The Planner’s Palette: Crafting the Future with AI, Creativity and Diversity ~ Roma Singhal interviews the legendary Jon Steel
Roma Singhal, affectionately known as the The Smiling Strategist, recently sat down with legendary strategist Jon Steel to share interesting insights on AI, creativity and diversity within the industry.
Engaging in conversation with my planning hero at the onset of the year was an invigorating experience. The first book that captivated me upon entering the world of advertising planning was “Truth, Lies, and Advertising.” Now, over 15 years later, I find myself in a profound tête-à-tête with the epitome of planners, Jon Steel. What an extraordinary way to kickstart the year! It transcended beyond a mere discussion on planning; it evolved into a transformative dialogue, shaping me into a better human being. Envision a world where more planners engage in regular dialogues with legends like Jon Steel— such a vision paints a brighter future for the planning community.
Now, let’s delve into the profound insights and guidance from none other than Jon Steel, spanning topics from AI, the creative process, to fostering diversity within the realm of planners.
Roma Singhal: To what degree should planners incorporate AI into their planning processes? We bring our unique life foundation. At what juncture should planners stand firm on their individual insights and experiences while leveraging the potential of AI? How can we adapt to this evolving landscape and stay authentic to ourselves?
Jon Steel: I entered retirement in 2018, marking the end of my 17-year tenure at WPP, London. AI’s impact on the industry was minimal before my departure—it was a topic of discussion and development, but hadn’t significantly affected my role as a planner. The advertising industry has always been obsessed with shiny new toys; I can’t help feeling that before diving too deep into AI, planners and agencies should pay some attention to the application of ‘HI’, or simple human intelligence. Over the past two decades, there’s been a slow, sinister decline in this crucial element of planning, and the output of the industry has suffered as a result.
The way I see it, planners have grown increasingly distant from the individuals they are meant to represent in the creative process. A new generation of planners heavily relies on Google, viewing research as the mere act of typing queries into a search box and regurgitating existing articles and perspectives. To me, that’s not planning.
I entered the industry because I wanted to apply creativity to solve business problems. My fascination with planning arose from the discovery of a job that involved connecting with people to build relationships with brands. I explored where brands fit into their lives, experimented with presenting brands in various ways, and sought to create relationships that could address clients’ business challenges. I dedicated (literally) years of my life to shopping, sharing coffee, drinking, watching sport, and engaging in conversations with the very people I aimed to establish experiences and insights to the table, and that’s our connections with. The pivotal question always centred on the role of brands in their lives, and how we might alter that dynamic. I tried to develop empathetic relationships, but I was never shy about prodding and provoking people to get an interesting response. I explored diverse perspectives on my brands, and always attempted to understand and react to them using a blend of empathy, intuition, and discipline. I found that combination intoxicating, and while I’m no expert on AI, I can’t imagine that it has reached a point where it can replicate such a nuanced and immersive approach.
A considerable portion of the work I come across showcases varying degrees of elegance in solving the wrong problem. Reflecting on a Porsche campaign I was involved with, the initial client brief suggested that the issue lay in people not comprehending the superlative engineering that goes into Porsche’s sports cars. While a campaign centered around this premise could have been intriguing, and true in a sense, it would have missed the mark because it failed to address the real problem. The greatest challenge lay in people harbouring a dislike for Porsche drivers, and feeling embarrassed about potentially becoming one. This nuanced insight could only be unearthed through meaningful conversations and not through less sensitive research methods. The application of human instinct, imagination, and empathy, in my view, has been regrettably lacking and, while risking planners all over the world dismissing me as an irrelevant old man or, better still, a Luddite, I contend that it holds much more significance than what AI can currently offer.
Another significant challenge stems from the reduced investment in planning by agencies due to clients paying them less and less with each passing year. Planning has unfortunately become a perceived easy target for budget cuts, although it is not as straightforward as people believe. The diminished investment in planning forces planners to spread their efforts across more business areas, meaning they can operate only at a superficial level. Unlike the depth of engagement possible in my earlier days as a planner, when agencies were adequately funded, the new reality limits planners in terms of the tasks they can undertake, the time available, and the contributions they can make. This shift has led to a disparity between the kind of meaningful contributions I enjoyed and demanded of others, and the current reality of ‘planning lite’. I guess that means that what AI can achieve does align closely with the current practices of many planners. I’d like planners to put on their big boy and big girl pants, and do some proper planning, as it is in this that AI falls short in replicating their unique abilities.
Roma Singhal: How do we build collaboration and compassion into the creative process?
Jon Steel: When I embarked on my career in planning, I grappled with imposter syndrome. Initially, I felt like an outsider in the planning department, doubting my belonging and intelligence compared to my peers. Everyone was smarter than me. Each new brief brought a fear of failure, but paradoxically, that fear propelled me to go the extra mile. To combat it, I just committed to producing the best work possible, and hope that the creative output of the accounts I handled suggested I did belong. I never really conquered that fear, but that’s probably what kept me motivated over 35 years.
The planning realm often harbours intellectual arrogance; many planners strive to be the most intelligent person in the room. I never felt that was particularly helpful—I preferred to make others feel like they were the smartest person; it was my job to provide information to enhance their capabilities, whether they were creative minds, clients, account executives, or everyday individuals in focus groups. My role was that of a facilitator, not a problem solver, for my creative colleagues. I just presented the pieces of the puzzle (2+2), and left it to them to complete the equation.
Throughout my career, I encountered planners who loved to claim credit for ideas, a practice I refrained from. During creative briefings, I offered half-formed ideas to my creative partners, seeking collaboration. I likened the creative briefing to providing a starting point; it was someone else’s role to turn it into a compelling ad.
My professional ethos centered around listening. I’d travel extensive distances for meetings, sitting silently for 58 minutes until someone asked for my thoughts. I believed planners should have “an” answer, not “the” answer, recognising the multitude of ways to approach challenges. Clients often possess the initial answer, as demonstrated by the “Got Milk” campaign, where diverse contributions that started with a client idea converged, as we refined and got closer to the sweet spot of deprivation.
Fortunate to work in a role that exposed me to fascinating people and places, I did things I had never dreamed of as a kid aspiring to be a geography teacher. Reflecting on my career, I really appreciate the uniqueness of my job and the diverse experiences it offered. For example, sending my planners on road trips to small towns across the United States – which we often did when preparing for a pitch – always revealed invaluable insights and some great stories. Although agencies may not readily fund such endeavours today, I believe in the power of experiences like those to tell authentic stories about people, fostering a genuine connection between our clients and the communities they aim to reach.
Roma Singhal: What are your tips on diversity and inclusivity for our creative industry?
Jon Steel: I’ve consistently had strong views on diversity, yet my perspective extends beyond the conventional – and, in my opinion, restricted – lenses of ethnicity, gender, age, or sexual preference. I spent 15 years at WPP running an elite global recruitment and training program called The Fellowship. This program, admitting only 10 individuals annually from around 2000 global applicants, spanned three years. Participants lived and worked in three different markets – a year in each – and each year also represented a different part of the marketing communications business. The program’s ethos centered on the belief that effective leaders in a global company must embody multidisciplinary training, innate versatility, and cultural adaptability. These principles were intricately tied to a broader interpretation of diversity.
My approach was to seek individuals distinct from one another, fostering diversity not only in background but also in academic discipline and, most important, world view. Embracing genuine diversity allows each individual to perceive the world uniquely—imperative in an agency, where creativity thrives on different points of view. It’s irrational not to prioritise this, particularly when we all know that homogeneity in hiring leads to uniform perspectives.
I have a degree in Geography. I can’t tell you the number of times people have laughed when I told them that, and yes, it may seem unrelated to advertising. In a lot of important ways, however, it’s highly relevant to advertising. As both a science and an art, it taught me invaluable skills in both qualitative and quantitative analysis, theory development, critical thinking and the development of a compelling argument. But over the years I’ve hired Fellows and other graduates from almost every conceivable academic background – lawyers, journalists, mathematicians, historians, classics scholars. I’ve hired a short-order burger chef, and a killer whale trainer. Why? Because they were all different from each other, and from others we’d hired before, and each one of them would be guaranteed, if faced with the same problem, to come at it from a different direction. That’s the value of diversity. And guess what? If you set out to hire different, interesting people, a natural consequence is that you find yourself with a group that is already ethnically diverse, contains a greater age range, and has more women than men.
Agencies need evolved individuals in recruitment roles, understanding that naturally diverse teams bring richness to problem-solving. Unfortunately, many seem to seek those who somehow ‘fit’ an agency, and end up hiring people who act and think exactly like everyone else. My commitment to diversity in its broadest sense persisted throughout my leadership of the Fellowship, and in various departmental roles. I sought people who would challenge and invigorate my perspectives. If all else was equal between two candidates, I always used to ask myself, who would I rather sit next to on a long-haul flight? That certainly focuses the mind.
Roma Singhal: What are your top 3 tips for the planning community?
Jon Steel: In any agency role, you need other people to think that you’re useful. You should be the person your agency relies on during crises or crucial moments. Mere compliance with job requirements isn’t enough; my most successful planners were those who moved things forward, always making a tangible difference. When faced with particularly challenging tasks, I consistently turned to them. Their success wasn’t just about skill—it was intertwined with their personalities. They could express opinions simply, say “no” without causing harm or offence, discern when to step back, and when to reengage. I’ve always told aspiring planners that they should focus on being useful, moving beyond the checkboxes of their roles, and never seeking credit for the work that results. The most effective planners I had in my department were a delight to work with. They not only made life easier for those around them but also possessed an innate understanding of relationships. People used to seek them out, and wanted to spend time with them.
A planner’s core duty is simplification—distilling vast amounts of information into the concise seven or eight words suitable for billboards. Unfortunately, some planners tend to complicate matters, attempting to showcase their intelligence by expanding information.
Intuition, a valuable trait in advertising in general, and planning in particular, cannot be taught. It’s an inherent quality that can only be recognised and harnessed by hiring individuals who already possess it.
Jon Steel retired at the end of 2018 after a 35-year career in advertising. He still takes on occasional consulting projects, but only for people he likes, and on subjects that interest him. (That narrows the field considerably.) The author of ‘Truth, Lies & Advertising’ and ‘Perfect Pitch,’ he has lived and worked on three continents, and helped to create, manage and grow many of the world’s most successful and respected brands. However, he describes his proudest professional achievement as his role in starting and assisting the careers of the WPP Fellows he hired and managed between 2005 and 2018. When they are not travelling, he and his wife live in Western Australia, where Jon writes, paints, cleans up after a dog and three cats, and habitually hits the fast-forward button in commercial breaks.
Roma Singhal (pictured below), affectionately known as The Smiling Strategist, has spent over 15 years as brand, design and digital strategist carving out disruptive and impactful strategies for blue-chips brands at marketing and advertising organisations such as American Express, Ogilvy, Publicis Groupe, McCann, BBDO and more in Sydney, Singapore and Mumbai covering Global, AUNZ, ASEAN and India markets. She has planned and launched insightful and effective campaigns for a diverse clientele, spanning various industries and brands. Her works have been awarded, one of them being the Gold Effie for Cadbury. She was also chosen as the first-round judge for Effie Awards Australia 2019. She’s a brand and creative strategy mavin at Mavardo and is available at www.thesmilingstrategist.com.