Graft and craft: What makes a planner

Jacek Malczewski-Self-portrait with palette

Jacek Malczewski-Self-portrait with palette

Architects, painters, sculptors, we must all return to crafts! For there is no such thing as “professional art”. There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman. By the grace of Heaven and in rare moments of inspiration which transcend the will, art may unconsciously blossom from the labour of his hand, but a base in handicrafts is essential to every artist. It is there that the original source of creativity lies.”

So declared the architect Gropius in his 1919 manifesto that defined the objectives of the new Staaliches Bauhaus school.

He was merely articulating afresh what artists, scientists, engineers, musicians, designers etc. have for centuries understood. Namely that the inherited skills and traditions of their chosen domain – be it notation, draftsmanship, editing, lighting, writing, composition, art-directing, and so on – must be mastered before they can be challenged, built upon, or gone beyond.

The notion of technique and craft might seem unimaginative - they are after all acquired and perfected through repetition. Yet as the sociologist Richard Sennet reminds us in his book The Craftsman, for those who have become highly trained, technique is in fact intimately linked to expression. Indeed it is the necessary precursors to the artist’s creativity.

In contrast, one might just occasionally be forgiven for thinking that planning is merely rhetoric, opinion, posturing, and the recycling of fashionable opinion.

Of course planning must be stimulating, imaginative, intuitive and opinionated. But the fact of the matter is that at the heart of the planning discipline lies a set of craft skills. These skills allow it to inform the creative process with an understanding of the real world in which communications is to appear. And it is the fact that it is knowledgeable rather than merely opinionated, that gives the planning its source of authority.

The means by which this understanding is accumulated is simple: research - "the investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts".

Planners should for example, be expected to be able to:

Intelligently interrogate buyer data and apply it to the development of communication strategy

Have a least a passing knowledge of some of the fundamental laws of markets and the dynamics of brands

Decode tracking data and usefully apply it to the development of strategic recommendations

Have point of view on how and when to use quantitative research - and be able to articulate to clients which companies to use and why

Interrogate customer segmentation data

Commission quantitative projects

Write a research recruitment screener

Design both qualitative and quantitative questionnaires

Know the different the types of both qualitative and quantitative research available, their methodologies, uses, and the suppliers thereof

Conduct their own qualitative research

Bring to bear an informed understanding of how different kinds of communications work in different kinds of circumstances, for different kinds of brands, across different kinds of channels and touchpoints

Develop effectiveness models for campaigns and activity

Formulate recommendations on how to evaluate the effectiveness of communications

Provide an informed perspective on the new and emergent models of effectiveness

Understand the methodological differences between the principle copy-testing suppliers (know your enemy)

Evaluate the commercial impact of communications activity

Have an understanding of econometric modeling

Just to be clear - the planner is an advertising person. Planners work with research, but in advertising. Ultimately, they must be able to interrogate, synthesize and apply this information and insight to the development of creative work. And that does of course involve the application of intuition and imagination too. For as Stephen King wrote, “the whole process of advertising is not a safe, cautious, step-by-step build-up.”

But planners do not have the monopoly on enthusiasm and intuition and cannot justify their existence based on those traits alone. After all, there are plenty of clever account, creative, or media people with both.

Being able to quote Clay Shirky and Malcolm Gladwell, point to the work that everyone else is saying we "should" be doing more of, quote from our industries luminaries, recycle the latest buzzwords does not make a planner authoritative. It just means they have access to the internet. Like everybody else. And being able to put together Powerpoint or Keynote 'decks' makes you a deck writer, not a planner.

Of course there are many 'softer' skills that one should certainly expect from a planner. For example, the arts of distillation, synthesis, and persuasive articulation are vital if planners are able to transform what they know into something that is useful in the development of strategy and creative work. But they don't define the disciple.

So if it is to be taken seriously - if it isn't to become as Merry Baskin once put it, 'bozo planning' - planning cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that it is based on (but not defined by) a set of craft skills. Or allow those craft skills to become eroded.  For without those craft skills we are reduced to just another - equally wrong or equally valid - opinion.

The skills listed above are not acquired overnight. They take time to develop. And acquiring them can sometimes feel like a long and arduous journey. Sexy and cool it ain’t.

The implications should be obvious:

If you don't have a boss who can teach you these craft skills, move on.

If as an agency you’re not investing in the craft skills of your planners, you’re failing them.

And if as a planner you’re not interested in acquiring the craft skills and find it all a bit tedious, you’re failing yourself. Worse, you’re in the way.

For Goya said it best:

Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”