Planning in America: Silos, wanky titles and the accent

David Gaines

After taking a new role in the US late last year Brit David Gaines reflects on how agencies in that market struggle with cross-channel planning because of scale, and the rise of the digital natives.

Starting work in the USA has some parallels to when I first arrived in Australia, though for slightly different reasons.

Back then I’d been brought over as a planner at the soon to be defunct Lintas. When they rolled that into what was Merchants, I met for the first time Alan Roberston as we were all required to be re-interviewed. The conversation was particularly short:

“So what do you do at Lintas?” he said.

“I’m Strategic Planning Director on Unilever”, I replied.

“We don’t do strategy son, you’re redundant.”

The nice people at Lintas then paid me a few grand to leave the building and I blew the lot on making my motorbike go faster. But then turned it into unrecognizable scrap two weeks later when we parted company at a sizeable thee figure kmh number.

Now that I know Alan a little, I know he didn’t mean Merchants didn’t do planning at all.

He just thought I had a wanky title and an accent.

Starting here in the USA in a planning role has resulted less in near death experiences but has raised interesting issues around what it is I am here for given planning is in my title. Not because planning hasn’t been heard of but the number of people here who genuinely create communications strategies are both thin on the ground and usually foreign.

Though it is only a hypothesis, I think this is because of the way careers in media in the US evolve and their view of channels per se. The sheer size and scale of a buying role in the USA is a factor; you aren’t just a TV buyer here, you can be a broadcast buyer or a cable buyer and then even just across one network.

The size of the budgets that have to be managed make the job so vast that it really does require more focus and diligence than in a smaller market. You can be in your late 40’s or 50’s and be a very well respected in investment without necessarily being the boss, or having bought any other media type.

This same focus applies to a lot of siloed agency areas. I have met some of the best specialists in digital, programmatic and analytics because the size and time of the projects they are involved really gives them the space to become great at what they do.

But the flip side to this is that very few people progress throughout their career, developing a horizontal perspective on how channels interlink and work as a campaign.

Being a good planner really requires you to have enough knowledge of everything from brands to data and a bit of commercial acumen so that you understand how it all glues together.

There is nothing that exposes a planner more than when their answer to any question about a communications strategy starts with ‘I’ll need to bring in our [fill with TV/digital/implementation/data etc.] guy to answer that one’.

If they do this all the time, they still have stuff to learn or are possibly just good at powerpoint, presentation and admin.

Unsurprisingly the younger guys I have met who seem to immediately leap into the whole business of communications planning are often from digital backgrounds.

They are already used to developing ideas and approaches that need to be more fluid because they live in a digital world.

But it’s a great place to be right now as it will likely evolve at a rapid pace. The ability to really embrace automation is so much more tangible. The data piece at the front end and the programmatic piece at the back are in an exciting place. But that leaves the thinking, insight and direction piece in the middle so we are going to have to develop smart horizontal planning minds to be valuable.

Other new firsts in the USA have involved exposure to online dating. This has resulted in an inadvertent date to an S&M club, setting a chicks pleather pants on fire with her cigarette and having a rather awkward proposition for a foursome from a drunkencouple 2 hours into having meeting a girl.

But it has all been entertaining albeit very hard work. I’d recommend it.

David Gaines is chief planning officer for Maxus North America, and was previously CEO of Maxus Australia and managing partner of Edentify.


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