On Figuring Stuff Out

AKA ‘What does it mean to be a planner?’

I’ve been in research mode a fair bit of late. Whether that’s reviewing cross-category creative work to generate provocations for clients or doing a deep dive on the data surrounding the games industry’s ongoing round of redundancies (here’s Amir Satvat doing God’s work).

The exploration of these themes has meant spending a lot of time in effectiveness papers, case studies and spreadsheets; looking at data and talking to people IRL.

This kind of work, combined with a renewed dedication to just getting out there and spending time with other planners (hello APG friends!), it’s been nice to be reminded of what it is I love about what I do:

love figuring stuff out.

I was reminded of this again earlier this week when I came across this Linkedin post from Sweathead, titled: ‘How to know if you’re a strategist’ (the Seven Ps of Strategy).

A post that I kind of agree with?

The Ps mentioned are: Problems, People, Prying, Patterns, Possibility, Persistence, and Pitching.

It’s a pretty good list. If I could though, I’d probably add (or switch) two Ps in and maybe switch one P out.

Switch 1: PUZZLES.
I like solving puzzles – with data, with creativity, with strategic leaps. Problems are a good thing to uncover but getting to solutions figuring out the puzzle – that’s the main draw for me.

As a completely random aside: I once visited the International Intellectual and Puzzle Museum in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. To this day, one of the best days of my life.

I like asking questions, yes. And those questions are always in service of getting to better work. But often-times you find yourselves in rooms (or on calls) where there are questions left unasked. The provocative question. The ‘Hang on, why are we actually doing this?’, or the ‘Yes but does the product actually deliver that?’ or the ‘Have we addressed why consumers don’t like you?’ questions. The hard questions you have to ask. And frankly, sometimes the only questions planners can ask.

Switch 3: PITCHING.
This is the one I’d probably switch out. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE pitching. We pitched recently and a peer said to me as we were leaving the room ‘James, you were born to pitch’. So lovely. And we won the pitch too. Woop.

The point is, it reminded me that I am lucky to have had the training whereby I now enjoy those situations. So many planners and strategists I meet while, yes, they will at some point have to be able to convince a client of a certain strategic course of action, they might not always enjoy the process of PITCHING. Introversion is a common personality trope among planning folk.

Solving that? Well it’s a puzzle.

If you are a planner and you don’t enjoy pitching, then that’s OK. You don’t have to. You can learn, yes. You can also fake it ’til you make it. But if you hate it, that’s OK too and it doesn’t make you any less of a planner.

All of the above was originally published as part of my Five things on Friday newsletter and, in doing so, I think I accidentally managed to complete the three-writing briefs I set myself in my various social media profiles:

On writing.
On gaming.
And now,On figuring stuff out.

Ahh that makes me happy.

PS. ‘So you want to be a strategist‘ is still the best collection of learning materials I think I am yet to find for entry level strats and above.

Five things on Friday #60

Things of note for the week ending February 21st, 2014.


1. How do strategists level up?
This piece, written by Clay Parker Jones from Undercurrent, puts forward an extremely well-thought-out and logical case for how to ‘level up’ as a strategist. The whole article is worth a read (it’ll take 10mins to consume but you might be coming back to it for a while to come), especially for the planners and strategists out there looking for something new to take into their next review.

2. How do you get a job in North Korea?
Next time you’re staring at your CV (or even that cover letter) and stuck for what on Earth you could possibly put down next, thank your lucky stars that the hiring process [for good jobs] isn’t akin to the way North Koreans have to seek decent employment –

In response to the increasing demand for more rewarding jobs, bribery is becoming more common in North Korea. There are certain steps to follow to get the desired job: First, you have to bribe the officers and steal your personnel record from the local administrative agencies. Then you have to bribe the factory managers or party secretaries so that they will issue letters of confirmation that they would like to hire you. Lastly, you have to submit the letter to the administrative agency in charge of assigning jobs. Everyone involved knows about the other parties’ bribery, but they choose to overlook.

Source – ‘How do you get a job in North Korea?

3. NYC Henge


According to WIRED, twice a year, the setting sun lines up with the street grid of New York City’s Manhattan, creating an incredible show and a free-for-all for amateur photographers. The phenomenon is known as Manhattanhenge, but the map above, dubbed NYCHenge and made by Javier Santana shows when and where the show can be caught all across New York City, any day of the year.

If you’re headed to New York at all this year, use this map RIGHT NOW and plan those epic Instagram photos today.

4. The Secret Autobiography of Tom Cruise

If there’s a thread that runs through Cruise’s recent movies, it’s this: You may think you know me, but you don’t. His character in the Mission: Impossible movies seamlessly switches faces and is described as “a ghost”; even Ethan Hunt’s surname reflects his elusive nature. In Knight and Day, he’s a high-level spook who’s built an untraceable life on a private island. And in last year’s Jack Reacher, he’s a man without a country, an American citizen who’s barely set foot on the nation’s soil: “blood military,” he’s called. Jack Reacher has “no driver’s license, current or expired, no residence, current or former, no credit cards, no credit history, no P.O. Box, cell phone, email.” By the standards of his home country, he doesn’t exist.

I came across this piece after reading Tyler Cowen’s review of Oblivion where he mentions the parallels between the film’s plot and the star’s chosen religion. Someone in the comments of that post mentioned that Slate had seen it too and also goes into a bit more detail with its analysis. There be spoilers here, but it’s still a darn good read.

For what it’s worth, I loved Oblivion (and really don’t know enough about Scientology to spot any references); it’s a great sci-fi flick and well worth watching.

5. Floating in Space
The story of ‘SuitSat-1’, aka ‘Mr Smith’, the sensor-filled spacesuit that was hurled from the International Space Station back in 2006, is one of the best things I’ve read this week.


You can close the tab now, we’re done here.

When does Batman sleep? – Part 2

This has been a long time coming…

A few months ago I posted Part One to discuss this question and its relation to the ‘always on’ generation that we seem to live in today. If like many others who find themselves working in this field, you are expected to be on call at every hour of the day…

Well no, let’s stop right there. Is it actually expected?

Or is it the case that you simply feel obliged?
You assume that that the expectation in there, when in fact it isn’t.


I have written at length about the importance of humanity being at the heart of everything you do. The onus being placed on the term ‘being human‘ throughout my work is on purpose people.
The question asked above is not about the duality of Batman’s psyche, moreover about his pig-headedness about asking for help and his lack of self-forgiveness when he gets it wrong.

He is after all only human.
As are we all.

When things got tough the Bat brought in Robin and then soon after that, the Justice League. His skills, unique and awesome on their own, work considerably better when placed into a team of similar, like minded people (sharing an equal goal).

The point is, that developer guy that I mentioned?
He who I quoted way back when:

Sometimes, I find myself stuck in front of the laptop at like 10pm on a Sunday night. The kids are in bed, the wife isn’t far behind and there I am answering customer care questions over Twitter with some guy in Geneva! This isn’t my day job. I’m a developer. My question to you is Sir; when does Batman sleep?

This man, he cared about his company’s brand and (online) reputation so much that he took it upon himself to make things better on his own.

Much like the Caped Crusader, he fixed it himself, working solo and acting independently from his own company’s PR team and, just as Batman did with the Gotham City Police Department (GPD), both sides became infuriated.

However, it is written than the Dark Knight works best when he works with his friend and ‘colleague’, Commissioner Gordon, coordinating strategies that incorporate traditional routes & methods (like the GPD) as well as the new found tools of our erstwhile hero.

More things get done.

When I first started in this job, within weeks I was at loggerheads with the Director of Communications. Our very own Jim Gordon if you will. He wanted to vet every single message and blog post that was to be written and sent out. A stand up argument ensued which ended with me simply saying:

Invent a box of words…
Put in everything I can use and take out everything I can’t.

Then leave the box with me.

It took some time, but we got there in the end.
There are laws and rules as well as traditional ways of enforcing or adhering to them.

However, these days there are ways to play, push up against and generally find new parameters to work within these rules.
Call it operating under the radar if you will.

Batman doesn’t kill.
Something which he is continually pushed on.
He doesn’t go looking for trouble (at least not in the traditional sense of the word), but instead works within rules.
First those he sets himself, then later within those set by others.

It is at this point where our super hero can pause, his allies know his work and can defend it in his absence.
Yes that’s right, his absence.

I started this post with the intention of highlighting the often over-looked ideal of humanity on both sides of the coin.

Corporations can be human but so can consumers.

Yes, it’s great to be on call 24hrs a day, seven days a week, but your customers are not robots. If you don’t get back to them on a Sunday night, they’ll understand.

It’s all well and good being human, but never forget everyone else is too.