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The future of planning is being a master of change

From consumer behaviour to culture to media landscape - everything is changing. Wunderman Thompson's new head of planning is on a mission to grasp them all

By Ben Worden

I’m on day 45 of my new job leading the planning department at WT so on a personal level I’m dealing with quite a lot of change at the moment: a new routine, a new commute, a new office, a new job title, new clients, new challenges, a new team, and being connected to a whole new range of capabilities.

Having spent 2,802 days in my last job I was worried that all that change would be overwhelming. But what the last 45 days have taught me without any shadow of doubt, is that change is good. So when I was asked to think about what the future of planning looks like, my recent experience led me to a deep truth that I think is fundamental to the future of planning: we need to learn to love, and be masters of change.

Our purpose is to help solve problems of every kind, for clients of every kind. Some of those problems are centuries old. Others are symptomatic of the moment we are living in right now, or the future that we are hurtling towards.

No matter what problems we’re trying to solve, for me one thing is true: to do so effectively, we need to have a really good grasp of what is changing, and what is staying the same in the world around us.

Specifically that means mastering change on three levels.

Firstly, we need to understand the ways in which people’s lives are changing. Some problems we are trying to solve are driven by human nature – something that doesn’t tend to change very fast. Other problems are driven by current behaviour, which can be the product environmental, social, and technological influences that move incredibly quickly. So our ability to do our job rests on our ability to make sense of the things that will always matter to people, the things that matter to them right now, and how those two things interact, in order to be relevant and meaningful.

Secondly, we need to understand the way that culture is changing. In some cases belief systems that have been in existence for millennia still dominate the context in which our work is received and acted upon. In other cases the cultural landscape shifts hour by hour, and trying to ensure that the recommendations we give to our clients somehow keep up is going to be a fundamental skill for planners to succeed now and in the future. I think we’ve all probably had moments when we’ve been guilty of not paying enough attention to how rapidly culture is shifting, so whilst the brief was probably not wrong at the time of writing, by the time the creative work reaches the outside world it has not aged well.

Thirdly, we need to be masters of how the media landscape is changing. As an industry we’re sometimes guilty of leaping on fads that will never become part of the mainstream. And we love nothing more than making funeral arrangements for platforms and channels that billions of people experience and enjoy every single day. New platforms and new technology are undoubtedly exciting and full of potential, but we need to be honest and realistic where real people are spending their time and understand the cost of overstating or misreading change.

So what do planners need to do to succeed in being masters of change?

Stay curious

The signals about what’s changing and what’s staying the same are all around us. But we have to be conscious of the fact that the places many of us live and work in are not necessarily representative of the whole. The great planners of the future will have to get out of the bubble and spend time in the places where real life plays out, looking and listening for signals of what’s changing, and what’s staying the same.

Stay close to the data

We live in an age of abundant data. But we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that just because we have the data, we have understood it. This is especially true when it comes to understanding how the world is changing: the great planners of the future will be mindful of their own confirmation biases and will ask more searching questions of the data.

Accept that none of us has all the answers

Understanding exactly how the world is changing requires a willingness to embrace different points of view, and to be comfortable with the fact that your gut feeling may not always be right. The great planners of the future will be part of diverse teams with different points of view, and will have the collective power to really understand what’s changing and what’s staying the same in order to solve problems of every kind.

Masters of Change

Most importantly, we need to be masters of personal change in order to remain valuable allies to our clients, to continue to create powerful ideas, and to feel like when we go to work we are living our best lives and fulfilling all our potential. No matter what stage you are at in your career, if you stand still and don’t embrace personal change, you run the risk of losing relevance and being left behind.

Being a master of change means knowing what you are good at, but also taking the time to understand your weaknesses and focus on developing new skills. I have always been lucky to find myself surrounded by brilliant, interesting people, and my new gang at Wunderman Thompson are second-to-none. Fingers crossed I can keep up with them all…

Ben Worden is the head of planning at Wunderman Thompson


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