I think all of you have visited the blog of Russell Davies: a daily destination for advertising people and a source of inspiration for planners. For those who haven’t (which is a thing you should not tell anyone about), in brief, you should know that before working for Wieden & Kennedy (both Portland and London), Russell has worked for agencies like Delaney Fletcher, TBWA and Leo Burnett. Today, besides planning on the client’s side for Nike, Russell Davies is also Chair of the UK’s Account Planning Group.
I start almost all my interviews about planning with the same question. A question that you must have heard for thousands of times, but a question that is not so often easy to answer in only a few words. What is the main role of a planner inside an advertising agency?
There are a lot of roles for a planner. The simplest way of putting it (stolen from Dylan Williams) is ‘thinking before doing’. All the obvious roles are in the standard text books. ‘Voice of the consumer’ all that. But the more interesting roles don’t get talked about that much. I was reminded of another one the other day – being a non-threatening person for the creatives to talk to. Lots of people just need to talk to someone in order to get their ideas in order. They don’t really need help, just conversation. But the average creative team doesn’t really have anyone to talk to. They can’t idly throw ideas back and forth with a creative director because they’re always on show with their boss. And they normally feel to threatened to do it with other teams – especially if they’re working on the same brief. And they can’t do it with account people because most account people find it very hard not to inject the voice of the client too often, or at least to be too conscious of the practicalities. But if, as a planner, you can be non-threatening and good at listening this can be a very important job.
What do you think is special about being a planner?
You have no responsibilities. Not really. Which means you’ll never be that important. But it makes you free to think about the right stuff, and gives you the time to consider stuff. Everyone else in the agency actually has to get stuff done and often doesn’t have the time to think. You do. So you should.
How does planning from the client’s side differ from planning inside an advertising agency?
For me, at least, it’s better because I’m thinking about more than one discipline. Not just ads. I get to think about every aspect of the brand. The downside is that a big picture gives you less opportunity to get in close and get your hands dirty with some creative work.
I’ve also seen how unrealistic and short-sighted I often was when I was working on the agency side. (Not that I’m a lot sharper now.) I think if I’d been my own planner I’d have found myself very irritating (if you see what I mean). You can’t really appreciate the complexities of a brand organization until you’ve been in one.
As you’ve probably noticed while being in Romania, there are only a few advertising agencies that do have planning departments. In this context, planners are struggling not only for legitimacy inside their agencies, but also for legitimacy outside it, in the industry. What would you say to a Romanian agency manager in order to convince him/her to adopt account planning? What would be your strongest argument?
Look at all the best communications campaigns in the world. (Measured however you like; efficacy, awards, intuition) they’ve all been heavily influenced by top-class planning.
I don’t know if that’s true, but that would be my strongest argument, because no one will ever bother checking.
And then if you needed other arguments I’d point out that every decent agency in the world has put planning right inside the business. Even the avowedly non-traditional ones like Mother. And that many other businesses are trying to hire planners as fast as they can.
You have a blog that proves to be one of the most useful ‘reading materials’ for planners. A lot of advice, inspirational movies and insightful observations can be found there (among other stuff). Does the blogging experience help you somehow in being a better planner? Do you recommend other planners to have blogs?
I’m very glad you like the blog. I think it does make me a better planner because I think good planners are able to express themselves succinctly and persuasively – and the blog’s good for practicing that. I also think planners should be interested in people, and since I’m very shy I find the blog a great way of meeting people without actually having to physically meet them. I think all planners should have blogs. As long as they all link to mine.
On the media neutral debate: is the “communications planner” the next big thing in the evolution of the planning discipline?
I thought ‘communications planner’ was the last big thing. I hope that the media neutral debate is over. I hope that planners spend their time thinking about all aspects of communications. I’m not sure it’s that important what they’re called.
Some planners say that there is no such thing as a ‘junior’ planner. A planner must have years of experience in research before working as a planner. Do you agree with this view? Why?
I’ve never worked in research. You can decide for yourselves whether that’s important or not. Being a junior planner is difficult – so much of the job is down to experience, pattern recognition and gravitas. But you don’t have to get those skills from research. You can get them from being a client or an account person or a media person or anything. Even a junior planner. I have a lot of respect for junior planners, it’s a tough job, but if you can make yourself valuable in that job then you’re going to be really good with a few years under your belt.
What is the best book about advertising you have ever read?
Fiction – Murder Must Advertise – Dorothy L. Sayers or Pattern Recognition – William Gibson
Non-fiction – Truth, Lies or Advertising – Jon Steel or Eating The Big Fish – Adam Morgan
I know that you have a lot of fans in Romania. Do you have any advice for young Romanian planners?
Stick at it. Planning is a job of the future. You’re going to be very employable – maybe not necessarily in advertising, but in one or other of the creative/communications industries. And try not to emulate the UK or US versions too much. Build a Romanian version of planning that’s different and interesting.