7 habits of highly effective planners

In her 20-year career, Sally Smallman, global planning director for whiskies at Diageo, has worked both agency and client-side on leading brands across the world. Based on her extensive experience, she gave the Mindlab Academy her advice on approaching the planning role.

1. Be constantly curious

“The planner role is not always about providing the actual answers or solutions to issues. It’s about identifying the information and insights so teams can get to great, impactful and effective ideas. For me, that means actively looking at every issue from a new and different perspective to unlock the germs of ideas – what do we know about consumers, what different things did we do across markets, what happened with price and in store, and what might that mean?”

2. Empathise without thinking

“I think it’s important to make time to understand your consumer and adapt your perspective to theirs, however busy you are. It should get to the point where standing in someone else’s shoes feels so normal that you do it naturally whenever you are building strategy, outlining issues or making decisions.”

3. Make ideas tangible

“If you’ve got something visualised or written down on a page, even if it’s wrong, it feels much more tangible and it is so much easier for people to react to. You get much better input from other people. Whether I am thinking about a growth strategy or a learning brief, I usually write down my broad ideas, share them to see how they land with others, and then we can collectively kick it around and build on it until we all feel confident we’ve got it right.”

4. Start with the decision in mind

“Any learning has to be designed in a way that it can be used to make decisions. Having more and more data doesn’t help. Exploratory research can just make everyone feel overwhelmed – we’ve learned a lot, but we still do not know how to answer the question at hand.

“So, I start with what needs to happen, the decision that needs to be made. I try to think about what would need to be true in the future. What would we need to know to inform a decision? What research will take the project forward? When research doesn’t land – and sometimes learning projects can just fizzle out – it is often because the link to decision-making hasn’t been thought through.”

5. Drive to action, quickly

“I lay out the process so people can see how we will get to a decision. Simple things like making deadlines clear enable teams to move quickly. One of the worst things you can do is let projects drift, and it happens most often when there is a lack of clarity.

“At the end of any learning phase, take a moment to really think about the results and learn from them right then and there. Think beyond marketing and about how your insights can help with fundamental business decisions. If you revisit it a few months later, the learning is still interesting but it’s often too late – the ship has sailed. Always ask: we now know this, what does it mean for this project, this brand, this business?”

6. Actively create the future for your brand

“Whether your vision is the same as everyone else’s or not, all planners should have an aspiration for the brand they are working on. How should this brand develop? What should we be in future? You should feel really invested in the success of the brand.

“If you can, take a role in shaping your company’s approach to marketing and building brands. Get involved in the mentorship of less experienced colleagues, however informal.

“Look to the tools and technologies that can take your insights to the next level. For me at the moment, that means moving beyond messaging, content and how people feel to how you actually trigger a behaviour change and measure what people do unconsciously.”

7. Focus on what matters most

“If you really genuinely understand what drives brand success, you can work out where you are best spending your time and argue for it. For instance, don’t underestimate focusing on visibility and building brand consistency – lots of activity and new launches will create noise but not meaning for consumers.

“Ask yourself what is really building this brand – and don’t forget that the basics like pricing, distribution and visibility are central to success.”


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