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Future of Planning

The Breakthrough We're Desperate For: How AI Will Liberate Creativity

The VCCP Partnership's chief strategy officer Michael Lee on using the artificial to boost the human

By Michael Lee

As the current chair of the APG (Account Planning Group), I’ve belatedly discovered that the organisation conducts a very healthy exercise every few years, which is to run a skills survey looking at what skills are deemed most important in planning. It gives us an idea of the changing demands on planners now, and an eye to the future.

In the February meeting of the APG Committee, Loz Horner, for he is the person leading the survey, shared a draft list of the skills we are going to ask people’s opinions about. Obviously, being planners, we spent a long time debating the wording of each listed skill. But we did make it to the bottom of the page that he shared, and suddenly, our allotted 30 mins to chat was almost up.

“Great! So we’re good to get going!” I said, with nerdish excitement.

“Er.. that was just the first page of skills. There’s two more..” revealed Loz, as it turned out that the 10 skills we were discussing were less than half the full list.

In the 5 years since the last survey we’ve added skills such as:

  • Identifying emerging media opportunities (new channels, formats, partnerships etc)

  • Creating comms plans (integrated, brand versus performance, paid, owned and earned etc)

  • Collaborating with other disciplines

And here’s the thing. Of the 24 or so skills we plan to feature in this survey, I couldn’t for the life of me find a single skill that we could discard.

Proliferation. One of modern life’s greatest scourges. And that list was first discussed in February 2023. By the end of March we had started discussing what skills we’d need as planners to fully realise the potential of using ChatGPT like an ultimate strategic wingman, rather than letting it, like some alien parasite worming its way around our body, render us rapidly into value-less obsolescence.

If expertise in all these 24 skills expected of a planner is more or less impossible, then what should our expectations of the next generation of planners be? What shape should our planning departments take?

The obvious answer is to hire a broad range of individuals with strengths that cover the full 24. But which of these are better offered by dedicated specialists, and which should we be asking what we typically called more generalist “brand planners” to know, understand and be able to apply?

This cyclical version of a “branded house vs house of brands” type dilemma has befuddled the minds of many a CSO for decades, and it’ll only get more complex.

Perhaps it’s also the wrong debate to be having. I’m not convinced that many people I’m trying to persuade to consider planning as a career look at those 24 skills to master and see anything but an impossible job.

Firstly, the concept of learning by osmosis, the traditional form of training we’ve relied on in our respective agencies for years, suffices less and less given the breadth of what we are asking of our future planners.

And if we are expecting people to develop such a wide range of skills, are agencies prepared to invest in the training required to embed them (given many don’t even train in the basics)?

Secondly, at the time of writing, we are still predominantly in a phase where we are playing with the new GenAI tools to understand how they can augment our working existences as planners (the bigger question as to whether they will obliterate our need to be in gainful employment is one for another day!). So in the meantime, let’s be creative and opportunistic in our demands.

Assuming the competence of these tools will improve at an exponential rate, how about we work out which of these 24 skill sets you could train GenAI to take the burden, so that we make the human bit of the job more viable and sustainable? Of course, this may in the short term lead to further proliferation of skill sets, as prompt engineering and aptitude in the application of the main AI tools become table stakes.

On the other hand, it could just be the breakthrough that we’ve been desperate for. The thing that liberates us to devote more time to original creative thinking that still, after all, is hopefully the main reason why we love being planners in the first place.

Michael Lee is the chief strategy officer of the VCCP Partnership and Chair of the APG.


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