Planners: When Seeking a 'Hero,' Look Someplace Unexpected

Strategic Planners Can Learn Lessons from Comedians -- Really

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A piece of career advice I've consistently heard high-ranking advertising execs dole out at industry panels is to "find a hero" -- someone whose career you admire or, if you're blessed with the proximity to do so, whom you can personally learn from.

And as a general rule, it makes sense.

But as a planner, it's always confounded me. Because, while I've had the pleasure of working for some incredibly bright minds (seriously, people smart enough to make me wonder if they "just weren't interested" in becoming nuclear scientists), I find that this advice doesn't easily translate to our world.

The truth is, we're an odd bunch. Each planner has his or her own "way," and it's equal parts experience, methodology and instinct, the combination of which yields an entirely unique result every time. This makes it hard to find another planner whose style or even career path one can mimic.

So I've taken to looking outside the industry for a hero (or group of them) and have found inspiration from an unlikely source -- comedians.

It may seem far-fetched on the face of it, but there are direct parallels.

Here's what I've learned from comedians:

1. Pay your dues. With the exception of rare finds, comedians work tiny clubs for little money just to build an audience and gain experience. This proving period can last years, yet it's crucial to honing their craft. Planners too have to sharpen their skills over time and with very little fanfare. Luckily, even entry-level roles at most agencies promise a salary and health insurance, which is more than the fledgling comic receives. Count yourself lucky.

2. Put yourself out there. At its very core, comedy is laying one's self bare for critique. Forget about how hard it is to write a great joke -- how about actually having the gall to deliver it? Similarly with planning, the hardest part can be making your personal point of view the subject of conversation and debate. It feels extremely validating when people get on board. And pretty soul-crushing when they reject your ideas.

3. Practice presenting. Further to the "put yourself out there" theme (and also in the category of terrifying for some), you have to learn how to present. I say learn because it is so seldom an innate talent. There are those rare birds who are born ready for an audience, but they are the exception. When a young planner tells me she avoids getting up in front of people, I worry for her. Because even if that's true for you, you probably shouldn't publicize it. Instead, practice. Take every opportunity to get better and fake it til you make it.

4. Remember -- you're the least important person in the room. Don't get me wrong, great creative is not born from inspiration independent of insight -- advertising's version of an "immaculate conception." But what comedians understand (because their livelihood demands it) is that it does not behoove them to deliver inside jokes. People don't walk into a comedy club thinking "enlighten me" -- but they're probably subconsciously thinking, "connect with me. " Talking to oneself is as boring when someone is telling a joke as it is when someone is delivering a creative brief. So play to your audience.

5. Get better. Like a comedian, you'll be forgiven for bombing early in your career. But the more experienced you get, the bigger your audience and the higher your salary, the more you're expected to kill it. And rightfully so.

6. Speak the truth. This one is the most important lesson. The swell of laughter from a crowded club when a joke hits is the auditory equivalent of a roomful of nodding heads. It's civilization saying, "That is so true." It's what both comedians and planners strive for -- a sense of universal agreement about human nature.

One of my favorite insights comes from an interview Tina Fey gave to Oprah Winfrey (which, I think we can all agree, makes it empirically true). In the words of Fey, "When humor works, it works because it's clarifying what people already feel. It has to come from someplace real."

You could say they exact same thing about planning. It all comes down to your ability to identify what's true and bring it to life.

So planners, consider this list the next time you're told to "find a hero." If you strive to do these things as well as your favorite comedian, maybe he or she is the one you're seeking.

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