• 07.23.13

What Nate Silver Can Teach Us About Creativity–And Account Planning

DDB Chicago strategist Tom Hehir takes issue with today’s accepted wisdom on the role of the account planner and the primacy of expressive creativity. He finds inspiration in Nate Silver, who embodies and embraces a role as creative problem solver.

What Nate Silver Can Teach Us About Creativity–And Account Planning

I think it’s fair to say that most people’s least favorite topic in advertising is account planning. You probably would go as far to say you hate a planner or two. Most people find us pompous, useless, or up our own asses. With that rave review, I think its fair to say that account planning is in trouble. In today’s industry, prevailing opinion tells us it is the job of the account person to tell us what the client wants, the job of the creative to tell us what the creative wants, and the job of the planner to tell us what the consumer wants. I don’t believe planning’s job should be to represent the consumer. I believe this notion is uncreative, and undervalues the skills of a good planner. Instead, I suggest we look to Nate Silver, and his enigmatic methods to answer, what is the role of planning?


Today, it seems that everyone fancies himself a creative regardless of title, training, or qualifications. Blame Don Draper, blame coddling parents with touchy-feely parenting methods, blame our technological age that has made “making” easier than ever before, but today we see these aspiring creatives everywhere. They carry their digital SLRs, they have style blogs, they tumbl, remix, edit, curate, comment, post–all in the name of creation and creativity. The desire to express one’s inner creative is running rampant in the minds of freshly graduated strategists, and it is a huge problem.

Now, I’m young: 25. Relatively inexperienced–two years in. I’ve never been formerly trained to do advertising. And I write in fear of seeming like the worst kind of curmudgeon. But I write this because the more young people I work with, mentor, and speak to on student visits, the more I worry that account planning is losing its future and its relevance to our industry. In many places, though not all, we are teaching our young planners that their responsibility is to express the consumer’s inmost desires, and to do so by writing briefs, insights, and ‘one-things’ that should be creative above all else. We have taught them to be something akin to a creative, and in doing so we have led them astray.

So what does Nate Silver have to do with planning? For starters, Silver is the statistician who correctly predicted the presidential winner in 49 out of 50 and in 50 of 50 states (and the District of Columbia) in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, respectively. He is arguably the best human behavioral forecaster the world has ever seen (and he recently made news with his move from the New York Times to ESPN). For Silver, that ability translates to knowing what makes people vote for one candidate over another; for us advertisers, it would mean knowing what makes a consumer purchase one product over another. As a result of this ability, Silver was also selected one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in 2013–in fact, he topped the list.

So how does he do it?

In his interview with Fast Company’s Jon Gertner, Silver denies conventional logic in explaining his own success. It is not ‘Big Data’ (sorry, Google) that helps him, nor does he seem to believe he’s smarter than his contemporaries. His answer: creativity.
“I think there are two types of creativity,” he says. The first is what he calls “pure expression”–a phrase to describe the work of musicians, poets, actors, dancers, and the like. “The other kind,” he says, “is finding different ways to approach and solve a problem. I’m not sure of the first kind, but I think I have a lot of the problem-solving type of creativity.” Math, as he once put it, “is a different language you can use to think through problems.”

This description of creativity occurring in two kinds, is very helpful in understanding the role creativity has to play in planning (analytical creativity), and how it is clearly differentiated from the creativity of creatives (expressive creativity).

The job of the planner is to analyze, not express. The job of the planner is to develop effective advertising strategies, not represent the consumer’s voice in a creative way. In short, the planner’s job is to fix shit. When it comes to training young planners, we must first arm them with tools to analyze problems, not the tools of expression. And the tools for thinking through problems are numerous. Research helps us do this. Economics helps us do this. Statistics help us do this. Even the lowly focus group can help us do this. These tools help us distill knowledge and information from the milieu of experience. It is impossible to assess a problem, let alone a solution, in the absence of information. As a young planner, this is how I want to be trained, and fortunately how I am being trained.


Nate Silver believes there are two kinds of creativity–one that is expressive and a second that is analytical. In my mind, the ideal planner wholeheartedly wishes they were the former but knows with full conviction that they are helplessly the latter. I wish music flowed from my mind and poetry slipped from my lips, but instead I solve problems others can’t. I am a Planner.

Tom Hehir is a senior strategist at DDB Chicago.

[Image: Nam Y. Huh | AP Images | Flickr users Steve Snodgrass, Eliazar Parra Cardenas, and Quinn Dombrowski]