CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/US:APG CONFERENCE - Fear and planning on the American campaign trail. US agencies still have a lot to learn about planning's role, Tim Broadbent writes

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

pool.



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

desks.



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

results."



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

techniques.



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

objective.



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

that then.



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.



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