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How to build an effective planning team

Opinion, 10 July 2017

This commentary appears in WARC’s new ‘Future of Strategy’ report, based on a global survey of senior agency planners. The report covers the current state of the strategic discipline, future opportunities and challenges, and guidance on building the planning team of the future.

Building teams is something I’ve been passionate about since the beginning of my career, because at the beginning of my career, I was alone.

I started planning so long ago that I was one of a team of three research people who turned into planners. Then, there were only two of us by the next week. Then it was just me.

And I hated it. Because a great planning team depends on a meshing and merging of different perspectives, backgrounds and expertise. Not just one person.

In those days, I would go out and find a team. It didn’t matter who they were: sometimes it was from account management, sometimes it was creatives, sometimes it was the client. It didn’t matter. The point was not to be alone, and to benefit from other inputs. This thought has driven my entire career.

Today, I lead the strategy teams at McCann Worldgroup: a company with 24,000 people globally.

When I started, I was talking with a man who is now a dear friend of mine: Rob Doubal, one of the creative leaders in our London office. I asked him: how do we reach out to people in the company, and build teams that think about creativity in a fresh way?

He said: “I have this really weird theory. I put a bunch of ingredients together, and if I get really lucky… it’s an atomic soup.” In other words, it’s explosive!

It's tough to make an atomic soup. Because of P&Ls. Because we’re stuck in our silos. Because of where we get the funding from. Even so, I took that notion of Rob’s, and I’ve been running all over the world, trying to make as many soups as I possibly can.

As you start on any client challenge, we start with the problem, which is based on a human need. And that allows us to figure out the stuff we’re going to need to throw into the soup, to make it atomic.

We have some secret ingredients at McCann Worldgroup. Firstly, we’ve redefined the philosophy and mission of the company, so that everybody knows what we are about and why we make what we make. Our philosophy is that when the Truth is Well Told, it has the power to move people, thus shifting a market. And our mission is to help brands play a meaningful role in people’s lives.

Second, we’ve built an approach and toolset that delivers that mission. This means our teams work the same way, whether it’s a global team across 12 markets or five people jumping onto a project at warp speed.

That brings me to the next secret ingredient. Along with a shared purpose and a shared way of working, we also have what we call our communities. They used to be called “councils,” but councils were hierarchical – and judgemental. People were looking at each other’s work, and giving it a rating, whereas communities build together. At McCann Worldgroup, we invest in global and regional strategy communities, we have digital communities, we have creative communities, and we have business leadership communities. All working together through our shared language and approach, bumping into each other, combining and mixing.

Underpinning this are our shared values – essential to drive the behaviours of any great team. The first is generosity of ideas and spirit. One has to be generous when you are in a community. You give as much as you take. There’s no room for egos. If you’re in New York, you should be able to hand work off to Japan in the evening and get it back in the morning to keep going. You need generosity to take other perspectives into account.

Another essential value is integrity of our people. That they attack everything with a purity of intent to get to the best creative answers for our clients’ challenges. Again, no ego of the individual, but a relentless focus on the ideas and how they will live in the world and affect culture.

The third value is bravery. The belief that what we are making requires it (bravery) for ourselves and for our clients. This is about being confident, truth-based and insight-rich so that we can take the leaps together.

Philosophy, approach, values. And focus on the work. That’s how we build an effective team.

More on the future role of agency strategists Find out what senior agency  strategists told WARC on what's changing, what challengies lie ahead, and  building the planning team of the future. Get an excerpt of the report

About the author

Suzanne Powers is Global Chief Strategy Officer at McCann Worldgroup