APG Director Sarah Newman writes about what the APG’s Planning During and Post Pandemic Survey revealed, and what agencies should do about it. 

The APG has just completed a highly detailed survey of the community of Planners and Strategists in the UK and overseas. It’s a punchy and fascinating snapshot of what life has been like for Planners working from home as they try to mirror the rich and creative output of agency life through a screen, often in a bedroom, without the invigorating and stimulating company of their fellow Planners and, crucially, physically removed from creatives.  

Lockdown has been tough for many people in advertising, marketing and beyond. It’s had an effect on work, on work/life balance, on mental health and on the sense of community. All this is true of Planners and Strategists.

However, there are some particular themes emerging from our survey that are specific to the needs and wants of Planners. And these themes are surprising and nuanced. So, if you employ or manage Planners, this is what you need to be thinking about and acting on.

It’s clear that Planning has become significantly harder during the pandemic with 64% finding it more challenging. Over 60% have struggled with boundaries, taken a pay cut, and worked longer hours. Burn-out is a real risk.

Many feel that the ‘creative’ parts of the job are most compromised, crucial things like briefing, developing and reviewing work are so much harder over Zoom. This has led to a notable 67% finding it harder to work with creatives. 

As working with creatives is the part that many people value most, so job satisfaction has declined commensurately. For many the job is being pared to basics and is losing the aspects that set it apart from consultancy and tech company roles. 

“At home, I might as well be a robot – churning out decks, writing briefs, giving creative feedback. It makes you realise how important the context is to the content of your job and takes away the core reason I chose advertising.”

Younger Planners in particular are suffering from lack of training at a time when more and more is expected of them and they are taking on greater responsibility. A majority feel they have been managed worse than before the pandemic.

It’s not a good picture and it’s a terrible prescription for getting the best out of people: the very people who do your thinking. The ones who inspire creatives, who explore culture to find the insights that make ideas sticky; and who thrive on the serendipitous interactions with fellow Planners that lead to a new way of thinking or a strategic breakthrough.

“Sometimes it feels like I'm doing my job in a vacuum. I feel Planners get to some of their best ideas by talking about them with others and letting people poke holes, offer new takes on them etc. in passing. […] I’ve had to get inventive with inspiration and inputs.”

This heartfelt response points the way to a deeper and a more complex picture, detailing some surprisingly positive and imaginative responses by Planners to the rigours of working life in lockdown.

Planners have learned new ways of working. Online research has proved to be different, but just as rich and useful (and far more convenient) than trudging up and down the country going to groups. Planners have evolved to get better at time management, to pitch inventively on Zoom and win; to do workshops and brainstorms in completely new ways.

Many feel that they have had the chance “to carve out space and tackle really thorny problems.” Planners and Strategists were absolutely critical to helping clients re-think strategies at the start of the first lockdown and they have led the way on scenario planning and strategic reinvention for their clients ever since. Their resilience and resourcefulness during the last year has been immense.

This complex picture helps us to see what kind of solution is going to work for Planners as businesses try to work out what the new working model looks like. The answer for agencies is to build on the newly developed skills and pull the things that worked for Planners in the pandemic, into the agency world as we re-engineer working life.

It’s all about empathy and flexibility; qualities that inspire people, not robots.

Planners and Strategists don’t want or need to be in the office all the time. Mandate three days, by all means, but let them work away from the office when they need the space to think. 

Give them the support and training they need. Even with all the exigencies of pandemic working, two out of three Planners want to carry on doing the job. But not unless they are properly supported and understood. 

Check in on them a lot. But don’t ‘check-up’. It’s dispiriting and erodes trust.

Make sure they know they are valued. They were and are the engine of new and effective thinking for your clients. If you get them to work for less, with fewer resources, they will vote with their feet. The agencies that listen and respond as hard to their Planners as they do to their clients and customers will keep their best people. The rest simply won’t. 

After all, if you’re employing a creative, imaginative and resourceful group of people, it makes no sense to treat them like robots. 

The survey’s methodology

The survey was conducted via the APG database and social media and comprised responses from the UK, USA and 26 other markets. Respondents spanned ethnicities, genders, level of seniority and planning disciplines. Fieldwork was conducted from 1st–10th March 2021.