It’s mayhem out there. Rapidly accelerating technology, combined
with end-of-millennium chaos, has made the world an unpredictable place,
where the pace of change and the variety of possibilities are almost
This is not the world that planners were born into when Stanley Pollitt
first delivered the concept in the late 60s. At that time, agency
researchers were mere back-room gurus, but Pollitt set them to work as
equal partners with the account managers, believing that research data
would be used much more effectively as a result.
Although the principle remains the same, the role of the planner in the
late 90s is being threatened from all sides. Twenty years ago, a planner
was the strategic brain for both agency and client, but account men and
marketers are now deemed to be better strategic thinkers, leaving the
traditional planner without a real point of difference.
Any planner will admit good planning is not their sole preserve. The old
baton-passing style - where the client briefs the account director, who
briefs the planner, who briefs the creatives - is too rigid to inspire
the originality, insight and flow of ideas needed to cut through in
today’s crowded market.
On top of this, clients, often sceptical about their agencies’
objectivity, are more frequently turning to consultancies to find
unbiased research and strategic input.
Planners are having to work hard to justify their existence and must
fight to hold on to their territory. The use of outside quantitative and
qualitative researchers at all stages of the advertising process is now
an accepted fact, and is generally agreed to be a better use of
resources all round. But planning directors are warning their staff not
to take this as an excuse to relinquish responsibility - by attending
groups, the planner can maintain some control over proceedings and
retain ownership of the thinking for the agency.
Just getting to the consumer is becoming a problem in itself, what with
the research group groupies who build a lifestyle around attending such
gatherings, and the public’s increasingly fickle approach to
It is no longer enough just to listen to the consumer. Nigel Jones, the
head of planning at BMP DDB, says: ’The world is getting more complex
and it is up to planners to create a new vision. Today’s research is all
about keeping one step ahead - provoking and testing consumers, or
watching how they behave with a product. You look for ideas and
opportunities rather than answers.’
Jones points to the biggest challenge for planners today, encapsulated
in a statement made by Akio Morita, the chief executive of Sony
Corporation: ’Creating ideas is about looking for the unexpected and
stepping outside your experience ... The public does not know what is
possible, but we do.’
So instead of asking people what they want, planners now have to come up
with unique insights and new angles that will help creatives capture the
consumer’s imagination. And this is where the planner can create a real
difference in the advertising process, providing a unique and invaluable
input that leaves his or her validity beyond question.
In past decades, planning was about using research to uncover a ’truth’
about a brand that the creative department then translated into an
Now, Jones explains, ’We can’t just discover a brand’s heart and replay
that in the advertising - we have to create a whole new truth or future
for the brand, inventing a fresh relationship between it and the
An example of this is the famous Health Education Authority spot, set in
a condom factory, which featured a middle-aged woman chatting happily
about her work there. The idea came from the premise that people find
condoms embarrassing, so BMP DDB devised a future where the most
ordinary person felt comfortable talking about them.
MT Rainey, the planning partner at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, also
sees a more flexible future for planning. Since the agency started three
years ago, she has not hired any planning staff to assist her, despite a
heavy workload from clients such as Virgin Atlantic and the Times.
Instead, she uses outside resources for research and testing, freeing
her up to concentrate on developing strategies and contributing
’It’s all about hypothesis testing - not asking consumers what they want
but working to upset the equilibrium and coming up with a new point of
view. I am always looking to disturb the status quo and realign our
brands against the competition,’ she explains.
The increased complexity of markets can make the planner’s job more
difficult and more valuable. Mike Perry, who has just left Simons Palmer
Clemmow Johnson to start his own strategic consultancy, Headlight
Vision, says: ’Some markets are merging - particularly in the alcoholic
drinks sector where beers used to compete solely against other beers but
now, with alcoholic sodas, it is blurring into one massive drinks
market. A beer planner must think wider than beer and attack other
International work, still in its early days, is adding another dimension
to the planner’s role, providing a tough challenge for even the most
creative strategist. Brands such as Coca-Cola and Levi’s are fairly easy
as they are all about selling Americana, but some other products present
Working on Dulux, BMP came up against an unexpected hurdle when its
planners discovered that hardly anyone has skirting boards in Germany,
so the market for gloss was limited. Advertising vacuum cleaners across
Europe also uncovered awkward differences - the British are houseproud
and fond of carpets but Italians tend not to entertain at home and often
have wooden flooring.
However, the agency’s spot for Sony television, where a man is thrown
out of a plane clutching an armchair, ran successfully in 24 markets
because, as Jones says: ’It is about a vision of the brand and it
clearly communicates the message that Sony enhances your
Charlie Robertson, who founded the planning consultancy, Red Spider,
spends much of his time doing international work, coming up with
’solutions that can travel’. In an ideal world, he says, his company
would not exist, but there just aren’t enough planners to go round -
partly because agencies are still penny-pinching and partly because
training in the discipline is shockingly hard to come by. ’Agencies
shouldn’t be outsourcing,’ he says. ’They lose so much by not being in
constant touch with their own business.’
Research innovations, such as econometrics, are almost inevitably
outsourced, except in the most dedicated of planning agencies, notably
BMP. Econometrics, which was developed in an attempt to make sense of
chaotic consumerism, is the application of scientific measurement and
prediction to the increasing number of variables that are brought to
bear on consumer choice.
For example, BT used the technique to separate out the effectiveness of
its advertising from other influences on call volume, particularly
economic factors such as prices. Even weather can be isolated as a
factor using econometrics.
Max Burt, the author of the BT Bob Hoskins strategy who is now the
planning director of DMB&B, says: ’We must be as rigorous as we can in
our testing - it justifies our existence. If we are going to ask clients
to put their faith in us, we have to button-down how advertising
In the leaner 90s, clients are demanding even greater effectiveness.
Nigel Brotherton, the advertising manager for Volkswagen, says:
’Planning is essential - you can have the best creative agency in the
world but if you don’t get the message right, you are wasting your time
With TV prices going up and media fragmenting, advertising has to be
ever more effective and well targeted.’
As well as the might of the BMP planners, VW has an in-house planning
department that concentrates on statistical analysis and strategic
Yet Brotherton stresses the importance of creating a close and seamless
relationship between the two sets of planners.
This division of planning tasks usually means the client takes the
’upstream’ trip - centering on company strategy and innovation - while
the agency travels ’downstream’ - focusing on creative inspiration and
Brand strategies are now almost as likely to relate to direct marketing
and new media as to above-the-line advertising. Agency planners must
work towards the ’total communications solution’, and can only maintain
their advantage by convincing clients that they are prepared to work in
a variety of media.
The escalation of media, messages, and product innovation is creating a
confusing marketplace, where smart targeting is more important than
ever. But it is up to planners to make sure they are the ones devising
the all-important strategy.
When the Berlin Wall came down, East German housewives rushed greedily
into West German supermarkets but, once inside, many of them burst into
tears, overwhelmed by the choice. As Robertson says: ’The solution to
the mayhem is still the same as it was in the 70s - well-known, classic
brands generate trust and reduce the problems of choice. Only good
planning allows creatives to target the emotions, and that is where
brands have always lived.’
The story of planning since Pollitt pioneered the discipline
This graphic shows the total population of account planning and research
staff in IPA member agencies since 1960
At the newly formed ’academy of planning’, Boase Massimi Pollitt,
Pollitt becomes a magnet for graduate talent. He develops a system of
pre-testing that is honest, effective and friendly to creatives.
Planners, as he now calls them, undertake their own group research.
Under Stephen King (above), its head of new product development, JWT
also establishes a department called account planning.
There are a staggering 814 researchers in adland. Stanley Pollitt
(right), the inventor of account planning and an account director at
Pritchard Wood, takes over the agency’s four research functions.
Violently opposed to the ludicrous techniques then used to assess ads,
such as measuring pupil dilation, Pollitt’s views are reinforced by the
lessons of Bill Bernbach’s creative work: ’Be simple, direct,
essentially honest and credible and emerge as a sponsoring
Clients break the mould by choosing fashionable start-ups with planners
as founding partners. Planners with their name over the door include
John Bartle (BBH), Leslie Butterfield (BDDH), Adam Lury (HHCL) and
Damian O’Malley (WMGO).
The Account Planning Group is born. Its first chairman is Charles
Channon, of Charles Barker (left). The aim? To bring together a
discipline that had been started in diverse agencies with different
Launch of the IPA Effectiveness Awards highlights the role of account
planning. The focus has shifted from planning as a creatively focused
pre-testing tool to planning as a strategic discipline.
Chiat Day’s president, Jay Chiat, responds to what he sees as the more
innovative and focused work coming out of the UK by making his the first
US agency to introduce planning. BMP-trained Jane Newman is recruited to
the task amid initial resistance from colleagues and clients. In two
years, however, she has recruited 21 planners - including one
Marie-Terese Rainey, from Gold Greenlees Trott (below). Other Brits have
since followed in Newman’s footsteps: John Steele left BMP for Goodby
Silverstein, Damian O’Malley left WMGO for DDB Needham in New York and
Chris Riley left BBH for Wieden and Kennedy.
The 80s sees the birth of the ’planning independent’. Most early
attempts end up as market research agencies. Red Spider - established in
1995 by the former BBH and Leith’s planning director, Charlie Robertson
- is a success, positioning itself as a brand communications
’A shrinking world increases pressure on being imaginative about
strategy ’ Robertson says.
McCanns’ chief executive, Brian Watson, abolishes planning, dubbing it a
’con’ and incorporating it into four new account groups. McCanns’
creative director, Jerry Green (left), says: ’Planning has been dead for
years, but no-one had the guts to admit it.’ The industry scoffs that
most McCanns work is imposed from outside anyway. By 1991, McCanns is
quietly hiring heavyweight planners. The latest twist, as of this month,
is for McCanns to take planning back into account groups, abolishing its
Launch of the APG awards, intended to honour agency planners whose work
has been a catalyst for creativity. Cheers all round.
Explosion of media channels. ’It’s all about getting to the future
first,’ one agency chief says. The complexity of many markets has made
the planner’s job more difficult - and more valuable.