3 keys to setting up a Strategy Department like an American Pioneer

One of the great things about working at big agencies is the ability to pool smart brains together. However, to reap the benefits of size, you need to work at it.

You need to set the foundations that allow for an environment where the collective brain is mightier than the brightest planner.

At BBDO we had this, it is only on reflection that I realize what we were doing that made it so great.

There’s a lot of similarities with how the early American pioneers would pool their resources and head west together.

The three foundations that any planning department should put in place are; circling the wagons (sitting together), campfires (weekly meetings) and cookbooks (Google Drive)


Every night the pioneers would circle their wagons and camp together. This was for protection from wild animals and indians however the real value was the ability to learn great skills from each other at night.

If you have a planning department that is not sitting next to each other you are missing a huge amount of value. That value comes through knowledge spillover.

Having others in your vicinity doing the same job as you naturally exposes you to new ways of thinking about your craft and adopting what works best. Strong bonds also start with small chit chat, those small morning “how was your weekend?” lead to you asking for help and advice etc.

Don’t underestimate the value of peering over neighbors shoulder and seeing how they design a slide or having someone to grab when you need to vent about a situation. 


Campfire allowed pioneers to share their knowledge with each other and create the values of the group. Similarly it is important that you have a regular meeting for your team to reinforce your departments values.

At BBDO we had a weekly 9AM meeting (office kicked off at 10AM) that was key to forming the bond and identity of the group. We created an hour forum that was focused around us learning from each other so we could become the best at our jobs. All the knowledge we needed would be in that room, it was our job to make sure it got shared between everyone.

People would share post reports, new research or we would turn it into a book club. The important thing is that you get everyone from the group sharing. It is not the most senior talking it needs to be everyone.

We would try a number of new formats out in this meeting too, from using 5 minutes to share 5 photos that describe you as a person, to using it as a time to talk about major events that impact us, like the high school shootings.

You create the values of the department in this weekly meeting, make it mandatory to attend.


The cookbook was an easily accessible resource for early pioneers who had to navigate using new produce that they were not familiar with.

Similarly for a planning department having one place that is easy for everyone to share information is key. For us this was Google Drive, this resource was amazing; everyone’s best presentation, research, white papers, passwords, were all kept in this one area. Although I.T hated the security level, it was important to take that bullet so we had something people would actually use.

It was a place people could steal from each other ideas on how to present. We had a one page intro of the best hits for new hires who could navigate the drive too. As the leader of the group you need to make sure that everyone is uploading, so when you see something great ask that the planner put it up there.

The Google Drive was complimented with a group email list, we tried Facebook At Work and Slack which both didn’t work. Don’t try and force a new technology, connect what people are already doing. If you want to try something new; give it a month and if it doesn’t work then revert back! 


This will be a great foundation to the start of a department but the thing that will make it great is the culture. The next post I am going to write is on the lessons I have learnt on sowing the seeds of a planning culture.

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