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Opinion: Five Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Out in Planning

At the tender age of 32, Ronán Jennings of BBDO Dublin offers some sage-like advice  to young planners looking to develop their careers and, more importantly, the business outcomes of their clients.

“I wish that I knew what I know now – when I was younger” – The Faces

I’m a senior strategist. I just turned 32 and with it came the horrific realisation that I can no longer call myself the ‘young planner’.

But rather than lamenting this great loss, I thought I’d reflect on my eight years of experience in the industry and share a few words of highly subjective wisdom with the real ‘young planners’ out there.

Everyone loves a good listicle, right? So here are my Top 5 pieces of advice for those just embarking on a career in planning:

  1. Sharp minds but sharper elbows

Advertising is a small industry and planning is the smallest department in that small industry, so it makes sense that it can be pretty difficult to break into. People are often told that there aren’t any roles available in planning or are offered internships in other departments instead.

I started out as an account executive–I was fairly crap at it too–but I constantly volunteered to help on pitches, did bits of research for clients, and did planning courses on the side, and after a year or so, I reached the strategic promised land and was made a full-time planner. So, if you want to be a planner sometimes you need to be a bit aggressive and elbow your way to the table.

  1. Insights come from people, not Google

Planning and insights go hand-in-hand, but getting to a truly powerful insight can be tough – especially as no two planners can agree on the definition of one. There are lots of good ways of going about uncovering insights, but one thing I know for sure is that sitting at your computer Googling stuff is not one of them.

Planners are supposed to be the voice of consumers and the only way you can genuinely do that is by actually speaking with real people. Friends, family, colleagues, strangers, whoever. The most interesting and authentic insights I’ve written have come from a simple conversation, not articles or research reports.

  1. You don’t have to have the answer, just lots of questions

Like Moses coming down from the mountain with the stone tablets, planners often feel the need to be the ‘smartest’ person in the room. At the beginning of my career, I felt a lot of pressure to come up with The Answer (capital T, capital A) really quickly, but over time I realised that you get to more interesting areas by asking more questions.

When you first receive a client brief, resist the urge to try and come up with a strategic answer to it straight away. Instead, write down every single question and hypothesis that pops into your head. You’ll end up in far less obvious and much more interesting places by doing this.

  1. What Would SpongeBob Do?

The most creative thinkers are sponges, constantly absorbing random pieces of information and inspiration from all around them. These then all mix and blend together in their subconscious to form unusual ideas and unexpected solutions to problems.

Everyone will tell you that, as a planner, it’s important that you read strategy books, keep up to date with trends and go to industry events. And of course, it is important to do all this, but it’s also important to read novels, watch binge shows on Netflix and go to different exhibitions. Make time for fun and interesting things because they will also make you a more creative thinker.

  1. No planner should be an island

Creatives work in pairs and account management work in teams, but there’s often only one planner on an account. In my case, this often led to feelings of isolation and that in turn contributed to an increased sense of pressure.

Luckily, I learned that the closer you work with people from different departments on your team the better your work gets. Planning is more than the halfway point between account management and creative, and having a strong collaborative relationship with those departments is essential. Also, learning to bounce problems and thoughts off other planners who aren’t on the account is a great way of opening up your thinking.  Ultimately, the sooner you realise that planning isn’t a department it’s a behaviour, an interactive discipline which you take into other departments, the better.

So, there you have it: five things that I wish I knew “…when I was younger”; five nuggets of wisdom for the next generation of strategic planners.

Share this with anyone you know who fits the bill, or better, pass on a few pieces of advice from your own experience, but do it before the recipient hits 32 and realises that they’re no longer a ‘young planner’. Trust me, they’ll love you for it.

Ronán Jennings is a Senior Strategist at BBDO Dublin. He is a Cannes Young Lions representative for Ireland and the recipient of both a Gold Effie AND the stark realisation that he is no longer ‘young’. 


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