The Department: Why Not Let Planners Plan?

My first media planning experience was, in a word, terrifying. My supervisor had the nerve to expect me to write my own objectives and strategies for a media plan -- in my third week on the job, fresh out of school, on a business I didn't yet understand. And, most critically, he expected me to do all this without his assistance.

I had assumed my first media-planning project would be a collaborative one. I had imagined my boss and me forming a powerful partnership, both of us rolling up our sleeves together, me listening carefully while he taught me about the finer points of gross rating points and reach curves.

Instead, my supervisor quite succinctly told me: "We need to start this media plan with objectives and strategies. I want you to come up with them and then bring them to me." After sitting alone at my desk for far too long, utterly lost, I went and asked for guidance. My boss politely but firmly declined: "I'm more than happy to help you with it, but not until you take a first stab on your own." So I went back to my desk and crafted a document that essentially copied the prior year's version, with only the most minor changes, so I couldn't be accused of being wholly unoriginal. When my boss asked me why I was suggesting a reach goal five points higher than last year's, I stammered out something brilliant like, "Well, I didn't want to just copy it, so I took it up a little." Not exactly my finest hour.

While this episode was more than a little uncomfortable at the time, I realize now that it was a perfect way of diving into the business. (To Greg Florek, wherever you are: my sincerest gratitude for dropping me into the water with your oh-so-polite, "Please swim!") First of all, I quickly came to see how much one needs to know before putting together a media plan. I saw how important it was to have reasons for recommendations -- solid rationale that could be articulated clearly. I felt the burden of responsibility, the weight of expectation, from Day One. And I absolutely believe that I became a media planner, right then and there, because of this approach.

Ever since, I've employed a rule that my teams here at Fallon hear frequently: Planners plan. That means we give our young workers real work to do, not just the "support" stuff. We expect them not only to do the background work, but also to apply their findings to a recommendation of their own, which they can articulate and defend. We expect them to contribute materially to strategy and plan decisions. We expect them to be able to write a cogent PowerPoint deck. Most of all, we expect them, early on, to demonstrate the ability to build a "logic flow" from business objective through media strategy and on to media tactics -- in other words, a plan.

None of this seems unreasonable. The junior staff members here thrive on the inclusion and responsibility they are given. But I have to say, increasingly this approach seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Have you tried to hire a media planner lately -- say, one with a resumé boasting two to four years of experience? Get these candidates in a room, and it's soon clear that many of them have never developed a media plan. At most, they've witnessed media planning being done by others, and far too often, they've spent years effectively separated from real planning, doing nothing but competitive reports or reach-frequency runs.

Why are media leaders relegating what should be the next generation of planners to support work? I suspect it's due to an overemphasis on process versus invention, or comfort with protocol and politics relative to the difficult but rewarding work of developing young talent.

Some might claim there's a dearth of talent available these days. But based on my recruiting experiences over the past few years, there are plenty of positively whip-smart young people dying to get into media. And we need them like never before. Enthusiastic, inventive, and "media neutral," they've been raised on the Internet and iPods. These are exactly the people we need to keep us current and help protect us from recommending yesterday's media approaches. Yet if we want them to join our agencies, and certainly if we want them to stay, we have to give them mind-stretching work that goes to the heart of media planning. We must include, trust, challenge, and listen to young planners when they come up with ideas.

In short, we just have to let planners plan.

Lisa Seward is the media director at Fallon, Minneapolis. (

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