It’s a long road in, and a longer road through for junior planners, writes Ayoade Bamgboye.

The life of a junior planner is a bit of a rollercoaster. It might look something like this. You’ve finally gotten in. You feel a sense of relief, accomplishment and excitement, you’re ready for the challenge. You find out what accounts you’ll be on. They may be giants in their categories and that’s the icing on the cake, although you’ll learn later on that the creative opportunities can come from the unlikeliest of brands.

The Future of Strategy 2020

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You sit at your desk and wait for your ‘brief’. They start pouring in, a competitive review here, an audit there, or cultural references for a weekly newsletter. You’re asked to find ‘insights’, and you spend hours doing just that, and quickly realise you don’t know what an insight is – but no one else seems to either. They can’t be googled but you start there anyway. You read effectiveness papers, watch the ads, you comb through old briefs, your day to actually write one will soon come. You sit quietly in creative reviews, listen, observe – you’re urged to have a point of view. Be the encyclopaedia, know the clients’ business better than you know yourself, know their competitors, then know other useful things, just know. You might have a planner, senior planner, planning director, planning partner showing you the ropes, but what are the ropes? You realise that planning is doing, to do you must shadow, but planning is mostly personal, so you complete your tasks and inhale the theory until your day comes.

It’s a long road in, and a longer road through. At the best of times, skills development for junior planners is a mish-mash of following your senior planners lead until you get the chance to flex your muscles. At the worst of times (arguably right now), the combination of a lack of structured, early-stage development for young planners, distance, and the trickle-down effects of the unclear billing structure have created the perfect storm. Time is money, yet the planner’s time is routinely underpaid for. I remember being told that junior planners are a cost to agencies in their first year, often their first two years – and as our margins are squeezed, it feels like this isn’t a cost that agencies are willing to pay. Juniors are at most risk of our skills development affected by the headcount reductions due to Covid-19. We have not only less planners to learn from, but those planners have less time to teach us – time that was already a luxury. Distance has been another difficult aspect to grapple with. I took for granted how much the alchemy for the planning process was dependent on the corridor conversations, the quickfire brainstorm sessions, and filling a room with post-its and propositions. These moments make up the foundation of the thinking you’ll go off to do alone – moments that are difficult to replicate over Microsoft Teams.

Covid-19 has changed everything, and while we’re all wondering when, and how we will be returning to our offices, it is time to think about how we can’t return to the traditional models of skills development (or lack thereof) for young planners. We need to actively demystify who a planner is, what they do and how they do it, and most importantly, clearly delineate the skills that are required to flourish. We need to stop seeing junior planners as a cost, but as an investment that can yield returns in their own right. We need to think about what skills we will need in a new world, and create resilient but actionable development plans that evolve with our realities. One year in planning has taught me a lot about myself and the world, it is a craft with a special place in my heart, and I hope that the young planners who find a way in have an easier way through.