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The Future of Planning

Becoming The Person Who Asks 'What If?'

St Luke's CSO Dan Hulse says AI heralds a new creative era for planners

By Dan Hulse

Being a junior planner is the toughest gig going.  Planners are supposed to be the experts on human behaviour, psychology and cognition. They need to confidently apply that to everything from cat food to pensions. Even worse, they’re required to do it with little training, offering sage advice to clients and colleagues often a decade or more older than them. To top it all off, they’re likely working alongside more senior planners with years more experience. Imposter syndrome is almost inevitable.

So when I was lucky enough to get my first planning job and my boss offered some advice, I grasped it with both hands. She said, “Make yourself the master of all the research you can get your hands on. Tracking, Mintel, TGI, panel data, hoover it all up. What you lack in experience, you can make up for by being on top of everything we know about the consumer. Nobody else has the time to do it, so you can be the person who knows." So that’s exactly what I did. It hardly made me the complete planning package. But it bought me time, meaning I could be useful to the creatives, my boss and my clients while I picked up the other skills planners need. 

Today, I’m afraid the advice that was so valuable to me is reaching its use-by date. Being ‘the master of the research’ is something a smart graduate can still do, but increasingly AI tools will do it better. Or at least a hell of a lot faster. You can spend 8 hours listening to recordings of groups, making fastidious notes and producing a debrief. But AI can transcribe it, organise the quotes by theme, and give a pretty decent summary. It can quickly find, curate, and make easily accessible all kinds of insights that might have taken a junior planner days. Certainly, there are flaws in the output, but every day it gets better.

The treasure trove of knowledge once owned by the junior planner is now accessible to everyone. We’re all a couple of well-considered prompts away from being ‘the person who knows’. That changes the game for planners. Knowing isn’t enough, if it ever was. Planners at the start of their career have even more to prove, when a free website is levelling the information playing field.  

I wonder, could Donald Rumsfeld point the way? Being the master of the research is all about the ‘known knowns’. We know we know this stuff, even if only the junior planner actually has it to hand. As you get more senior, you get into the ‘known unknowns’, and find smart ways of answering the obvious questions with research. But as ChatGPT and its fellows advance, planners must venture into the land of unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns. The hidden truths we understand but aren’t aware of, and the things we have never even considered. 

This is where planning can stay one step ahead of the machines. We can ask the questions no-one has thought to ask. Or we can look at the familiar, and interrogate it from new angles. As it becomes easier and easier to take stock of what we know, planning can spend its energy exploring what we don’t. We can ask unobvious questions, and get unobvious answers.  

This is a skill we all need to develop, learning how to quickly apply what we can from the ‘knowns’ so we can focus on exploring the ‘unknowns’. The good news for junior planners is that here, they have an advantage. Although experience is helpful, curiosity is just as important, and sometimes being fresh makes it easier to ask the fresh questions. That’s something all planners will need to get better at. 

It makes me wish I was starting again now.  Fascinating as it is to immerse in the detail of the research, I believe planning will become a more creative, imaginative discipline. We’ll master consumer insight quicker, and seek insight in life, culture and art. Our time and mental capacity will be freed up to do more of the bit that adds most value, uncovering insights that fuel unexpected work. We won’t have to worry about being ‘the person who knows’, and can concentrate on being the person who asks ‘what if?’.


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