How to Become a Planner – Part II
September 8, 2011 8 Comments
A few months back I wrote a post about how I became a planner. I included a post from Andrew Hovell with his thoughts on becoming a planner. And here’s part two. In which my new manager describes the questions that he asks when he interviews planners. It’s a few years old, but still very relevant.
Open Book Test For Planners: The interview questions I ask and why.
A lot has changed in the whole job-hunting game in the past year or two but one aspect that seems surprisingly durable is the interview. Despite many challenges and complaints about how inefficient and inaccurate the interview is as an evaluative tool, we still keep doing it. I’ve thought about using other techniques to evaluate candidates and sometimes incorporate them, but I guess I’m just as prone to inertia as everyone else. What I’ve tried to do, however, is develop a set of questions to reveal the kind of qualities I’m looking for.
There are a lot of different kinds of planners and departments out there, but judging by my conversations with other directors, most of us are looking for similar traits from the candidates we interview. Qualities like curiosity, independence, resourcefulness and confidence. So while we undoubtedly all ask different questions, we probably are trying to find similar kinds of people.
The relatively good news for anyone in the planning/strategy field is that the number of unanswered questions about consumer behavior right now has kept the demand for planners comparatively strong. So while we aren’t hiring at Amalgamated right now, I’m hearing about a lot of opportunities out there. Hope this list of questions, the rationale for why I ask them, and what I like to hear help some of you land the job you want.
1) Tell me something—really anything from your work or life experience–you know about the world that I don’t and why it’s interesting or important?
What I’m looking for in the answer: Diversity of interests and ability to draw insights from your own experiences: I already know what I think and frankly I’m bored with it. I don’t want someone who is going to try and guess what I’m thinking or simply reproduce the platitudes of the industry. I want fresh approaches to old problems, inspired by your unique experiences.
In fact, I’m less interested in particular experiences than I am in what you’ve learned from the experiences you’ve had. If I have a telecom brand I need to staff and you happen to have telecom experience that’s great, but it won’t be great if you don’t know anything about telecoms that I—having never worked on one—don’t know. I never hire planners for just one account anyway. I’d be wary of a job that put too much value-valued your category experience. What happens if that account goes away?
What I’m not looking for: Some observation that you read on Russell Davies blog or heard in Seth Godin’s latest TED talk. I like my job too, but I’d prefer it if you felt passionate about something other than brands.
My most memorable answer: One young man told me with a totally straight face that he had an eye for hot guys. When I asked him how that was going to help the agency, he described in great detail “how gay” various ads were based on a number of insightful observations about cultural codes and signifiers. He demonstrated—provocatively—how his unique insights into consumer culture drawn from his very personal perspective could potentially inspire and shape impactful advertising.
2) You’ve been working in the profession for X number of years. What’s broken with it and how would you fix it?
What I’m looking for in the answer: Proactive engagement with problems and restless desire find a better way. No company or process is perfect. And in my experience, you don’t have to work very long at any company before you start to notice some, well, issues. I want people who are willing to take on challenges to make them better rather than simply complain about it or—almost as bad–adapt to the inefficiency.
What I’m not looking for: A generic response about how we need to “listen” to the consumer more. Please, that’s a minimal requirement. Tell me how you’d do it better. You don’t have to have your whole master plan worked out. One insightful observation is worth a boatload of generic remarks about trend spotting.
My most memorable answer: A brilliant woman who had worked in kids’ marketing noticed that must of us in the agency—in our 20’s, 30’s and 40’s—didn’t really know what kids thought was funny when they were 6 or 7 or 8. But not because we were dumb. On the contrary. After watching kids in focus groups respond to ads, she’d begun to suspect that much of our work was too clever or ironic for kids to understand. They weren’t getting it or only getting a part of it. She was onto something and after she came on board, she championed and led a major proprietary study on kids humor.
3) I quit. Tomorrow the department belongs to you. What’s the first thing you do?
What I’m looking for in the answer: Independent thinking. Ambition. A bias toward action. A desire to put your own vision into practice. While I might be a particularly hands-off manager (my former staffers can weigh in here and contradict me), I think most planners have a lot independence when it comes to designing research, writing briefs, developing strategies. And these days, they need to be more adventurous than ever exploring new tools and metrics the like of which we’ve never seen before. For all these reasons, I want and need someone with the ability, desire and confidence to act independently.
What I’m not looking for: I should be forthright and admit that I have a bias against the “visionary” trend-spotting side of the profession. I already read The New York Times. I’m on Twitter. Nothing is easier than making bold statements about “the future,” especially when you are never going to be accountable for your claims. The job in my departments is not to “spot” trends but to figure out how to apply them for brand and business growth. For me, planning and strategy (at least in an agency) is a pragmatic discipline not a theoretical one.
But this is a point on which reasonable people can disagree. There are certainly planners, pundits and strategic marketing consultants that do quite well by charming clients with high-flying theories and never once trouble with the details. If you have the skills for that, you are in for a great life. I can’t offer you much except my deep envy.
My memorable answer: A few years ago, a very hard-working young candidate had researched one of our travel clients and noticed that they hadn’t taken advantage of an easy way to link to consumer experiences expressed on other travel-related sites and forums. He suggested how the company could use this platform to drive traffic to the website and build credibility. He’d even researched examples from other brands to address how we might respond when the client inevitably raised questions about negative experiences harming their relationship with their partners. Not just an insight about new media (which was very new then) but a recognition that it would require some additional evidence to convince the client to see the value of the innovation.
4) We all make mistakes. Tell me about a mistake you made in research, strategy, or managing relationships with creatives or clients, and what you learned from it?
What I’m looking for in the answer: Less some idea of “honesty” so much as mark of professional standars. A sign that the candidate is actively examining their own work and looking for way to improve it.
What I’m not looking for: Probably obvious, but nothing is more disheartening than some bogus flaw like “I work too hard” or “I took on too much responsibility” unless you have a really fabulous solution to this problem.
Most memorable answer: One young women acknowledged she’d interpreted the research too literally, letting a quantitative score on some test get in the way of a brilliant creative solution. She now always makes sure she balances the safe/validated results with other off-strategy but potentially paradigm shifting finds.
I loved this answer because it acknowledged the dual role of the planning function. It’s true that we often apply consumer research and hedge risk. But our job finally, is to make the creative work (more broadly defined as anything from ads to applications) better: more insightful, more impactful, more compelling.
We should never forget that we work in a creative business. Helping inspire, develop and sell a creative product is one of the things that makes our job crazy and unpredictable, but it’s also what makes it so fun. If you don’t like challenges to your data set, you might be better suited for another kind of market research gig. But if you want to work at an agency or any marketing firm that makes creative products, you should be open to the possibility that something magical might happen, unrelated to your research or analysis or brief. For me, having my brief obliterated by a brilliant creative solution is one of the most fun parts of the job. I just hope that my data helped inspired the creative to prove me wrong.
My point here is not for you memorize the best answers I cited, but to help you prepare for your next interview by taking stock of what makes you different. How can you prove that you think independently? When have you demonstrated keen analytical and creative instincts? Having this information at the ready can make all the difference.
I never had any questions that interesting on any of my interviews. Most people don’t go there. They stick with the tried and true, “tell me about a time you…” An SVP of planning that I once worked for was very fond of asking people to tell him what about themselves was interesting. I’ve tried asking people this question in interviews but always feel weird about it. It’s so vague. But the truth is, if you get past the recruiters you can probably do the job. What I want to know is can you work with me? Or rather, can I work with you? Will I want to?
And if you are questioning the wisdom of blogging about one’s boss, consider this a pre-emptive strike for the blog post that he is planning to write about me, where he opines about the hilarity of having a Gen-Y staffer.