Have top planners lost faith in the UK?

With an exodus of talent under way, can UK agencies still attract the best planners, John Tylee asks.

As it heads into its mid-forties, agency planning, that remarkable and precocious child jointly fathered by Stephen King and Stanley Pollitt, is fretting about its future.

Not that anybody believes it doesn't have one. Quite the contrary. Amid the explosion of social media and mobile technology, planners' insights in helping brands navigate an increasingly complex media landscape have never been more important.

But as a result, agencies find themselves with big holes to fill when their top planners leave. DDB UK is facing just such a situation following the resignation of its planning chief, Sarah Watson, to become the chief strategy officer at Bartle Bogle Hegarty in New York. That's had a knock-on effect at Publicis Group UK because Tom Morton, the chief strategy officer, who is also Watson's husband, is moving with her.

Meanwhile, Grey must begin hunting for a replacement for Neil Hourston, who is quitting as its chief strategy officer for EMEA.

It's fair to say the dearth of planning directors-in-waiting is partly a legacy of agencies' failure to invest in talent in the recession-ravaged years of the past decade. Tyro planners, in particular, weren't trained, mainly because agencies couldn't justify their value to clients.

What's more, UK planners are no longer restricted to working in and around Soho - or to remaining in a purely planning role.

"Options for top planners range from doing a start-up to working abroad," Russ Lidstone, a one-time planning chief, now the chief executive of Euro RSCG London, says. "Or they can take a general management role, as I've done."

US agencies, particularly those on the West Coast, have always attracted the best British planning talent. Now their allure is being matched by other shops in new markets in the Asia-Pacific region.

Whether or not that's a good thing is debatable. Laurence Green, the former Fallon partner and 101 founder, points out that the UK has always been a net exporter of planning talent, which attests to the health of the discipline.

However, David Hackworthy, the Australia-born strategy partner at The Red Brick Road, suggests the exodus is partly because the UK agencies are no longer the benchmark for creative excellence. To compound the problem, planners are finding that the demands on them are now dramatically different. "Planning skillsets have changed as data and analytics have grown in importance," Lee Daley, the chief strategy officer at McCann Worldwide, says.

Meanwhile, Nick Grime, a partner at the headhunter LizH, argues that changing client needs are forcing planners to become ideas catalysts. "The new generation of planners is having to collaborate much more closely with creatives," he points out.

And Charlie Snow, the chief strategy officer at DLKW Lowe, admits: "It's a challenging time for planners. They are being taken out of their comfort zones and being forced to get a grip on things that are new to them, and for which there are no guidelines."

Certainly, there's a growing belief that the day of the all-round planner is over. "Today, you need different planners with different skills," Hackworthy claims. "Traditionally, planning directors have always tried to find people who can do everything."

What's beyond question is that agencies will have to trawl further beyond their usual confines if the planning skills gap is to be bridged.

Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com


"There's always been a steady stream of top planners heading overseas for lifestyle or financial reasons. Planners are curious types, so it's natural that in today's world they could end up anywhere.

"On a more cynical note, the days when London creative agencies were the be-all and end-all of our industry seem over. Other cultures 'court the future' more aggressively. So why not head to where it's 72 degrees and sunny - and where you might get a gong as well as a tan?

"Perhaps the answer is that the UK should be opening its doors to more planning talent from other countries, rather than assuming British born and bred is the best model."


"The best planners are no longer the bookish academics of the past, they're entrepreneurial strategists who want to apply creativity to every aspect of a business.

"The real issue is not the quality of planners, but the ability of UK agencies to deliver against modern, entrepreneurial thinking.

"A good planning brain no longer wants to be locked up in a narrow, one-dimensional agency culture.

"The best clients are demanding creative strategies, not just well-crafted campaigns, from their agencies. Genuine business-changing thinking has never been more in demand, and planners with the ability to do that are highly sought after."


"In part, agencies are paying for not investing in planning talent ten years ago. It was an easy cut to make because junior planners take a lot of developing before they start adding value.

"Agencies that have clung to traditional planning disciplines for too long often try to change things by making the digital guy the planning director. But they find they can't graft a digital culture on to an old planning one.

"So it's not that planning is in crisis, it's just that the industry is trying to work out what it should look like going forward."


"There are two issues. One is economic. Good planners can make good money with no agency infrastructure around them.

"Another may be that planning is becoming ever bigger and broader in its possible applications. What's more, planners are always more attuned to things such as work-life balance.

"The structure of agency remuneration may not help - whereby planners are expected to be 90 per cent billable. Hence they may be assigned to only one or two clients. Good agencies and agency groups are alert to this. And it isn't new. One solution is for agencies to broaden their remit with clients, so that planning skills can be sold more widely."

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