I’ve nearly always had a very tough time explaining my job to anyone outside the world of advertising.
When I first started out in account services, it was difficult enough to explain my job. “Account (coordinator/manager/supervisor/director), what does that mean?” I’d get asked by everyone from my mother to my friends in more tangible fields like medicine or law. Some folks would confuse the role with that of an account manager in a sales organization; others would assume that every advertising job was in the creative department. Over the years, I tested out various answers to this question, the most expedient of which might have been “I’m a juggler in a 3-ring circus”. But, as a great scene in this week’s episode of Mad Men shows us, the job of account man (or woman) has been around for decades and has been misunderstood for just about the same length of time:
Pete Campbell: “So, I manage those accounts.”
Émile Calvet: “I don’t understand. What do you do every day?”
Pete Campbell: “Well, what do you do? You’re a scholar and an intellectual, right? Actually, from what I hear, you’re a bit of a trailblazer. [ . . . ] I bet the world would be better off if they knew about the work you were doing.
Emile: You are very kind.
Pete: That, Émile, is what I do every day.
– Mad Men, Season 5
Strategic planning has always been a core component of my job, but it’s only in the past few years that the word “strategist” has appeared on my business cards. And here, it seems, I’ve finally found a title that’s even tougher to explain than account services.
What’s in a title?
For one thing, it sounds – let’s face it – douchey. Saying “I’m a strategist” sounds vaguely akin to “I’m really smart and full of myself.” It doesn’t help that there have been all sorts of variations on the title that are even more pompous and self-aggrandizing (or, for that matter, genuinely douchey planners). The very word “strategist” brings to mind the concept of some megalomaniac evil genius type sitting in a dark room over a chessboard, scheming and plotting to take over the world.
For another, Corporate America understands the notion of a manager, but a strategist? It’s one of those job titles that didn’t use to exist. Nobody ever said “when I grow up, I want to be a strategic planner”. It’s a job title that can charitably be called part of the so-called new economy, whereupon most incoming first-year university students can expect that, when they graduate, they will be applying for jobs that have yet to be invented. And it brings to mind the height of the dot-com era in the late 90s, when start-ups were liberally inventing titles like “chief innovator” or “head awesome guy” to make themselves sound cooler than they actually were.
Where we came from
The title of Account Planner isn’t new, of course. The first account planning department was created by J. Walter Thompson in 1968, which is practically the Mad Men era. Planning as a functional role was popularized in the UK in the 80s, and its popularity in the US is generally credited to Chiat/Day. By the early 90s, most large agencies had planners on staff, presumably cackling their way evilly to some genius television, radio and print campaigns.
What JWT, Chiat/Day and all those other agencies had figured out was that most people are “doers”. They see a list of tasks, and they’re very good at getting those tasks done and crossed off a list. Design this storyboard. Film this commercial. Write a tagline. But very few people, in their busy days, had the time or resources to take a step back and ask the tough questions, like, What does this all mean? What are we really trying to do here? How do all the pieces fit together? Where is this going?
Stanley Pollitt, who many credit with the invention of the role of strategic planning, is quoted as having said:
“The account planner is that member of the agency’s team who is the expert, through background, training, experience, and attitudes, at working with information and getting it used – not just marketing research but all the information available to help solve a client’s advertising problems.”
Well, that sounds pretty good, don’t it? The planner’s job is to know everything, and to use that knowledge to solve problems.
Sure, no sweat.
Strategy in the digital age
Enter the digital era. Suddenly, agencies weren’t comfortably executing another mass media campaign in a known, tried and tested environment. They were launching websites, blogs, social media applications and mobile thingamags that nobody in senior management – agency or client-side – really understood. It was all changing so quickly that nobody quite knew how to keep up, let alone plan ahead.
So they went out and hired people who knew about all this stuff. They looked for the plugged-in types, the geeks in glasses who were inheriting the earth one webapp at a time. And they told them to keep their ears close to the ground, dress in disaffected hipster-style clothing, and show up at meetings to impress their clients on how forward-thinking their agency was.
These folks weren’t creative directors, or project managers, or developers, or even the much-maligned “suits” in account services. No, their job was to provide the rest of the agency with a crystal ball with which to see into the future. But they needed business cards (to impress the aforementioned corporate clients) and those business cards required titles. Eventually, someone decided that “strategic planner” could apply equally well to this job as it did to what the Chiat/Day folks were doing in the 80s.
I’m still not sure how that applies to me. Sure, I’m a geek, but I don’t have an iPhone and I’m not exactly a trailblazer. But eventually, agencies realized that they couldn’t just look cool by hiring a geek with an iPad, any more than Sterling Cooper could pretend to be forward-thinking by hiring a female copywriter. Tokenism wasn’t going to cut it; the digital planners needed to have substance, too. Agencies realized that they needed to hire people who could plan, design, forecast and put things in context, and not merely have high Klout scores.
So, what do you do every day?
I don’t have the benefit of a Matthew Wiener script, so I doubt I can answer quite as eloquently as Pete Campbell did, with a show-don’t-tell example. But, I suppose the simple answer is that I spend a lot of my day connecting the dots.
There are a heck of a lot of people working on any given account or project — creative, production, traffic, account service, media — and each one of them has something for which they are chiefly responsible. My job is to keep the big picture in mind, and to communicate with all of them to make sure that everything they’re doing is working in concert towards accomplishing the common goal.
So I spend a lot of time in meetings, on the phone and on emails. I review things, ask challenging questions. I probably use the word “why?” more times than a two-year-old who has just discovered that it’s the quickest way to annoy her parents. (Actually, as a two-year-old, I apparently did ask “why” all the time, and annoyed my parents. I guess my career choice isn’t all that surprising after all.) I lead and participate in brainstorm sessions, do customer research, and dig to find that nugget that will lead to a great campaign — though it usually comes from someone else who is way smarter than me. I do a lot of math — they weren’t lying in high school when they said I’d need it one day. I spend a good part of my day in those dreaded tools, Execl and PowerPoint, calculating, forecasting and storytelling all at the same time. I write blog posts, go to conferences and events, and do my best to share information and to get people excited about new trends. Needless to say, I drink a lot of coffee.
So, Strategist: not such a bad title after all. Even if I will probably never manage to explain it to my mom.
On the other hand, Evil Genius sounds way cooler, don’t you think?