Around the world with 80 planners.

Being the James Bond of advertising (not in terms of suaveness or looks but in terms of ending up in random places around the world) I’ve seen a cornucopia of agencies and how they work from the inside.

From Kenya to Saudi Arabia, from Ethiopia to the United Kingdom, advertising agencies are incredibly similar in a range of ways yet indecipherably different in others.

Just a warning: For those who don’t work inside an agency this post might be a little difficult to follow. I’m just presuming you have a basic working knowledge of how an agency works.

Regional differences in how advertising agencies

The differences experienced in advertising agencies in each country are partly understandable. Agencies have to adapt to suit the country that they operate in, and this also means changing the structure and the scope of each profession.

For example, in Kenya to try and prevent corruption, a print stills producer is assigned to each photo shoot. Rather than being added value to the quality of the shoot they are essentially the ‘on site money men’ and sign off the receipts for lunch and the like. In the agency I was working there were around 6 stills producers. And how many TV producers? Zero. In an agency of around 200 there was not one TV producer. The role of the TV producer fell on the creative’s shoulders. As you can imagine, an art director being a producer leads to frenzied phone calls with production companies while trying to still keep on top of their day to day work. The reason for there being no TV producers is well… I can’t think of one.

And that shows exactly the point I’m making: there are logical reasons for some changes in the department in countries and yet other drastic changes have no reason to them (or at least reasons I can understand).

The alleged reason why the MD in Saudi Arabia was very much the TV Producer is off the record there might have been under the table deals going on (I think you can probably work out what that means). And although I should state that this was just the opinion of a few and not a proven fact, there seemed to be a strong suggestion that this may have been the case as we were only ever allowed to work with a few ‘proven’ production companies for reasons that were “too complex to explain to us.”

In terms of other professions there are some departments that are pretty much the same worldwide. From what I can see account men are account men, and media is media. Maybe there are some nuances but essentially I think I could take an account man from Kenya and put him /her into New Zealand agency and vice versa.

Planners around the world

There however was one department that radically changed in each country I worked. And that is the planners and the strategists (I’ll lump them together for the sake of simplicity). Inside an agency the scope of this profession radically changed in each country I worked.

In New Zealand, planners are largely the thinkers behind the strategy for the campaigns. They work alongside the CDs with some charts and measures behind the scenes so that the numbers justified the thoughts that would then filter down to the creative work. Occasionally the planning in some agencies would be retro fitted to the creative work if the creative work ‘felt right’. So, you could say there was a little bit of a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude to planning but also a healthy working relationship between the ECD and the planner.

In Australia (although I’m hearing this is changing) the planners were a lot closer to being statisticians and ensured that the market research was heavily acted upon. Each ad would be religiously put through its testing rounds (market research with a range of demographics in different states) and the planner (depending on how active he / she was) would analyse these results and normally liase with the GAD before debriefing the creatives.

In Kenya, the role of the planner largely came down to the MDs and was more an area to plump up inflated egos of a few individuals. In a way this was mad men, East Africa style. The MD’s opinion quite often was the strategy and anyone who disagreed would usually be told to “shut up, you don’t know what you’re on about…” Basic planning and strategy work was undertaken by the account managers but this was generally made up post rationale to support the opinion of the MD. One example of where the ego / strategy role didn’t work too well was at an East African Breweries conference that was put on by the company to expose insights and untapped areas in growing the beer market. At the end of this conference the MD in question, stood up and told them it was all rubbish and waste of time. I’m guessing it was because the role of strategy was being used rather than his own gut impulses towards strategy. As an upshot from this, surprise, surprise, the MD was duely taken off the account altogether. Which goes to show you that strategy and planning is starting to be taken seriously by Kenyan businesses (if not by the agencies).

In Saudi Arabia, the planner in the agency was just another account man. A planner in name only. It was incredibly confusing to see account managers trying to cobble together their own strategy and planning documents meanwhile the planner next door was working on his own accounts. I don’t view this as the inability of the person in question, but more the fact that strategy and planning wasn’t taken seriously by the clients and therefore the agency held that view as well. In one meeting with a client when planning slides were shown, the client tutted and said in Arabic ‘Just show me the creative work, this planning stuff is boring…’

In the United Kingdom, there is a different dynamic again. The planners and strategists in the big agencies are almost more CDs in their own right. A friend who worked at BBH, one of London’s top agencies, was scolded by a few planners for showing work to his CD rather than to the planners first. The reason why was “we have to see if the work is right first before you share it with your CD.” In some meetings I’ve been in, the planners will do the lion’s share of the talking and even suggest different creative ideas, something that some of the account men are eager to jump on as well. It’s interesting but in some of London’s shops the planners ARE the new creatives.

So is there a point to this post? I guess: If you’re a planner and wish to travel around the world, be prepared to change your skill sets vastly and rapidly depending on the country. And if you can’t… well, buy a Lonely Planet guide and just chill on the beach.

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