In February this year, The Communications Council announced that Kate Smither (Owner – The Tall Planner and former Chief Strategy Integration Officer at Publicis Communications) and Ben Hourahine (Partner / Strategy Partner at AnalogFolk) had been appointed co-Chairs of TCC’s Account Planning Group (APG). We caught up with Kate to get her insights into account planning and to find out some of her aims for the APG
TCC: What was it about planning that attracted you as a career – as opposed to other advertising disciplines?
Kate: When I was a copywriter, my boss at the time told me I cared more about whether the brief was right than about winning awards. He was right and he encouraged me to pursue planning. At the time it wasn’t really a discipline in Aussie advertising, so I came to it by way of a law degree, a year of painting, a stint in account service and AWARD School, all the time writing future trends pieces and working in retail. For me, planning was the part of advertising that came alive from all the different experiences I was having. It was where I felt most naturally at home. For me strategic planning meant problem-solving in a way that was both literal and lateral. It was creative thinking and cultural understanding all at once. Planning wanted me to be curious and kept me on my toes.
TCC: What would you say have been the biggest challenges of your career to date, and what would you rank as your best successes?
Kate: My biggest successes are also the biggest challenges because nothing comes easily, and success isn’t without a lot of struggles and challenges behind the scenes. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of success in my career so far, partly because I have worked with brilliant clients and talented agency folks. But there will always be two big moments for me, the “Burst” campaign for Schweppes and Dove “Real Beauty Sketches”. Both were challenges and both were successes. Both also taught me a lot about what it takes to overcome a challenge and enjoy a success. Schweppes taught me that success was a long game and that ideas need to be protected. It also honed my instincts, taught me to trust the strategy that lead to the results and to defend the work.
In the case of Dove, it gave me the challenges of global cultures to understand and it pushed me to find the common not the different. Dove made me really focus on the power of insights to connect and to motivate. In that sense, Dove was both a challenge and a success sin every moment and it was a privilege to work on. Every day on Dove global, the stakes were high. “Real beauty Sketches” was everything I love in advertising, a thought provoking piece of work and a brand brave enough to take a stand. To be port of that with the Unilever and Ogilvy teams globally was one I will never forget and will always be proud of.
TCC: As one of the incoming co-Chairs of the APG, are there any immediate priorities you’re keen to address for the group?
Kate: Ben and I share a common ambition to really invigorate the APG. To take the greatness of it and build something that invests in Australia’s future planners. Planning wasn’t born here, it’s a discipline from the US and the UK, so Australia tends to lose a lot of young planners to other markets. Ben and I want to leave genuine legacy of strategic thinking, education programmes and community, that grows thinking in all disciplines. When the APG came to Australia it was a big deal, it was a globally established community of strategists that, all of a sudden, Australia was part of . Getting back the sense of belonging to a global community with access to resources and thinking from all corners of the globe is a big ambition. As a group, the APG should feel like planners are connected to each other, inspired by the industry and learning all the time.
TCC: Are there any specific goals you’d like to see the APG aim for over the next year, and over the next five years?
Kate: There are a couple of key focuses and goals. Commitment to young planners coming through the industry is one – bringing them together, letting them feel they have access to senior people to talk to and learn from. Launching a new educational stream modelled on the very successful AWARD School is another. With the aim of bringing in other industries from Google to consultancies the objective would be to broaden exposure to ideas for planners and it would complement and build on the work done in AdSchool. We’re also in talks now about how we can better connect into the APG UK and create some shared resources, content and learning modules.
TCC: How has the strategic planning discipline changed since you started your career?
Kate: Planning has exploded as a discipline since I started out. Planners and strategists were suddenly in every agency and in every discipline. When talking about a brand project you could be sitting around a table with seven other planners, each of whom would have a different insight and a different articulation of what problem they were solving. It became a bit fractured and as more and more channels and solutions sprang up, planning did the same thing. It lost its single mindedness. It seems to be swinging back now but the discipline of planning is now more open, it is more collaborative, which is great. I never really got the “isolated thinking” model of planning!
TCC: And how do you see it evolving over the next few years?
Kate: Planning seems to be going back to its core. The power of insight and uncovering the truth of the problem is becoming more important than ever. As every business, every brand, every agency and every client has more information than ever before, the difference and the competitive edge will not just come from having more data. It will come from taking that information and uncovering a motivating insight. The other thing planning will start to do is return it is objectivity. There needs to be a clear difference between the different disciplines in the process: the marketing team the account team, creatives and planners have been blurred across disciplines. In truth, planning probably doesn’t really live in one agency. The strategy is owned by the brand and therefore by the client.
TCC: How well – or otherwise – do you think clients understand both the planning discipline itself and the value and importance of planning to them and their brands?
Kate: As with anything, some clients really understand the importance of planning and other clients less so, seeing it as yet another cost centre and believing agencies can very easily reduce costs by removing planning resource. That’s why Australian departments typically run pretty lean with senior experienced planners doing what juniors used to do simply because the juniors aren’t there. When I ran my first department over a decade ago the CFO told me something that always stayed with me: planning should be seen as a cost to the business – a cost that creates value.
TCC: Do you think there are innate qualities an outstanding planner needs to possess, and what in your view are the primary skills required to do justice to the role?
Kate: You can study planning, read all the books and all the theories and you should, but that won’t necessarily make you a great planner. There is something else at play, the ability to be curious and to connect things to each other than don’t seem obvious. I always look for people with an interesting point of view. Who don’t need to be the smartest people in the room but who know how to take a wider view on the world and on the challenge in front of them. I think humility, curiosity and a desire to keep learning are the keys to a great planner
TCC: What advice would you give to anyone just getting into the industry who thinks planning is the discipline they want to pursue?
Kate: Talk to everyone. Try and understand everything. Put your hand up for anything. Stay curious, stay humble and be brave.