Spare some change: Positioning in Canadian politics

This essay was written for and published by APG Canada is September 2015.

Like many Canadians, I’ve often been quite disengaged and apathetic about politics. I vote and try to do so in an informed way, but usually my participation is shrouded in a layer of mild (or maybe not-so-mild) skepticism – a resigned sense that we’re going to get stuck with another collection of mediocre, uninspiring representatives. The entire process feels like an exercise in mitigating harm as opposed to picking a great candidate of whom I stand in awe or from whom I expect great things. As a result, I don’t tend to spend a lot of time following closely the electoral process or delving into the candidates’ or parties’ platforms at a granular level. But this year’s federal election campaign has felt different. I don’t profess to be an expert or even a novice enthusiast of politics, but when viewed through the lens of planning, brand building, behavioural change, or positioning, this year’s campaign has had the unique ability to capture my attention.

A CTV News poll conducted by Nanos Research in mid-July of this year (not long before the election was called) suggested that 66% of Canadians are “ready for a change in government.” Whenever this stat is cited, my mind replays immediately the scene that I imagine to have taken place in the respective parties’ war rooms and campaign strategy sessions. The short version is this: “Well, people say pretty clearly that they want change. So let’s talk about change.”

Tom Mulcair’s NDP, therefore, is “Ready for Change.” In contrast to the status quo, they promise to strengthen the middle class and families, grow the economy, and provide us with a better future. Trudeau (or, as Harper likes to call him, “Justin”) and his Liberals aren’t just ready for change; they promise Real Change. The two major parties trying to unseat Harper’s Conservatives are vying for ownership of the same territory: change. And it’s become a fight for who can be the most “changy”.

Both platforms are rooted in a brand truth (“We’re not Harper, so we’re different”) and a consumer “truth” (“We are ready for change”). But is a literal interpretation of prospective voters’ responses an accurate reflection of their true feelings and behaviours upon which the NDP and Liberals can base their entire campaigns, or might it lead these parties down the wrong path? Behavioural economics literature is rife with examples of how people say one thing (usually a logical validation of their behaviour) but act in a completely different (typically emotionally driven) way. Maybe prospective Canadian voters saying “I’m ready for change” is yet another example.

In his book, The Culture Code, Clotaire Rapaille (Rapaille 2006) claims that the culture code (the unconscious meaning we apply to any given thing) for Canada is “to keep.” This is why we “elect prime ministers who serve as guardians, who voters believe provide the best chance of keeping the Canadian culture the way it is.”

In contrast, the American Culture Code for America is “to dream,” and the code for their presidency is Moses – “a rebellious leader of his people with a strong vision and the will to get them out of trouble.” This may explain how, against all reasonable, rational thought, Donald Trump continues not just to be acknowledged or given any attention whatsoever, but to lead in the Republic polls in America.

If Canadians really do want “to keep,” then a message of change won’t resonate. Despite how they might respond to survey questions, Canadians don’t really want change – they want sameness. Comfort. Consistency. They want the security of what they’ve always known, loved, and held sacred and dear.

A “to-keep” culture code puts any incumbent at a significant advantage. Harper’s “You know me. I’m experienced. Let’s keep this strong economy,” is a comfortable space that Canadians know.  And the NDP and Liberals have played into that; in their “change” messaging, they have conceded that Harper is the reference point and acknowledged him as Canada’s status quo. But they would be in a much stronger position if they used as the reference point for Canadian culture not the current Harper era, but our pre-Harper country.

The NDP and Liberals should not make this about how they will bring change (from Harper). Instead, they should make it about how Harper has consistently brought unwanted change to the country, how he’s been taking away things (libraries, the right of speech for MPs and federal scientists, privacy and other ramifications associated with Bill C-51, and the mandatory long-form census to name a few) that make Canada what it is, and how he has failed to be a guardian of our country’s culture. For the NDP and Liberals, this should not be about being or starting change, but putting an end to all of this change, and getting us back to what Canada is really supposed to be.

Canadians don’t want a visionary to change the country. They want a guardian who will prevent anyone from taking it away. Stephen Harper has provided significant ammunition to suggest that he is, in fact, taking it away, but no one seems to have framed it that way yet. This presents a tremendous opportunity for Harper’s competitors. Rather than positioning themselves as change agents, maybe it’s time to be Canada’s anti-change agents.


CTV News/Nanos Research. 1,000 people surveyed by telephone and online, July 18 to 22, 2015, +/-3.1% 19/20. Accessed online at

C. Rapaille. 2006. The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do. Broadway Books, New York.

Where have all the planners gone?

This essay was written for and published by APG Canada in May 2015.

I was beginning to wonder if I was imagining things, overstating the number of times I heard people say they were a strategist of some kind, or perhaps stuck in a strange groundhog-day-esque loop in which I was hearing masses of people, day after day, introducing themselves with: “I’m a Strategist.”

When you search “Strategist” on LinkedIn, you’ll discover nearly 6,000 “Strategists” in Canada. That doesn’t include people with a variation of the term like “Strategic” (9,800) or “Strategy” (12,500) in their title. Presumably, there’s some overlap and a degree of double counting among the results of these three search groups, but regardless, that sure seems like a lot of people.

If there are so many Strategists, then why has this lament among heads of planning become an epidemic: “I can’t find good planners.”

To be fair, not all 6,000 Strategists are necessarily Planners; many may use the term in a different context. While some are Brand Strategists or Creative Strategists, there are also Communications Strategists, Marketing Strategists, and Marketing & Communications Strategist, as well as Tourism Strategists, Digital Strategists, Social Media Strategists, Content Strategists, Product Strategists, Connection Strategists, Online Community Strategists, Engagement Strategists, Loyalty Strategists, Web Strategists, Business Development Strategists, Chief Strategists. . . and just plain Strategists. There are also people who work in Strategic Services (I think that means Account Services), and there are junior, senior, and various other levels of almost every type of Strategist mentioned above. Some of these people, by the way, are also copywriters, writers, account directors, and any number of other things. Strategist seems to get added on to a lot of job titles.

Why does everyone want to be a Strategist? Because it sounds important. It sounds smart. It soothes our insecurities and suppresses our inferiority complexes. But just because Strategist is in your job title doesn’t mean you think strategically.  It does not mean that you’re strategic. When everyone calls themselves a Strategist, and when many of them fail to deliver on the promise that’s inherent in the term, then the term gets diluted. It becomes meaningless.

And herein lies the problem. Rather than remaining distinct and separate, Account Planners have tossed themselves into a sea of tacticians who call themselves Strategists. And we expect clients and customers to somehow intuitively separate the wheat from the chafe.

Only fifty people in Canada self identify as “Account Planners” on LinkedIn, and 32 others have “Account Planning” in their title. Many, if not most, however, work at a media company, so I am led to conclude that most of these are not Account Planners in the traditional sense, but rather Media Planners or Directors.

Why did we stop calling ourselves Account Planners? The debate around what our craft should be named began even before “Account Planner” was suggested by Tony Stead, agreed upon and approved by Stephen King and the team at JWT, and subsequently “borrowed” by Stanley Pollitt at BMP. While “Account Planner” sort of made sense and could certainly be rationalized as the right name for the craft 50 years ago, it has become arguably less relevant and more confusing as time has passed. It seems like a misnomer. I can’t think of many other descriptive job titles (e.g., a Physician Assistant, assists physicians, a Financial Advisor advises about finances, a Software Developer develops software) that don’t really describe the work except for Account Planning (i.e., what does “plan accounts” mean?). We’re in a unique situation.

I think that the short version of why we’ve stopped calling ourselves Account Planners is that we’ve become lazy. It’s easier to call ourselves something else. What we do is difficult to describe at the best of times. Putting a confusing title on it makes that task of describing or explaining even more difficult. Have you ever told your mom or dad or someone you just met at a party or anyone else not in Advertising that you are an Account Planner? How did that go for you? I assume not well. Starting with something like Brand Planner, Creative Planner, Brand Strategist, or Creative Strategist might at least make that process a tiny bit easier. And those terms sound so much more impressive and smart, which makes us feel important and good about ourselves. We’ve allowed our egos get the better of us.

The plight of our craft is multi-faceted; we face several problems and sub-problems, but, for the purposes of the more immediate discussion at hand, we have an issue that is perpetuated from two ends of the spectrum: real planners don’t call themselves Planners (even the planners at DDB and JWT – the inventors of Account Planning – don’t call themselves Account Planners), while non-planners pose as Planners. This is all on a bed of way too many tacticians and other non-Strategists irresponsibly, unabashedly, and fraudulently sticking Strategist on their business cards.

What a strange irony: We are planners. Our job is to position. To build brands.

And yet we’ve gotten stuck in a “me-too” space, and unwittingly walked away from having a brand name in favour of a generic name.

I believe it’s time to get out of the Strategist game – not the strategy game, but the Strategist game. It was mentioned earlier that just because Strategic is in your title doesn’t mean you think strategically. Conversely, you don’t need Strategist on your business card in order to be a strategic thinker.

I have heard Mark Tomblin, Chair of APG Canada, say many times that he fears we have lost our way or are in danger of losing our way. If Mark’s right, then maybe it’s time to remind ourselves of what we are and where we are trying to go.

If we are the Account Planning Group, then it seems logical that we are a group of Account Planners. So why not start by calling ourselves Account Planners again. In addition to distinguishing us – in name at least – from the mass of “Strategists” who have sprung up over the past few years, maybe it will serve as a good reminder that we should also behave as Planners, and to do what Planners do.

While the prospect of having people ask us, “What’s an Account Planner?” may be scary, what seems even scarier is not having asked the question ourselves.

We have been hiding the term Account Planner for too long. It’s time to return to using it. Commit to it. And start making it mean something again.