After working for Lowe, dfgw and TBWA in the UK, Gareth Kay moved to Boston in 2003 to build the planning department at Modernista!, an independent agency that is known for their unconventional creative work for clients like Hummer, Budweiser, TIAA-CREF, Napster, Rossignol or MTV. The interview with Gareth will enable you to find out more about Modernista! and also about a new type of planner: the engagement planner. If after reading the interview you will want to find out more about Gareth, you might want to check out his brand new planning thoughts on his blog and on the APG website.

Simple questions come first. The debate has been ongoing since the beginning of account planning. What do you think is the main job function of an account planner in an advertising agency?

You’re right that the debate has been going on for a long time, and will probably continue as the communications landscape changes. I think the core role of an account planner however will not change and this is to create an environment where good ideas, by which I mean more creative and effective ideas, are more likely to happen. In order to do this I think there are three core skills. First, a planner needs to tightly define the problem that needs to be solved. This means gathering all the information that is available and collecting new information that may shed light on the issues facing a brand, the consumer and culture and distilling all this information into a tightly defined definition of the problem a brand faces. Second, the planner needs to be able to inspire creatives, and clients, with the best way in to solve the problem. It’s about defining the creative challenge, the most surprisingly relevant way to solve a problem. It’s about trying to look at things through the eyes of a child with no preconceptions or biases. Finally, it’s about being able to evaluate the commercial return on the idea. This means ensuring the right tools are in place to isolate and measure the impact of the idea from any other factors that occur. At its heart planning is really a mix of logical and creative skills and I’ve found over time that the best planners are those rare people who are able to exercise both these ways of thinking.

You Moved to Boston in 2003 to build the planning department at Modernista! How are things today comparing to when you started?

I joined Modernista! in 2003 as their first full time planner, but planning was not new to the agency. They’d used some great freelance planners before I joined and to be honest a lot of the creatives here are some of the smartest planners I’ve met. The agency was very supportive in introducing the discipline internally and with clients – we consciously do not unbundle services – so we were able to grow the department as the agency itself grew. We now have a department of five planners at the agency which is one of the highest proportions of planners to employees of any agency in the US, and have just introduced a new discipline to the agency, and the industry in the US, called engagement planning. This is about getting channel thinking upfront in the creative process to make sure the ‘who’, ‘where’, and ‘when’ of communications are not separated from the ‘what’. This allows us to be solution agnostic and is opening up a lot of new avenues for our clients and us creatively.

Is planning in the UK somehow different from planning in the USA?

I think the skills are the same but there are a couple of differences. Firstly, a lot of agencies have not moved planning on from being more than the research department of an agency, often used to make sure the ads get through pre-testing unscathed rather than being a catalyst for effective creativity. Secondly, America is just simply a bigger, more diverse and therefore more complex culture to navigate in. This in a way has been one of the greatest sources of liberation for me as it is means you have to be less reliant on demographics than ever before and more about defining mindsets, and understanding what types of mindsets the truths of a brand might appeal to.

Most Romanian agencies don’t have planning departments. What do you think that might be the strongest argument to convince Romanian agency management people to start building planning departments?

It’s always difficult to introduce a new discipline.

After all, agencies throughout the world created great ads before planning was ever introduced. Personally, I believe the strongest argument is one about making great ideas more likely to happen. To use a baseball analogy, I strongly believe that planning increases an agency’s batting average so great creative and effective work becomes more commonplace, and less hit and miss. I also suggest you ask them to read copies of the UK Account Planning Group and IPA Effectiveness Award books which are packed full with case studies that demonstrate the power of planning.

Media neutral planning is one of the hottest topics in planning today. Do you agree with those saying that planning should be media neutral or do you believe media plays such an important role that planners should always take it into consideration?

I have to be honest and say that I hate the term media neutral as being neutral implies ambivalence and indecision to me. I believe the debate should really be about making sure as planners that we are always idea rather than ad centric, and always remember that everything a brand does communicates. We need to ensure we think through what each channel’s role of communication is and stop thinking that the answer is advertising to every problem. Personally, while I believe planners must take media into consideration I don’t believe the account planner can be an expert in media as it is a complex, ever changing entity. It was for this reason that we introduced engagement planning at Modernista! to bring channel thinking into the strategic and creative development process. This means we essentially have a planning team on every piece of business consisting of a brand planner and an engagement planner.

In one of your articles you’ve talked about how words can sometimes fail to holistically describe a brand. If brands are getting complex (rather than simple) and words will not have the power to fully describe them, how will this influence the way that planners do their job?

I think there are three key things that will change the way we do our jobs. First, the way we try and inspire creatives through a brief will change. They will become more visual and packed with lots of ideas rather than being written around one single thought. Second, we need to get away from the tyranny of the single minded proposition as ads should no longer be about being a vehicle that carries a message that gets drilled home by media repetition, but instead be evidence of how a brand behaves and feels. ‘Propositioning’ people no longer works as our brains can simply not absorb the number of messages we are exposed to. Certainly, the briefs I write are now more about the approach to solve a problem rather than a message for the ad to shout. Finally, I think we as planners need to lead the charge to break the tyranny of powerpoint and use imagery and video more when we communicate with clients or colleagues in the agency. It’s richer, more nuanced, has more depth and is much more interesting.

What is the best book on advertising you have ever read?

It’s hard to pick one, but the book I find myself going back to again and again is ‘The New Marketing Manifesto’ by John Grant who used to be the Head of Planning at St. Luke’s in London and is now a brand consultant. I also find myself getting daily inspiration from Russell Davies’ blog.

You have a quite a nice blog on thinking about brands and planning. What is the main advantage of a planner who is blogging? Are there any?

I think blogging helps you get ideas down that would otherwise stay in your mind and become forgotten. The other benefit is being able to get others’ perspectives on nascent thoughts about brand and communications you are having. Both of these have really helped sharpen my thinking. Frankly, I think every planner should have one.

In the end, do you have any advice for young Romanian planners?

Put simply, be interested and be interesting. Be interested about what is going on in culture and how it is changing, be interested in people and what and why they are who they are and do what they do, be interested in brands and their communications, be interested in what is going on and what you can learn from other cultures. Be interesting when you speak with clients and creatives and try and give them a new thought or a new perspective on something old. A good way to practice this is start your own blog. And try and surround yourselves with the best and most diverse colleagues you can because that is how you really learn and become better.