Planning for the Best: Letting Go on a Whiteboard with Ed Henderson

With 15 years of experience in advertising agencies in London, Manchester and Belfast, Ed provides clear strategic direction for global brands. His client list includes; Diageo, eBay, Translink, Stena Line, Tourism Northern Ireland and Nissan.

As Director of Planning at Ardmore, he works with clients to define business goals, metrics for success and deliver impactful strategy, always based on insight.

LBB> According to you, what is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there a?

Ed> There’s a lot of hair-splitting and fine nuances in the industry about what a strategist and planner is. In my experience, titles are something that tends to muddy things up more than necessary. It is already a position which, unlike the creative director or the media manager, always calls for a necessarily vague definition at the start of any new client meeting.

But ultimately, however defined, both roles are consultants who work closely with brands to find the line best suited for success.

LBB> And according to you, which description corresponds best to your way of working?

Ed> Since I don’t really see a big clear distinction, how about this description for a suggested alternative?

It’s our job to simplify and translate a brand’s growth goals so that more creative minds than mine can find a solution.

It’s my repeated way of sidestepping the fuzzy definition of new client meetings. Let the customers know I’m the first to get involved before we can move on to more fun stuff!

LBB> We are used to hearing about the best creative advertising campaigns, but what is your favorite historical campaign from a strategic point of view? The one you think demonstrates a great strategy?

Ed> Probably the original work of Hovis “Boy on the bike” by Ridley Scott (1973) – Obviously the advertisement is a wonderful work that demands your attention. It’s a great reminder that we’re in the business of memorization. But beyond the creative, the category at the time was pushed to modernize and innovate. They could have easily followed the wave, but Hovis dug their heels and went the other way – exploring their brand’s history and heritage.

For me, this ad reflects the fact that ultimately strategy is a sacrifice – we are the ones who make the first and arguably most important decision in any campaign. Based on all the information, data, background music, category dynamics and everything else, that’s the direction we’re going to take. It takes confidence, clarity and, above all, the ability to present a simple and convincing argument for why this decision makes sense.

LBB> When turning a business brief into something that can inform an inspiring creative campaign, do you find the most useful resource to tap into?

Ed> I’m not even kidding when I say, a whiteboard – It’s a cliché, but I find the best way to structure my thinking is to let loose on a whiteboard. This is an opportunity for the planner to be sporadic and creative. This is also where you feel you can and should be wrong.

LBB> What part of your job/strategic process do you enjoy the most?

Ed> I like the start of a project when there’s hardly anything to do beyond a business goal. The evidence-building process that will ultimately inform the creative direction we’re going to take. It means digging deep into sources for answers. Research papers, first-party qualitative groups and quantitative surveys, social conversation are just some of the places where you need to invest time and energy to strike the gold.

The beginning always seems a bit daunting, but as time goes by and the whiteboard fills in, you start to see a clearer picture of where things need to go.

LBB> What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself returning to again and again? Why are they so useful?

Ed> There are a lot of complex modeling out there, so any framework that simplifies what we’re doing will always get my vote. I find myself almost daily returning to PR Smith’s SOSTAC model. Not necessarily from the start every time, but moving on at specific times to figure out what I need to focus on. It’s like a strategic compass – I’d be lost without it.

The value is in being able to really focus and nail each step before moving on to the next. Take the lens setting. Do I have a forensic understanding of the purposes of this mark? Not only what is driving growth for them, but also the supporting advertising objective and how will it contribute to that? This forces the right conversations with clients and the right responses so the agency gets the best job.

Works great for short-term campaign planning as well as long-term business and brand growth.

LBB> What kind of creatives do you like to work with? As a strategist, what do you want them to do with the information you give them?

Ed> In terms of ideal skills, I like working with creatives who can imagine without being influenced by advertising. Those who can forget that this idea will probably have to appear on TV, billboards and social media and just focus on the best way to solve the problem. It’s such a skill to master and something that keeps ideas raw, unformed and bright.

LBB> There is a negative stereotype that strategy is used to validate creative ideas, rather than as a resource to inform them and ensure they are effective. How do you make sure the agency is doing it the right way?

Ed> If you’ve ever worked with me, you’ll know that I love using analogies to ground things. I think of this challenge as a band in a recording studio. The creatives are in the booth with the instruments, making the album and the planners are on the other side, sitting behind the mixing desk. We can adjust faders and dials to sustain and guide but ultimately we have to trust the artists to write and play the songs.

I think mastering this dynamic comes down to the relationship between planning and creating. It’s so crucial to work on it because I think it leads to brilliant work. Too friendly and you run the risk of agreeing that a just OK idea is great. For tense, and you can’t agree on anything! There is a biting point of mutual respect where the shine occurs.

LBB> What have you found to be the most important consideration in recruiting and developing strategic talent?

Ed> Be influenced by what you love outside of work and apply it in your work. While there are always people in the industry talking about shiny new changes, there is ultimately a limit to the theory you can learn from advertising.

Beyond that, it’s about making a personal statement as a planner or creative. For that, you have to be influenced by your passions. Music, cinema, books, sport, fashion. Let them impress you and find a way to incorporate it into your profession.

It’s one of the great luxuries of working in a creative industry and something that I think needs to be instilled in any new talent that comes along.

LBB> In recent years, it seems that efficiency awards have gained more prestige and agencies are paying more attention to them. How do you think this has impacted the way strategists work and how they are perceived?

Ed> Naturally, as efficiency becomes more important in the industry, that means more and more agencies are taking ownership of the business impact of advertising. With this, planners take on the role of consultant and the positive behaviors and guidance that flow from it.

So you see more and more planners guiding brands towards a long-term vision. Less disposable creativity and more sustainable ideas. Fewer mobile first formats and more attention, wide-beam channels.

We are becoming more and more responsible for advertising because we know that it is the rules that lead to efficiency and rewards.

LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?

Ed> Very few. Perhaps obvious, but considering what planning can bring as immaterial, it can therefore sometimes be underestimated. We don’t give you a media plan, but we help inform it. We do not reveal creation, but we help to guide it.

It’s certainly a selfish frustration, but I think we will forever be the unsung heroes of the advertising industry!

LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?

Ed> Start somewhere else first, then grow in that area but bring your previous skills with you. I am a strong proponent of bringing adjacent experience into the discipline. I did the obvious thing and went straight from account management to planning. I find that the best people always come first from a seemingly unrelated background.

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