Future of Planning

The Future Of Planning Is... More Practical, Less Performative

Weber Shandwick's strategy head warns against planning's 'smartness' obsession. Let's prioritise clarity over complexity

By Andrew Lopez

The worst thing that has ever been said about planning is that "a planner should be the smartest person in the room."

Funnily enough, I can’t find who that quote is credited to. But someone out there is responsible.

Let me say from the outset, the happy caveat to this is that, fortunately, 95 per cent of the planners you will ever meet do not believe in or subscribe to that hype. The ones that do, you can smell a mile off because they tend to love to pontificate and overcomplicate rather than to bring clarity and simplicity, which is of course our main job and purpose.

So while most of us know that planning’s continued value to the creative process comes through bringing a sense of clarity, creating the best conditions for the work and everything that Martin Weigel put in his Planner’s Manifesto back in 2010, some lingering side effects of this ‘smartness’ label do still hang around and ensnare us unwittingly.

I think that there are two main offenders.

The first is what I’m going to call 'Big Syndrome.'

This is our fixation with, and defaulting to, the ‘right’ answer being to craft almost all of our briefs to have big, society-shattering solutions. Partly to blame is the hangover of the purpose tsunami of the last couple of years, which has left the muscle memory of our discipline defaulting to strategies that are lofty and life-changing in ambition. Even when it’s not necessarily the right fit.

I know I’ve had more than a few cases of it, and it is something that as a discipline we need to be conscious of. It’s not all on us, of course. Client briefs often convey ambitious goals or aspirations for their product or brand. While it can sometimes be challenging, it encourages us to highlight their strengths and potential in our work.

There are those briefs that come along that allow tackling the big picture, and the most powerful ideas will of course often be those that do change the world or the human condition for the better. But it is not a failure of your strategy if your solution isn’t rooted in that. Finding the opportunity for relevance in the everyday is, I think, a much trickier and wonderfully rewarding challenge; this is something to be embraced, not disparaged.

The second offender is related to 'Big Syndrome' and comes before it in the sequence of events. I’ve called the second, 'Revelatory Syndrome.'

This one struck me when talking to another planner, who highlighted the surprising fact that almost every agency's creative briefing template still includes a section for insight, instructing you to articulate your 'revelatory truth. '

I hate this box.

‘Revelatory’ feels like it encompasses all of the ‘smartness’ pressures and baggage that being a planner can sometimes carry. Pushing us down the route of grandeur and self-importance. The word is literally rooted in Godliness.

That is not to say we can’t and shouldn’t strive for profound insights and strategies. Like I say, certain briefs and the right work absolutely call for this, but let’s not lose sight of the solutions that ground our product and brand solutions in the everyday and the mundane. Because for most of us, that is where our relationships with products and brands are most felt and experienced.

So let’s break free from the tyranny and the pressure of ‘smartness.’ Let’s feel liberated by not having to always say something deeply profound.

Let’s aim less for things that sound ‘smart’ for smart's sake, and more for things that sound ‘useful,’ and more for insights that truly understand the everyday, and more for contributions that ‘simplify.’ This approach will enable us to continue bringing innovation and brilliance to the process.

Andrew Lopez is head of strategy at The Weber Shandwick Collective


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