes were necessary, sure some were valuable … but some – in fact, a lot of them – were processes that ultimately achieved nothing. Created because we felt that’s what we had to do rather than what was the right thing to do.

I’m ashamed to say it took us a long time to realise the horrible path we were going down, but we ultimately corrected it and while that resulted in us making less money – there’s definitely cash to be made in process – it made us happier and got us back on track developing ideas that made a lasting difference.

I mention all this because I recently read a quote that sort-of sums up the issue cynic went through and the issue facing adland now …

“Being a technology company means that a single programmer’s work can boost the company’s profit for years. In a media company, one person’s work gets noticed perhaps for a day, and then vanishes in the stream of fresh news”


Interesting eh?

But my point isn’t about tech vs media – though that’s an interesting point in itself – I’m talking about what the quote is really about … empowerment vs process.

When cynic was firing on all cylinders, it was when we empowered our talented people to make decisions and take action.

They would always surprise us and we would develop ideas that were infectious and intriguing in ways we never expected.

Where it went wrong was when we started conversations with ‘the process’ rather than the ambition.

But ironically, process seems to be where a lot of agencies like to play.

Probably because they know – as we discovered – process pays.

Process keeps people in jobs.

Process boosts share price.

Process keeps the wheels turning.

If the truth about planners is they exist for no other reason than to help agencies make more money from clients, then maybe the truth about the modern ad industry is that it exists to simply do the things the clients don’t really want to do.

Or delay the decisions they don’t really want to make.

Now compare that to how the tech industry operate.

They are hungry.


They believe in their potential and capability.

They empower their people because they know freedom creates opportunity.

Sure, there’s wastage … dead ends … loss of cash …

But their focus on talent, speed and empowerment means they discover it quickly, learn from it, adapt and move on … because their ambition is to find the thing that can create something huge because they know huge means money.

And guess what, the corporate world believe in this too.

They don’t see it as a loss, they see it as an investment.

Adland used to behave like this.

Adland used to think like this.

Clients used to view us like this.

Maybe it’s time we got back to it?

29 Comments so far
Leave a comment

yes you fucking are. next question.

Comment by andy@cynic


Comment by DH

one person did all the fucking work. one person made all the coffee. two people were parasites off my fucking talent.

Comment by andy@cynic

Yeah … and the person who made the coffee ended up having the most cash out of all of us.

Comment by Rob

Good post Robert. I don’t know if our productivity decline was entirely down to the creation of unnecessary process, but it definitely contributed to it. Reading this post brought back a lot of memories. Good memories. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

Comment by George

only after negotiating better fucking terms.

Comment by andy@cynic


Comment by George

Interesting read Rob, but maybe the reason so many interesting, long term ideas were developed at cynic was because we viewed advertising as the way to tell people about our idea rather than being the solution to the problem. Maybe the planners and agencies who don’t understand that are the ones kidding themselves.

Comment by Bazza

The remuneration model agencies, and their clients, live by also drives their approach. While we did many good things, arguably our best decision was not allowing ourselves to adopt the traditional remuneration model.

Comment by George

Is that the remuneration model where you got the notes and I was given the coins?

Comment by DH

That’s the one Dave.

Comment by Rob

I’m still very positive about all this, but I must take issue with the idea that “a single programmer’s work can boost the company’s profit for years”. There are very few programmers of that quality and very few situations in which it can happen – usually the early days.

Marketing can do this too – after all Airbnb’s big acceleration was due not to coding but to taking better photos for their early hosts. I was going to write insight rather than marketing, but I’m trying to remain positive.

Comment by John

Very true John, but would you not agree that a coder has greater potential to make a sustainable difference to business than someone in marketing?
I say this simply because a coder can create an idea off their own back where as a marketer has to, in the main, be reliant on someone else’s product.
What isn’t being said is that despite this greater potential, few coders actually fulfill this promise, often because they lack the skills and abilities that are inherent in a good marketing professional.
By the way, I am liking the positive you.

Comment by George

It’s all an act.

Not so sure about a single coder (as I wote above), but a group of coders, yes absolutely they can if they’re pointed in the right direction.

But I would take great issue with the idea that marketers are reliant on someone else’s product. That might be true of advertising folk, but the first P of marketing is product and a key purpose of marketing should be product development and the defining of the strategic space in which the company operates.

Comment by John

That is very fair John. That said, I am not sure how many modern marketers get to influence the development of product beyond packaging and advertising. This is purely a subjective perspective as is my belief that the ones who do, often end up making products to the lowest common denominator. Which all reflects my view that the quality of marketer is far lower than the quality of coder. It pains me to write that.

Comment by George

I’m sure that’s true. The lack of basic knowledge amongst “marketers” let alone critical thinking is staggering.

Some time back I was at a social media/digital marketing event (I know) and saw no more than three hands go up when the speaker asked how many in the audience had heard of Cluetrain.

And code is more discrete – your code has to work or you’re out. Hence the average ability has to be quite high.

Comment by John

can you stop trying to have a fucking adult conversation. youre not pulling it off and the last place youd want to do it is on this shithole. amateurs.

Comment by andy@cynic

Quite the contrary. Nobody’s going to see it here.

Comment by John

No one reads long copy comments.

Comment by DH

Finally my message gets through. Or doesn’t. Depending on how you look at it.

Comment by John

Planners aren’t fooling anyone.

Comment by Billy Whizz

campbell has done a good fucking job fooling uncle dan.

Comment by andy@cynic

So Rob was 25% of the workforce and thus hard to avoid. Did cynic ever feature in any of those best places to work polls?

Comment by John


Comment by andy@cynic

This posts discusses somewhat the same problem. It focuses on the agency and not just the planner, but the discussion seems similar.

Comment by timfremmich

Can I suggest that the conflict between job title and skill is more important in this regard that the one between process and output?

1) New roles are not limited to planners (creative technologist, social media manager, data analyst…). The reasons why they involve planners disproportionately are that:
– other roles are defined by what they do, hence if the new job isn’t about that “what” it doesn’t touch them, whereas planners don’t “do” anything;
– because planners don’t “do” anything, they have less to defend and are more open to innovation
– but also, they have to justify their existence and salaries, so they ride and sell that innovation

2) The reason why agencies multiply staff around these disciplines may be less driven by profit and more by inertia:
– for a long time we’ve confused skill with job title: we no longer talk about “copywriting”, but about “copywriters”, etc.; so when a new discipline comes up, we need a new way to fill that job title
– and we hire someone new because hiring is easier than training: in order to train, you need to understand, and agencies have been giving up on that a long time ago. Just look at how the most influential books for our industry of the last decade (Nudge, How brands grow, Herd…) all come from outside of advertising.
As a result, everything takes longer and is crappier, but that’s not by design.

As per Hanlon’s razor, “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.

(Pardon the long comment)

Comment by Stefano Augello (@stefanoaugello)

You raise some fair points Stefano but what you are suggesting is different to the issue Robert raised and that we faced when we had our company. The colleagues we had were all excellent. The problems arose when we believed process would aid us when in fact it was achieving the opposite effect.

As for advertising agencies adding staff due to process inertia. One look at the business model of multinational agencies, and you will see process drives their profit. The only thing they are focused on achieving.

Comment by George

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