Making Friends and Keeping Your First Job in Planning

There is a wonderful event taking place on October 21st-27th in Toronto called The Griffin Farley Search for Beautiful Minds.  The event is named after a Strategy Director who dedicated much of his time to helping aspiring planners, and died in 2013 of mesothelioma.  The event started in New York, and local planning wunderkind Margarita Marshall brought it to Toronto last year.  It is a great opportunity for young planners to network and practice their craft with the help of mentors, speakers, judges, and peers.  I love how this event honours someone who valued giving back, by providing a vehicle for others to do the same.


In the spirit of this event, I thought that I would share some perspective for young planners starting out in their first jobs (adding to my growing list of posts that I should tag “things I learned 10 years too late”). While good young planners all focus on trying to create strong insights and strategies, many do not focus enough—or in the right way—on how they relate to others in their agencies that they work with.


In a typical agency environment, a planner’s life is influenced (if not completely and absolutely controlled) by 3 different people: Account Directors, Creative Directors, and Planning Directors.  Many young planners relate to these different roles in ways that actually limit them in terms of what they are able to achieve and how they are perceived within their agencies.  Planners can be more successful if they can figuratively (and as seen below, illustratively) turn these relationships to be more mutually beneficial.

Creative Director

Creative Directors are under a great deal of pressure.  They are not only considered responsible for the creative output for their clients, but also for the creative reputation of their agencies (not to mention their own careers).  As a result, many agencies are structured, at least informally, so that everyone and everything services the creative idea.  For junior planners starting out, this can easily be interpreted as everyone and everything serves the Creative Director.  The trap here is to consider the Creative Director and their teams as The Client, which results in a barrier being placed between Planning and Creative.  This leads young planners to focus solely on building a polished insights deck to be handed off to the Creative Team or a single strategy set-up slide for a client creative presentation, with no meaningful collaboration.


As a young planner, you should reframe your relationship with Creative teams to be a Partnership.  You involve them in the development of insights and the brief, and you get involved in the ideation and refinement of creative ideas.  While establishing this partnership may be challenging and stressful in some agencies with tribe mentalities and rigid ways of working, it should nevertheless be your ambition.  Reframing your relationship with Creative Directors from the Client to a Partner will provide you with:

  • A better understanding of how your planning work can be most valuable and actionable for creative teams (by seeing how it is used, or ignored)
  • The ability to create stronger work through more critical feedback from Creative Directors (who are often very strong Planners)
  • The opportunity to become more connected to the work itself, and the overall success of the agency


Account Director

Account Directors have the most thankless job in an agency.  Everyday they are on the frontlines trying to balance how to make clients happy, make the agency money, create great work, lead account teams, pitch new prospects, and meet deadlines.  Since great Account Directors can balance all of this and more, internal teams constantly turn to them for answers and fixes for seemingly everything.  Seeing this, junior planners often consider Account Directors as their Guides and pepper them with a flood of clever questions (often in the form of carefully crafted 500-word emails) everyday and for every assignment.  This all makes a hard job even harder.


Instead of considering Account Directors as Guides, consider them your Clients.  Make it your job to make their lives easier, as their success is ultimately your success.  Find out what they need (not just what they ask for), how they like to work (not just what everyone else does), and what their personal goals are for their clients (not just project deadlines).  Earn their trust, meet your commitments, and genuinely help them succeed.  Reframing your relationships with Account Directors from a Guide to a Client will:

  • Create demand for your services, after all Account Directors are the ones ‘buying’ your time for their client work (and you need to keep busy)
  • Build your reputation, as Account Directors are influential figures in providing feedback and shaping how you are perceived in the agency
  • Provide you with important presentation opportunities to practice your front-of-the-room skills, as they control access to their clients


Planning Director

Now take this one with a grain of salt (or a spoonful, like everything else I write), but framing your relationship with your boss is critical and tricky.  Planning Directors in agencies often end up wearing a lot of different hats, but at the core of what they do is solve problems.  This can be through developing insights from research, facilitating opportunities through workshops, or creating POVs and strategic recommendations.  The trap here for young planners is to consider Planning Directors as Partners, as many are collaborative and are there to support their staff.  The result is that Planning Directors end up solving the problems that their young planners are working on, and are ultimately responsible for.


As a young planner, you should reframe your relationship with your Planning Director from a Partner to a Guide.  Utilize the experience of your Planning Director to help them direct your work, without making it their task to complete.  Arrive at your meetings with a draft for your Director to review (not a blank sheet), and pointed questions that you want their specific direction on.  Then leave, and do the work yourself.  Reframing your relationship with your Planning Director as a Guide is critical as it:

  • Ensures that you actually do the work and learn, as opposed to shifting responsibility to a ‘Partner’—cheating yourself out of the opportunity to solve the problem
  • Creates a more productive working relationship with your Planning Director, who is now able to focus on providing direction without the frustration of doing junior-level work
  • Builds your reputation as someone who loves to solve problems, which is what your Planning Director is looking for in the first place


So to you young planners with your Beautiful Minds, I hope this all makes some sense and serves you well.  I look forward to meeting a few of you at the event later this month.