For the love of planning

Following his transition from CEO of PR agency One Green Bean to DDB Sydney, Carl Ratcliff explains why he chose to return to the planning department.

As long as I’ve been a planner – and it’s been a while – there’s a nasty little rumour that planners don’t make great CEOs.

Around eight years ago, I thought I’d poke that legend and see if it was true by offering myself into the role of MD, then CEO across Melbourne and Sydney agency-land.

Without wishing to sound trite, my world changed overnight as I shifted from a strategy role to an agency lead role. I quickly realised that while an entire agency team might be accountable, it’s the leader who’s culpable. Always. You share the glory, naturally, but you take on every complaint, concern and whine. Everyone’s problems become your own. And that’s ok, you reason, because you want to do the right thing and air grievances, move forward and get on with the task of doing good by your people, and making great work.

But it’s not that simple.

There’s the P&L for starters. A blunt beast. But a strict measure of commercial performance.

And then there’s the volatility of Sydney, especially. It’s a transient, challenging market. I’d argue one of the hardest in the world given the extent of supply, the extent to which demand has its head turned often and the value we put on saving face, versus saying no.

An old colleague said to me, owning the P&L is a thankless task. When it hums your boss expects it to, when it doesn’t, you’re quickly reprimanded. And chasing revenue becomes your operating principle, fast.

Survival mode takes over. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – survival mode produces immensely resourceful moments in a team.

The longer I was responsible, however, the more I saw how bloody hard a job it was, is, and will be. Take it from me that any CEO or MD in our domain has the capacity to wake up in the night with palpitations – no matter how alpha they appear.

With this knowledge, I look back with immense respect at the all the bosses I have had. And admire their patience, resilience and relentless optimism.

As a CEO, you have to play the long game and invest in potential. Yet, the P&L is a short game. Or an annual one at least.

This said, when I was leading agencies, I was always planning too and kept my hand in strategy. In part because I had to, but more critically, because I wanted to.

I never lost the habit, because it’s one that’s fulfilling and thrilling.

If that sounds a little over the top, let me explain where the fulfilment comes from.

As a CEO, you’re meant to land and nail a vision for your agency. But, as a CSO, you help to do so for multiple businesses, including your own. Strategy becomes your north star focus. And, while good strategy is a combination of vision and operation – or inspiration and pragmatism, as Richard Rumelt argues – great planning derives from pushing on originality. For probing into where and why tension emerges. And the art of framing said tension in the form of provocation.

And then of course there is the quest for proof. Is the communication meeting its objective? On what basis? Can you highlight the extent of creativity’s commercial effect? Can you isolate the contribution of the campaign you have helped conceive? Is there a net profit return?

Then there’s the shots across the bow. A recent client suggested that Australian planning is no good; that it pales in comparison to its British or American counterparts.

I disagree.

Australia is unique. Its (lack of) population density, its addiction to retail, its marketing obsession with persuasion over salience (in spite of our very own Byron Sharp) yet its ability to pack a punch creatively (beyond marketing) elicit an extraordinary fulcrum. 98% of Australians believe in the imperative of arts and humanities. A recent survey put Australia at the top of the global creative economy. A conservative marketing mindset collides into creative flair and entrepreneurialism. You can feel the frisson.

And that means if you can succeed and build original, effective work here, you can do so anywhere.

Reverting back to planning, I see that the old debates around research, briefing and evaluation remain. But I sense a fresh aperture in respect of collusion. Particularly inside the agency house. There’s less alpha. More beta. More listening. More exposure to ideas, earlier in their gestation. More of a shared ambition. And just as much excitement when good ideas flow and get up then out into culture.

With my enthusiasm set out, let’s revert back to my opening paragraph – do planners make bad CEOs?

To be honest, I think bad CEOs come from a raft of places, just as much as good ones. And I’ll let others decide if I was or wasn’t.

What I do know, and on the basis of my own experience now, is that ex CEOs make hungry planners and hunger is one of the essential elements of any team.

It’s said that the essence of strategy is about setting limits on what you want to accomplish. I say, we need to break such essence in order to deliver a disproportionate emotional advantage for our clients, for our agencies and even for planning as a discipline.

Without limits, we are better at what we do. We are fresher, bolder, more ambitious. Our talent shines more brightly. Talent that is more able, paraphrasing Mr Bernbach, to generate magic that endures.

And making magic is precisely why I came home to planning.

Carl Ratcliff is DDB Sydney’s chief strategy officer.


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