The sign at the entrance to the pools in Caesars Palace hotel, Las
Vegas, reads: "European-style topless bathing is permitted only in the
Venus Pool." This is rich. It is all but impossible to avoid topless
Americans in Las Vegas. Thus I contemplated the significance of choosing
Caesars Palace as the venue of the US Account Planning Group's
conference this week, while sipping my yard of margarita by the
Las Vegas means "the meadows", a reminder of when it was just a green
dribble of oasis in the middle of a desert. Twenty years ago, when
Hunter S Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it was a village
of 70,000 residents. Thompson said then that this odd little place was
"the heart of the American Dream, the main story of our generation". Now
it has more than two million residents. It is the fastest-growing city
in the United States and one of the richest.
It was also 20 years ago that account planning sailed to these shores on
the good ship Jane Newman, alighting at Chiat Day. Ten years ago, 30
planners gathered for the first US:APG conference. Today there are more
than 2,000 account planners in American agencies, three times more than
there are in the UK, and 650 of them had come to Las Vegas. But despite
its rapid growth, European-style account planning is still, like topless
bathing, a slightly un-American activity.
The theme of the conference was accountability. This was timely as the
advertising recession has hit US agencies hard. One major West Coast
shop had seven clients at the start of the year. This week it has two.
Last year's conference attracted 1,000 delegates. This year, numbers
were down by one-third, and many left early to get back to their
But the conference chairs (Emma Cookson of Bartle Bogle Hegarty New York
and David Hackworthy of TBWA/Chiat Day New York) said the timing was
coincidence. Discussing the economic value of creativity had been the
objective before the downturn. Cookson said: "Planning still means
different things in different agencies. We wanted to give planners a
practical toolkit to underscore the rigour of the discipline."
The US:APG Awards have also changed to reflect this new emphasis on
accountability. "We need to demonstrate the business value of creative
thinking in terms clients can identify with," Cathy Clift of Rapp
Collins Worldwide, the chair of the judges, said. "We will raise the
status of account planners in the US by introducing more focus on
However, the US:APG faces an uphill task. My fellow judges felt unable
to award an APG Grand Prix this year. The creative work was excellent
but the demonstrations of payback were flimsy. In the conference, only
one of the American speakers (Professor Don Schultz of Northwestern
University) discussed advertising as a serious business proposition, and
he is not an advertising man.
Even Lee Clow of TBWA/Chiat Day, the creative director behind Apple's
"1984" and "think different" campaigns, who has been exposed to account
planning longer than almost anybody in American agencies, talked only
about its role in creative briefing. He argued that the best planning is
the least planning. When working with a genius such as Steve Jobs, Clow
said, the role of the planner is to get out of the way and let the
client's voice be heard. So, apparently, not much added value from
planners even in briefing.
Cookson and Hackworthy said planning in the US has come of age.
Hackworthy said: "In the past, planning behaved like an adolescent -
full of self-doubt and self-importance. But now it is more mature."
However, it was noticeable that most of the American speakers were still
discussing what planners are for and what they should be called (my
favourite suggestion was "serendipity engineers"). In contrast, British
speakers such as BBH's Nigel Bogle and Mike Hall, the founder of the
research company Hall & Partners, reviewed practical, concrete
Robin Hafitz, of Mad Dogs & Englishmen, got a big cheer from the
Americans on the floor by saying she was the only planning director on
the platform who was neither English nor a man. However, without the
male Brits, the conference might have struggled to achieve its
Why are Americans, who are so good at almost everything else to do with
advertising, still so far behind the rest of the world when it comes to
evaluation? In last year's IPA Advertising Effectiveness Awards, none of
the US entries made the shortlist, while prizes went to agencies in
Norway and South Africa.
I suspect it may be partly because American clients have been less
sceptical about the value of spending money on advertising. Agencies
have not had to argue the business case for advertising as much as we
do. So they are unprepared to defend the ad budget when recession hits -
and then, of course, it is too late.
Where we can learn from them is in making APG conferences more fun.
Other speakers included Candace Bushnell, author of Sex in the City,
Paul Begala, a former counsellor to President Clinton, and the movie
director Oliver Stone. What they had to do with accountability toolkits
is not entirely clear. But while they were speaking, you almost forgot
the Venus Pool margaritas were only a few yards away.
I should leave the last words for Stone. He said: "Communication is the
things you say and the things you show. But it is also the things you
don't say and the things you don't show." Absolutely. We'll go and do
Tim Broadbent is the executive planning director of Bates UK. He is the
convenor of judges of the IPA Effectiveness Awards and the editor of
Advertising Works 11.