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Planning for the Best: Letting Loose on a Whiteboard with Ed Henderson


Ardmore’s planning director on evolving into strategy, Hovis's 'Boy on the Bike' advert and woolly job descriptions

Planning for the Best: Letting Loose on a Whiteboard with Ed Henderson

With 15 years’ experience in advertising agencies across London, Manchester and Belfast, Ed provides clear, strategic direction for global brands. His client list includes; Diageo, eBay, Translink, Stena Line, Tourism Northern Ireland, and Nissan. 

As the planning director at Ardmore, he works with clients to define business objectives, success measures and deliver impactful strategy, that is always grounded in insight.

LBB> What do you think is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there one? 

Ed> There is a lot of splitting hairs and delicate nuancing in the industry over what is a strategist and a planner. In my experience the titles are something that tends to muddle things more than is necessary. It is already a position that, unlike creative director or media manager, always calls for an inevitably woolly definition at the beginning of any new client meeting.  

But at the end of the day, irrespective of definition, both roles are consultants that work closely with brands to find a line of best fit for success. 

LBB> And which description do you think suits the way you work best?

Ed> Seeing as I don’t really see a big clear distinction, how about this description for a suggested alternative?

It is our job to simplify and translate a brands business growth objectives so more creative minds than mine can find a solution.

That’s my rehearsed way around the woolly definition for new client meetings. Let’s clients know that I’m first up to get involved before we can move into the more fun stuff!

LBB> We’re used to hearing about the best creative advertising campaigns, but what’s your favourite historic campaign from a strategic perspective? One that you feel demonstrates great strategy?

Ed> Probably the original 'Boy on the bike' Hovis work by Ridley Scott (1973) – Obviously the advertising is a wonderful piece of work that demands your attention. It is a great reminder that we are in the business of memorability. But beyond the creative, the category at the time was being pushed to modernise and innovate. They could have easily gone with the wave, but Hovis dug their heels in and went the other way – exploring their brand history and heritage. 

To me, this ad is a reflection that, at the end of the day, strategy is sacrifice – we are the ones who make the first and arguably most important decision in any campaign. Based on all the information, data, mood music, category dynamics and whatever else, this is the direction we are going to take. It takes confidence, clarity and above all else and ability to make a simple and convincing case for why this decision makes sense.

LBB> When you’re turning a business brief into something that can inform an inspiring creative campaign, do you find the most useful resource to draw on?

Ed> I’m not even joking when I say, a whiteboard – It’s a cliché, but I find the best way to structure my thinking is by letting loose on a whiteboard. It is the planner’s opportunity to be sporadic and creative. It is also where you feel like you can and should get it wrong. 

LBB> What part of your job/the strategic process do you enjoy the most?

Ed> I love the beginning of a project when there is largely nothing to go on beyond a business objective. The process of building the evidence that will ultimately inform the creative direction we are going to take. It means going broad on sources to get answers. Research papers, 1st party qualitative groups and quantitative surveys, social conversation are just some of the places you have to invest time and energy to find the gold.

The start always feels a bit daunting but as time goes on and the whiteboard fills up, you start to see a clearer picture of the direction things need to take.

LBB> What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself going back to over and over again? Why are they so useful? 

Ed> There is a lot of complex modelling out there so any frameworks that simplify what we do will always get my vote. I find myself returning to PR Smith’s SOSTAC model almost daily. Not necessarily from the start every time but dropping in at specific points to understand where I need to focus. It is like a strategic compass – I’d be lost without it.

The value of it lies in being able to really concentrate on and nail down each stage before moving on to the next. Take objective setting. Do I have a forensic understanding of the objectives for this brand? Not just what drives growth for them but also the supporting advertising objective and how this will contribute towards that? It forces the right conversations with clients and the right answers for the agency to get the best work.

Works brilliantly for campaign planning in the short term as well as business and brand growth over the long term.

LBB> What sort of creatives do you like to work with? As a strategist, what do you want them to do with the information you give them?

Ed> In terms of the ideal skills, I love working with creatives that can ideate without being influenced by advertising. The ones that can forget that this idea will likely have to appear on TV, billboards and social media and just concentrate on the best way to solve the problem. It is such a skill to master and something that keeps ideas raw, unformed and brilliant. 

LBB> There’s a negative stereotype about strategy being used to validate creative ideas, rather than as a resource to inform them and make sure they’re effective. How do you make sure the agency gets this the right way round?

Ed> If you have ever worked with me, you will know I love using analogies to ground things. I think about this challenge like a band in a recording studio. The creatives are in the booth with the instruments, making the album and the planners are on the other side, sat behind the mixing desk. We can tweak the faders and dials to support and guide but ultimately, we must trust in the artists to write and play the songs.

I think mastering this dynamic all comes down to the relationship between planning and creative. It is so crucial to work on as I believe it leads to brilliant work. Too friendly and you run the risk of agreeing that a just OK idea is great. To tense, and you can’t agree on anything! There is a biting point of mutual respect where the brilliance happens.

LBB> What have you found to be the most important consideration in recruiting and nurturing strategic talent? 

Ed> Be influenced by what you love outside of work and apply it in your work. While there will always be industry people talking about shiny new changes, ultimately there is a limit to the theory you can learn in advertising. 

Beyond that, it’s all about making a personal statement as a planner or creative. To do that you have to be influenced by your passions. Music, film, books, sport, fashion. Let them make an impression on you and find a way to bring it into your profession. 

It is one of the great luxuries of working in a creative industry and something that I think needs to be instilled in any new talent coming through.

LBB> In recent years it seems like effectiveness awards have grown in prestige and agencies have paid more attention to them. How do you think this has impacted on how strategists work and the way they are perceived?

Ed> Naturally as effectiveness becomes more important in the industry, it has meant more agencies are taking ownership of the business impact from advertising. With this comes planners taking on the role of consultant and the positive behaviours and guidance that come with that. 

So, you are seeing more planners guiding brands to take the long-term view. Less disposable creativity and more enduring ideas. Less mobile first formats and more high attention, broad beam channels. 

We are becoming more accountable for advertising because we know these are the rules that lead to effectiveness and awards.

LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?

Ed> Very few. Perhaps an obvious one, but given what planning contribute could be considered intangible, it can therefore sometimes be underappreciated. We don’t give you a media plan, but we help inform it. We don’t unveil the creative, but we help guide it. 

It’s definitely a selfish frustration, but I think we will forever be the unsung heroes of the advertising industry!

LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?

Ed> Start elsewhere first, then evolve into this area but bring your previous skills with you. I am a massive believer of bringing in adjacent experience into the discipline. I did the obvious thing and went from the account management side of things straight into planning. I find the best people always come from a seemingly unrelated background first.

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ardmore, Fri, 16 Sep 2022 08:27:10 GMT