(Artigo originalmente publicado no WARC.)

When did planners start calling themselves strategists?

By Heather LeFevre (*)

On first blush, it might seem silly to investigate the shift from planner to strategist. I mean, who cares? Does it matter?

This shift snuck up on me. I’ve conducted a survey, The Planner Survey, for eight years and I’ve always used the two words interchangeably. Until now. Now I believe there is a difference. So much so that my team and I – all volunteers – have fielded the ninth edition of the survey under a new name: The Strategist Survey. (The Survey is open now.)

It is generally agreed that the term “account planner” was coined by Tony Stead of J Walter Thompson at an agency off-site meeting set to discuss this new discipline. He simply mashed-up “account executive” with “media planner” to signify the space to be created for a new role between these two established roles. London agencies JWT and Boase Massimi Pollitt both launched new account planning departments concurrently in the Sixties, and nearly fifty years later my personal estimate is that more than 10,000 people around the world are practitioners.

I’m connected to several thousand of them on LinkedIn so I picked up a pen and started counting. The result? More than half of my contacts have the word “strategist” or “strategy” in their title with no mention of “planner”. Only 30 percent identify as pure planners while another 17 percent ride the fence as strategic planners. Anecdotally, I’ve also experienced a seismic shift in the types of companies contacting me and those I know about jobs. It’s no longer just agencies. The marketing departments of companies large and small want us. So too do Google and Twitter.

If you believe as I do that the business landscape is far less predictable than it was when Tony Stead tossed out his suggested moniker, then this discussion isn’t just about semantics; it matters.

As Eisenhower famously observed: “Plans are nothing, planning is everything”. A plan is full of concrete intentions. A strategy is a level higher. A strategy uncovers insights, levers, and filters that can be applied to hundreds of plans. That’s why I think this is not just a case of wordsmithing, but fundamentally an extension of our need to be precise. We hold ourselves up to be the shaper of destinies and the master of language to corral a group of people around an idea. At our best, we give just the right medicine in the right dose for a brand to grow. I say it’s time we do the same for ourselves.

Using the terms interchangeably demonstrates a lack of precision that our kind shouldn’t stand for. Contexts change too quickly for the old annual plan to predict how we ought to proceed for the entire year. We should not be setting our sights, or even our limited attention, toward the goal of a plan. We should be creating brand strategies that are algorithms. We must seek fresh inputs that lead us to new territories and do it over and over again. Planning is reductive. Strategy is expansive.

I choose to believe that the shift in titles in indicative of a tacit shift in our roles. But let’s make it explicit. Have your voice heard. If you are taking part in this changing landscape where brand building happens not just in the process of ad development, but across countless touchpoints, product innovation, and changing corporate behaviour and structure, we want to hear from you. We have made changes to the questions in The Strategist Survey to be more inclusive of all people who are creating competitive advantage for brands. If that sounds like you, please participate so that we all can get smarter at doing this work we are privileged to do.


(*) Heather LeFevre é Estrategista e Speaker da Hyper Island. É também autora do livro Brain Surfing: The Top Marketing Strategy Minds in the World.