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Johanna Skilling, EVP, Chief Strategy Officer, Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness

What Makes a Good Strategic Planner

One of my earliest memories of Johanna was in 1999 when she gave me a pass. I was a 25-year old account executive asked to write a small part of a pitch deck. I remember writing the 13 slides in one of those fantastic moments when the story parades right in front of you. I was inspired and poured the whole thing out in 10 minutes. In retrospect, it was probably shallow thinking hung on an overused cliché, but Johanna’s reaction of “this is kind of good” was a sort of rite of passage for me.

I idolized this woman, who showed up at Ammirati one day as a consultant – smart, well-spoken, friendly. Over 10 years later, she’s still somewhat of an enchantress for me. Johanna’s magical quality is that she’s a muse. You can deposit a flabby idea at her feet, she’ll turn it into a show horse and still let you retain ownership. She’s critical and won’t tolerate lazy thinking, but if there’s a shadow of a good idea, she’ll polish it until it shines. How many people do you know who do that?! It’s little wonder Johanna has ghostwritten biographies for CEOs.

Today Johanna is EVP, Chief Strategy Officer at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and an Adjunct Professor at NYU. She hires and inspires lots of planners, so I wanted her input on what defines a good one.

JeS:        Let’s start with your definition of a strategic planner and what deliverables they’re responsible for.

JoS:        The definition is evolving from an insights model to a more expansive view. Planners used to be the voice of the customer inside the agency. And they still focus on consumer insights, brand positioning and the competitive environment. But now they respond to questions like How does the brand story translate in different media? How do customers interact with your brand on the web, social media, etc? What does the brand mean in real-life customer experience?

One of the most important contributions of a planner is to define who target customers are and what influences their behaviors, perceptions and beliefs. Then the brand story can help either validate their feelings or motivate them to change their minds.

Planners are incredibly intuitive about emotions that drive behavior and how to harness them. In his book, How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer talks about two horses harnessed together, one wild and one more rational. These forces tug at each of us. Planners are really good at steering the wild horse.

Jes:        What are some other traits, or skills, that define excellent strategic planners?

JoS:        They have an incredible curiosity about people and cultures. They want to understand the connections between disparate things, and what gets people to make the leap from idea to action. They have interesting hobbies; they make a point of reading books about cultural observations. They have good interior/exterior lives.

They know how to listen, beyond what’s being said, to what’s felt. To observe body language and behavior and put it in context. And not just listen to consumers, but to the client, and other stakeholders – good planners connect the dots to create insights and strategies that resonate across many audiences.

They are great writers and thinkers. They have great storytelling skills, about people and brands. They’re able to convince people with a strong, well-reasoned POV. One mark of a good planner is that he or she can work backward: They’re able to look at an ad or a brand and reverse engineer what the insight could have been.

The best planners have a mix of humility and arrogance. They have strong opinions about consumers or brands based on the evidence they’ve found and the connections they’ve made. But they’re willing to see if they’re right or wrong. They don’t think their opinion is the last word. They recognize it may evolve along the way, and that others have valuable contributions.

Jes: What are the critical educational and professional inputs for developing strong strategic planning skills?

JoS:        Well, I’m teaching two NYU classes this fall! Strategic Planning for Marketers and Corporate Branding Best Practices.

Each class is delivered over two 8-hr intensive sessions, in which small groups are challenged to quickly work through marketing problems. The purpose is to learn the best practices of planning: How agency strategic planners assess brands, develop customer insights, and create marketing strategies, including a simple framework to develop meaningful business strategies. We’ll simulate the experience of selling strategies to decision makers, and examine the consequences of successful and unsuccessful thinking.

JeS:        Can planners come from other agency disciplines, like Account or Creative?

JoS:        Ideally, planners can come from anywhere – it depends on the person. The cliché is that account people are more interested in the client, and planners are interested in consumers. A good strategist connects what consumers need and what the brands needs to succeed. There’s no reason Account, Creative or people with other backgrounds can’t do it.

For people interested in moving into planning, I recommend they get smart about different kinds of research. Research and planning are not synonymous, but research is a critical component.

Jes:        When you hire strategic planners, what qualities do you look for? What questions do you ask to evaluate these skills?

JoS:        I usually start with something like Tell me about you and what’s your idea of planning? Then I ask them to tell me a story [of a brand]. Hopefully we’ll get engaged in a discussion – What was the initial thinking? Where did it lead? What happened next? Not everyone understands how to do it. I’m looking for people that can tell a cohesive story from beginning to end very comfortably and naturally. Storytelling is a big theme in strategy.

JeS:        What events in your career have been invaluable to your development as a strategist?

JoS:        Well, it’s not something everyone’s going to do, but for me it was writing a book (Fibroids: The Complete Guide to Taking Charge of Your Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Well-Being). I wanted to express myself in a different way and to see if I could be a writer. I wound up interviewing hundreds and hundreds of women and doctors. I had strong belief when I started, but my POV changed dramatically based on my learnings. That’s where my idea of humility came from, when I learned to let the data and insights form the story, rather than try to hammer away at a hypothesis.

Having a POV is important. Proving, disproving and shaping it is the art of planning. Doing it well takes a ton of homework. It means chewing things through and not settling for easy answers. What is it that E.B. White said about how to write? Throw out the first three paragraphs and that’s where you begin. A planner is always thinking about how an idea could be deeper, more unique and more true.

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