10 Planners' Qs answered by Maria McHugh, Planning Partner at Founded

On Friday, 10 members of our community got to meet and ask Maria McHugh, Planning Partner at Founded (and ex-Head of Planning at Y&R NY and Fallon NY) their questions over breakfast. 

The only agenda was that of our members'.

The result was 10 thoughtful questions. 

And 10 insightful answers.

Q1: How do you grow Planners?

Exposure. I always ask my client if I can put my baby Planner on their account, attend meetings etc. And I make it clear to the client that they’re learning. It’s the client’s responsibility to me just as it’s my responsibility to them to ensure they get what they need from the agency. I had Junior Planners presenting to a CMO this week. You want to empower them, put them on pitches because 9 times out of 10 the ideas come from the young people.

And I always say to my juniors “Go talk to people”. You’ve got to talk to consumers. A short while back I asked a Junior Planner to “Go find me some investors and what they care about”. 24 hours later she came back with a video she’d recorded of just that. I admire that initiative and encourage that inquisitiveness.


Q2: What are the Pros and Cons of independent consultancy life vs agency?

The pros of consultancy are definitely the freedom. The fact that you’re your own boss and don’t have to be in at 9am on a Friday morning.

The downsides are that you’re on your own. You don’t have access to teams of brilliant people. And you have a constant anxiety because it’s all on you.

The pros of agency life are of course access to fantastic talent. You can get groups of Planners together to put their brains on a problem and solve it faster. I love doing that.

The cons can be the bureaucracy sometimes. And because you are part of a bigger team, things can get taken away from you occasionally and given to someone else. Which is understandable but can be hard if it’s your baby.


Q3: Is it better to start at a small agency or a big named one?

Short answer is start off where you can. Bite their hand off. It’s no easier to get a job in Planning than it was 20 years ago. Event get in as an Account person. I say that a Planner will always emerge. I got my first job at an agency after they’d told me they couldn’t hire me after an interview because the budget had been cut. I went into the agency, got a meeting with the MD, sat down in his office and said ‘I’m coming to work for you. I’m going to work here for free for the first 3 months and you’ll see that you want me working here.’ I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

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Q4: Advice for Planners at the beginning of their career on how to not f*ck up?

Check your approach. A German Planner once told me that they were taught to go back to the person that gave them the brief, very early after they’ve been told what to do, and just state their understanding of the brief back to them along with their initial thoughts on what they are going to do next. That’s an excellent way of making sure you’ve got the brief straight before you go off and waste energy ‘planning’ and not doing what’s needed.


Q5: What’s the one thing Planners should do to get better ideas out of the agency?

Planning can be useful to Creatives and getting to the right solution, but it isn’t the 'be all and end all'. My old boss at Eat Big Fish said that 'The Agency is like a football team. Sometimes you just need to kick the ball to midfield. YOU don’t have to get it in the back of the net every time.' Good creatives are strategic too but they need help to understand the business problem. Some Planners need to get out of their ivory towers. No one likes arrogant Planners.


Q6: Best work argument you’ve ever lost?

A couple of times in my career I have gone off on a tommie tangent and the creatives quickly rubbished my thinking haha! I practice humility on a daily basis. I have sometimes given the wrong direction strategically but I almost always have reframed the business problem in the right way. Because of that the creative has, in their work that is ‘off brief’, sometimes done a better job of solving the problem I have presented than delivering on my strategic direction. You need to be able to spot when that happens.


Q7: Do you think in qualitative research one on one interviews are the best methodology?

They are a great way of getting insight. I have been on a project recently for a sportswear brand talking to men about their masculinity, We used Skype to do one on ones, and it was great because it felt intimate yet ‘safe’ for the participant and we were talking about how clothes interact with their body, how they feel when they exercise, their motivations etc. It was fantastic for that. But honestly it all depends on your budget. I love to do ethnography but research has to be tailored to your budget. On a pitch with a shoestring budget when you’re desperate for insight, one on ones can be fantastic way of getting it quick.


Q8: What are the dying skills and the emerging skills in Planning?

Love digital strategy. And the tools. The social listening etc. The apps and data collection that allows us to understand different points in consumer journeys. They allow us to be forensic. But because the world of planning is so much more fragmented now, big ideas can disappear. I still believe good Brand Planning is worth its weight in gold, but alone it’s not enough. If I was to become a Planner tomorrow, I’d want to be a Brand Planner BUT have a specialism. Digital or social strat etc.


Q9: Do you think increasingly Planners have a responsibility to be 'makers'?

I always used to bring a ‘Planner’s Ad’ to the creatives when I’d briefed them. It used to be that Creatives didn’t really want planners near the creative ideas. However as outputs get more diverse - a social campaign, a microsite, an app or experiential etc. Creatives increasingly want you in the room because they know you’ll add something to the conversation. So yes.


Q10: How do you know when to move on?

In my career I have typically spent 5 years everywhere that I worked. Now things have changed, and I’m not saying that’s necessarily the right way to think about it. But what I always say to Planners about moving is that you need to have skin in the game wherever you go. Most of the time you should try to stay 18 months, 2 years, because you owe it to the agency that’s spent the first 12 months getting you to acclimatize to the place and the work. But honestly, you’ll know when the politics get in the way too much or you stop learning. But it’s better to run to somewhere, not run away from somewhere. I used to never talk to a head hunter within the first 2yrs of being at an agency. It confuses you and makes you less emotionally committed and focused. But you’ll feel it emotionally when it’s time to move. Not just rationally. I was told once that there’s 2 types of planner. Endorphin driven and adrenaline driven. Endorphin Planners are all about building relationships and getting inside clients' businesses etc. Adrenaline Planners are bored easily. They need constant new projects, new challenges etc. I am more the latter but understand the importance of building those relationships.

If you want to come to one of our next Q&As, all you have to do is become a member of Group Think and RSVP when we send out the invite.

22-07-2016. Group Think's 1st Q&A with Maria McHugh.  

22-07-2016. Group Think's 1st Q&A with Maria McHugh.  

Thanks to all members that came and prepared such thoughtful, high calibre questions.

And thanks to Maria for giving up her time to help a few more Planners on their journey.

We hope to see you all at more Group Think events. 

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