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.