Wednesday 31 March 2021

Words of planning wisdom from Iona Macgregor

AdSchool’s Advanced Strategic Planning course gets underway in Sydney on 22 April. We were lucky enough to get some time with Iona Macgregor, Strategy Partner at Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney, who is this year’s course facilitator and who generously shared some of her planning wisdom with us ahead of the course commencement. 

What was it about strategy/planning that drew you to it as a career?

I fell in love with the atmosphere of the first agency I set foot in. However, my understanding of ‘who did what’ was fairly thin. Planning just seemed like the most likely department for a bookish philosophy grad. Junior planners were practically non-existent at that time, so I actually ended up in working in new business. 

That turned out to be a fantastic crash-course in planning: huge stakes, high exposure to leadership, high rewards for initiative and hard work, even more accelerated timelines than usual. 

The ‘real planners’ I worked with were brilliant and invoked a Yoda-like respect from everyone in the agency. They were also incredibly generous with their wisdom, patiently passing on some of their skills whenever I wasn’t scuttling around compiling mood-boards and formatting PowerPoint. These were the people I wanted to grow up to resemble. 

It took me a further 5 years to earn the words ‘strategy’ and ‘planning’ in my job title though.

If you had to list three essential skills for a good planner to become a great planner what would they be?

  1. Thrifty with words. 
    Just keep rewriting. Ruthlessly hunt down and exterminate all those repetitions.  It’s difficult when you love words, but swirliness just muddies the thinking.
  1. Unreasonably enthusiastic.
    It might not be cool to show that you care deeply about something mundane or trivial, but that’s your job. Whether you’re quiet or voluble, you need to be able to get excited about the problems with which you’re faced.
  1. Be a magpie for ideas. 
    All day long, whoever you talk to, whatever you read or listen to, look out for little insights, random observations, nice sentences, odd facts and interesting words.  Hoard these away, in your brain or a notebook if you’re organised. It’ll all come in useful someday.

How do you see the planning discipline having evolved over the tumultuous year our industry has just experienced?

Last year highlighted the difference between wartime planning and peacetime planning. Wartime planners were at their best in 2020. They’re the masters of finding fast, effective solutions to unexpected challenges. Perhaps this year we’ll see a renewed demand for peacetime planning: building deep, responsible brands with an eye on long to very-long term growth in a more interdependent world.  

Who do you most get inspired by either from within or outside our industry (or both?)

Primarily the colleagues I speak to every day. I alternate between being a solitary thinker and needing a sparring partner. Once I find a thinking-buddy I can get a bit clingy. Bringing all our agencies under one roof in our new office space has led to many more serendipitous, interesting conversations, so it’s good to be easing back into a more regular ‘at work’ presence.

More broadly, while my movie culture is appalling, I’m a sucker for stories and enjoy a silly amount of TV series across all the streaming platforms. There has been so much outstanding writing over the past few years that my expectations are now ridiculously high. And yet there’s always something new to get hooked on. I’ve a penchant for dystopian present-future scenarios like ‘Years and Years’ or ‘War of the Worlds’.   Mind blowing fiction is a great source of inspiration for bold, distinctive strategy.

Do you have any favourite books or podcasts that you’d recommend to up and coming planners?

Mostly podcasts these days:

On Strategy showcase – Hour long interviews with some of the best planners in the world about some of the most famous work in the world from the past year or so. So useful that it feels like cheating.

The Knowledge Project – Wonderful in-depth conversations with experts from a vast range of academic disciplines sharing their insights and mental models. Big picture thinking that makes you feel smart on the inside.

The Allusionist – A short-form podcast about language, the origin of words, their place in culture, politics, social history. A delightful format for everyday inspiration.

What are the key learnings you’re hoping that Advanced Strategic Planning course participants will take away with them?

An arsenal of frameworks, tools, vocabulary and references. It’s an incredibly rich and varied course. I’m sure we will all come away with a bolstered strategic tool kit and the confidence to play with it.  

That strategy is a creative act, it’s not just the warm-up. Planning is not nearly as linear and deductive as many assume. There’s always a bit of a sideways leap at some point. Hopefully we’ll be able to engage in some good debate about alternative ways-in to a single problem. 

Finding your personal planning style. Someone once told me that there are thoroughbred planners, who’ve worked their way up the ranks of the department, and there are mongrels. We need both. What matters is being able to articulate strategy with your own voice.

AdSchool Advanced Strategic Planning commences in Sydney on 22 April. Limited places are still available: more information and bookings here.

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