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An Interview with Leo Burnett’s SVP of Account Planning

January 14, 2013

I recently sat down with Sarah Patterson, SVP of Account Planning at Leo Burnett. Sarah came into the Portfolio Center in the fall semester to speak to an advertising class.

The class was captivated by what she had to say–and we were, too. Read on to learn Sarah’s best advice on getting into the advertising industry and how to effectively work with creative teams.


The man with his name on the door–and the wall. A view from Leo Burnett’s lobby.


Can you describe your job in 1-3 lines?

“I’ll do my best,” she says with a smile.

“I’m a strategy director at Leo Burnett, which means that what I try to do is work with the client to create the best communication strategy that taps into their brand and allows me to write a great creative brief to brief the creative team so we can come back and provide the client with communication work right away across the board—from TV to merchandising to any additional social media programming that will really help them fulfill their business objectives.”

“Overall it’s about try to nurturing the relationship between the brand and the consumer to make it stronger and create ideas that will do that.”


What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

“Typically I meet with a range of different people. With the clients, and going out trying to understand what they want to achieve with their communications. Also with people in the agency, so whether it be the account team where we get together, or the creative team where I am talking to them about the consumer and understanding an insight that I have gained to share with them in the form of the creative brief. I may also spend some time in research—so going to focus group, or listening to one-on-one interviews or working with our research people to put together a proposal to understand how to get at these insights, which are the nuggets we are looking for to put into the creative brief. I may also go out to work with the client, for instance, I work on the McDonald’s business, so I might go to a restaurant to observe and talk to the people there.”

“One of the things I love about my job is the variety of things day-to-day I end up doing.”


What would a junior-level account planner do on a day-to-day basis?

“It’s tough, actually, to get in at the junior level into account planning. Some people do come in through account management or other places like research companies, for example. So, day-to-day, though, if they have made it into account planning, they are more likely to be digging in and trying to understand the consumer that we are looking for and digging out information for the brand. They may be putting together presentations and expirations that will help with that. But for the most part, they get to do what I do, but they may be overseen be somebody else, as well.“

“That’s one of the things I like about the job is that it is not very structured in that sense or very compartmentalized. If you like it and are good at it, you can end up doing what you enjoy no matter what level you are at, which is great.”


If a current college student wanted to go into Account Planning—knowing that it’s not easy to get into at an entry level—is there a typical career path they can take to lead up to Account Planning?

 “I would encourage them, if they are interested in that, to find ways to communicate their passion for communications. Whether it be through coming into an agency in Account Management, but demonstrating that they do that, that they understand strategy and really enjoy it, or going into a research firm where they can build a portfolio of how they came to understand a consumer or a marketing question. Or even if they weren’t able to do any of those things, and actually if they got in on the client side, sometimes that could be an interesting route into planning, as well. Big marketing firms used to have big departments called ‘marketing research’ and now they are called ‘consumer insights.’ They do some of the same things we do, so that’s another route in.”

“Wherever you go, you need to be able to demonstrate this passion for understanding the brand-human connection. Anything that’s a little bit different or interesting that you have done in that regard to show is always helpful.  To make you stand out.“


How do the Account Planners work with Creative team?

“It’s interesting because Jon Steele, who is one of the better-known planners in the US, in his book, he wrote, ‘The creative brief should be the first piece of creative on the assignment.’ So absolutely, we need to kick start that.“

“A big part of what we do with creatives is to craft the briefs, and brief them, and actually the briefing is as important as writing the brief itself because the more imaginative you can make that, the better it will help the creatives understand what you are trying to achieve.“

“Then, it depends a little on the teams you are working with, but with many teams, they actually appreciate having someone like a planner to bounce ideas off of before they make a presentation internally. It’s a lower risk because the planner is hopefully going to understand what they are trying to do and give them ideas about ways to make it sharper or things they may not have thought about but should avoid for whatever reason. We really try to work closely with creatives.”

We try also to interpret when there is research. Many clients will test creative ideas in research. We try to interpret that for the creatives. So it’s not just a question of. ‘did this work or did it not work?’ It’s more of ‘why didn’t this work?’ and what we can do to make this stronger. Pretty often we are acting as that interpreter between the consumer and the creative, both ways—and with the client, as well.”


What makes for a good junior-level Account Planner?

 “I think planners, above all, need to be curious. They need to want to understand why things are the way they are. That’s important because that’s what leads you to have ideas. If you don’t have any ideas as a planner, then it’s always going to be tough—it’ll always be literally interpreting research. It’s much stronger if you have an idea in the first place. “

“I don’t want to say they have to be opinionated, but they certainly have to have confidence in their ideas. They need to have that flexibility to understand how to steer an idea through organizations so they need to know what battles to fight and what not to fight. That kind of flexibility is really important and where people skills come in to understand your audience and how to present an idea—whether it’s internally or to the client. So those are probably the two most important things.”


In terms of Account Planning, what should be included in the portfolio—or is it even standard?

 “I don’t think the portfolio is the standard. I think people really appreciate seeing something from the individual. I would encourage them to, in addition to having the standard resume, to have some examples of work that they’ve done. It doesn’t really matter necessarily if it’s work in a classic communications environment. It could be any other role or job, but if you can describe what you did in that role and demonstrate this curiosity that facilitated ideas, then that’s fine. “

“If you worked in a store and can demonstrate how your understanding of your company and that store led to suggest some change in the customer service or the retail environment changed that would be as interesting and compelling, actually, as a more classic “I wrote this brief.” If you have a strong point of view about advertising or in communication that you have seen, and you can deconstruct that, that’s fine, too.”


What is the interview process like at Leo Burnett?

 “It depends if you are coming into the agency as part of the internship program or in for a specific role. You will be contacted by our recruiting department and talk to them first. Then you will meet a range people. I don’t think it’s any different from many other agencies.

“The thing I always tell people about interviews is—and it’s a classic thing that people always forget—to think about your audience. People are always concerned in an interview, and understandably so, to get all their points in, but sometimes if they can sense that the interviewer is interested in a particular thing and not something else, they should try to steer their interview that way, rather than spending time talking about something that may not be so relevant. I think it’s something we all forget. I forget it, too, sometimes.“


What advice would you give to students who are graduating in today’s world and want to get into advertising?

“It’s a little bit what we already talked about. I would advise them to be as open as possible to different opportunities. That’s because the way the employment situation is now. You may not get in on the classic route, but you may find you have an opportunity in a different part of an agency or in a client company. Find something you can stick with for a while. It’s interesting how much you learn from different environments. That’s my first thing—I would encourage them to be open.”

“I would encourage them to network. I know that one is really obvious, but do it as much as they possibly can. Most people don’t mind being asked for 20 minutes of their time. If you know anyone you can get to talk to, I would do that. I would also go to see them, because going inside an agency gives you a realistic sense of what these places are actually like and whether you are going to like them or not. That’s really what it’s all about. I feel like if people really do that, then they’ll generally land somewhere—even if it’s not the place they envisioned at first, you know, it’s amazing what can happen, so those are the two main things I would suggest.”


What’s the best career you’ve ever received?

 “I don’t know if this is the best advice, but I’ll mention two things.”

“Not all that long ago, someone who has been very successful in the advertising field and who is now an ex-boss of mine, he said to me, ‘After a certain point in your career as an account planner, he reckoned that you stop going up and start going out.’”

“It might be an odd way to describe it, but being less concerned with whether you’re making progression, in terms of seniority and money and that kind of thing, but finding new and interesting things to do. It sounds very obvious, but that was very helpful to me.”

“The other one I’ll quote is Jonathan Steele, the man who wrote Truth, Lies and Advertising. I was lucky enough to talk to him for thirty minutes one time. He said to me, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever had a good idea.’”

“I was astonished.”

“What he said was, ‘What I can do is I can spot a good idea.’”

“I think that’s what we often do. And the ability to not worry about whether is was your idea or not, and not to feel the pressure that you have to come up with the idea all the time–although you may do sometimes—and you should certainly have ideas, but not to always feel that pressure is helpful.”

“Overall, that’s what we do as planners; we spot good ideas, we nurture them and we make them work as hard as we can. That’s very rewarding. Ideas are fun things to work with. That was a good piece of advice for me, too.”


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