Let’s fuckin’ set the record straight: Account planners and digital strategists are NOT the same

I’ve been reading so many traditional planners go on about how they don’t get digital strategists and how this role makes no sense to them that it’s time to set the record straight.

I vehemently disagree with the tendency most planners have in assuming that a planner and a strategist is one and the same. The argument is not about the title – which could be merely semantics but it is about the work process and the skill-set. It is especially easy to mistake and get confused about this in the type of environment we work in (i.e advertising agency) Step outside this bubble, and you’ll see that there are many flavors to a digital strategist and there are several deep skill-sets they have honed and developed over time to be simply merged with planning.
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Just as there are several layers to brand planning, there are several layers (maybe more) to digital planning. If you ask me, digital planning sits under brand planning and not next to it because it needs to ladder up to the brand attributes/ values etc.

My biggest criticism of traditional account planning is that the planners don’t get very involved in the actual “making” of the idea. It’s called production in planner speak and the word is boring and uninspiring but in digital – that’s really where the idea gets made. And the idea continues to morph until it is beta tested. It continues to morph even as it is launched and the results come in and we tweak and make the idea better in real-time. Digital strategy is the true marriage of account planning, creative and production.

A (good) digital strategist works for the idea. With digital, you have to launch an idea that is in perfect harmony with innovation and current consumer habits/behaviors. You have to launch an idea that is technologically not too advanced and not too behind – Goldilocks! And that is not production or creative’s job alone – that is as much strategic thinking and application of tactical insights.

Also, the insights a planner brings to the table often only inform the birth of the idea or a creative direction. The insights that a digital strategist brings to the table informs the success of the idea and the actual meat and flesh of it. Sometimes the insight or “strategy” maybe tactical (will this particular user experience really invite participation and sharing?) and sometimes it is blue-sky. Point is – these insights underwrite the making of the idea and its success across the phases.

Our role will eventually become obsolete – it will mostly be absorbed by creative and a very small part of it will be absorbed by planning. But not yet. And not for the next few years. We have far too many traditional planners that simply aren’t interested in digital to wear this hat. You can’t teach someone to be an early adopter or experiment with technology or play around and deeply immerse/ engage in every new social platform or make games. Advertising needs us right now so if you still don’t get it – please STFU and let us do our jobs.

Call us whatever the fuck you want – as long as you let us work for the idea. I’ve even swept floors and washed dishes in name of creative. So there.

If you have more questions or want to hear more thoughts – please see the most popular posts (to your right). Feel free to leave a comment, unless you are going to serve up the same drivel I’ve been reading.

Let’s fuckin’ set the record straight: Account planners and digital strategists are NOT the same

12 Responses

  1. Ok, so yes, Digital Strategists and Planners are different. And yes, Digital Strategists deserve respect, etc. But I don’t know that we need to kick all Planners in the nuts either.

    I’ve held the titles Sr. Social Media Planner and Director of Digital Strategy and now I’m a Creative Culturalist. Titles don’t mean sh*t. All that matters is if you can do the job that’s asked of you. Ideally you bring a little more to the table beyond that.

    Plenty of good Planners out there. Plenty of good Digital Strategists too.

    Rick Liebling May 29, 2012 at 5:10 pm #
  2. Oh how true and about time someone said it!

    Hayden May 30, 2012 at 2:24 am #
  3. @Rick Not kicking planner’s or disrespecting what they do. Simply demanding the same respect from the ones that criticize and don’t make an effort to understand the role of digital strategy. Yes – titles mean shit. It is the process and skill-set I’m trying to bring visibility and respect to. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Jinal Shah May 30, 2012 at 6:28 am #
  4. does anyone actually care?

    advertising is already dead May 30, 2012 at 7:53 am #
  5. Yes Sebastian. People that make their living out of it and love what they do, care.

    Jinal Shah May 30, 2012 at 8:08 am #
  6. Thanks for writing this article, based on the conversation that I’ve had with digital strategist and planners, I recently came to a similar conclusion. I see the roles as brand strategist and applied strategist.

    However, I’m interested to know why you think the role of a digital strategist will become obsolete. The way I see it, you’ll always need the applied side of strategy.

    Mehdi Mollahasani May 30, 2012 at 12:54 pm #
  7. Totally respect your point of view and the issues you pose with the world of traditional account planning vs. digital strategy (although, I HATE using a “vs” in this context!) As a “traditional” strategist myself, it’s true, we are often in the “world of brand” but I have a really hard time saying it ends there. At our best (not claiming this all the time with every single one of us!), we are active participants in ideation, creation and at times even, production (not that I’d claim expertise in the latter, but made it a point to have a certain degree of fluency!) Brand strategists should work for ideas as well as anyone else on the team. Helping to shape, grow and optimize – I honestly don’t really know what else we would be doing!

    Personally (again, because it’s the only thing I’m an expert at — err, my own experiences…) I know I’d be really bummed out not to have any part in ideas coming to fruition – how do you optimize if you don’t have access to the idea as it evolves through production? I think we are all arguing for the same thing: if we default back to these waterfall or baton-passing methods of strategy/creation/production, innovation is swiftly stifled. But it certainly ain’t easy to *actually* do! Particularly in really big shops.

    I have a bit of trouble with your point that only a small part of planners will adopt the skills and expertise to be able to take on a more hands-on, tactical role. I think many will relish and thrive in the diversity of it — at least the ones I’ve known. There are fantastic young planners I’ve seen starting to rise up the ranks, who have this insatiable curiosity and aptitude for the intersection of ‘traditional brand behaviors’ and digital strategy. Generally the role of planner/strategist breeds an appetite for discovery that should help contribute to a larger proportion of strategists broadening their horizons.

    So I guess I’m just trying to say, I wouldn’t necessarily write us all off. ;) Just my humble thoughts.

    Thas Naseemuddeen May 31, 2012 at 12:04 am #
  8. @Mehdi – Thanks for the comment. I see creatives absorbing most of what we do because the chunk of the value we add is in the “make” phase an idea. And no one is as involved in the make phase of an idea as the creative.

    @Thas – Thanks for the comment and feedback. Definitely not writing brand planners away! All I’m saying is that comparing brand planners and digital strategists is like comparing apples and oranges. In an ideal world, the planner will be involved through the make of the idea but that is not always the case, in my experience.

    Jinal Shah June 1, 2012 at 11:58 am #
  9. As an outsider to such matters, I would suggest that the use of the word strategist is at the heart of all this and adds to the idea of onfluene aross skillsets.

    From a business perspective, I believe that neiother traditional nor digital planners engage in strategy. This is not mere semantics. Strategy is determined at the client level and outside agencies do work that correlates with and aids that strtaegy.

    Planners work is tactical – a term that doesn’t imply short-term but all too often people hubristically append the term strategist to their title to emphasise (from the digital side) that they think as well as do.

    Frankly, everyone in a business should to some extent be thinking strategically and what I infer from your post is that you want to emphasise your maker role. Quite right too. Calling yourselves strategists obscures that.

    John Dodds June 12, 2012 at 2:13 am #
  10. Confluence not onfluene!

    John Dodds June 12, 2012 at 2:14 am #
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