Two agencies can justifiably claim joint parentage of account
planning in Britain. So when one of them declares its intention to
rethink its entire approach to the discipline, the industry is compelled
to take notice.
J. Walter Thompson which, along with BMP DDB, gave birth to the account
planner more than 30 years ago, wants to supplement its account planning
department with strategic consultants. They will not only use JWT’s
resources to service their own business - from which the agency will
take a cut - but put their brains to the service of JWT’s clients.
Marco Rimini, JWT’s head of strategy and development and the driving
force behind the changes, claims they will benefit everybody. The agency
can draw on the best strategic thinkers to put before its clients. The
consultants can continue enjoying the flexible working arrangements
without the feelings of isolation that freelancing can bring.
In some ways, JWT is formalising a long-standing but never publicised
arrangement under which agencies draft in outside help when their
planning departments are in danger of caving in under heavy workloads.
One planning chief at a leading agency says he used almost a dozen
freelancers for one-off projects last year.
The difference is that JWT wants to make the consultants an integral and
permanent part of its offering. The agency recognises a changing
employment climate. While Rimini insists he has no difficulty attracting
talented planners into staff jobs, the fact remains that such people are
becoming increasingly hard to find.
The dearth is partly a legacy of the industry’s severe cutback on the
recruitment of graduate trainees during the recession-hit early 90s. The
good planners that remain can have their pick not only of agency jobs
but of other opportunities within marketing services companies.
Some have switched to client companies. Others look to management
consultancies for fulfilment. ’The big advantage in working for
management consultancies is that you gain access to the people at the
very top of a company,’ Lucy Purdy, the Publicis planning director,
says. ’For planners, that’s very seductive.’
Meanwhile, the communication revolution has made it much easier for
planners to combine work with family commitments.
JWT is determined to reclaim the high ground at a time when clients are
besieged with strategic advice from every direction.
Rimini is determined that the new department, @JWT, should include not
just planning consultants but anybody capable of innovative strategic
thought, be they former account directors or experts in new-product
The result, he hopes, is that clients will consider the agency for tasks
they might never previously have thought to assign it.
Can such a bold experiment work? Rimini claims the agency is already
getting expressions of interest from top ’thinkers’. It’s clear,
however, that despite JWT’s promises of flexibility, prospects may take
a lot of persuading.
Chris Forrest, the former planning chief at Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters,
says he would have to weigh any firm assurances against the benefits of
the consultancy work which enables him to have more time with his three
Jackie Boulter, the ex-Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO planning director who
went solo last year, is reluctant to be drawn back into an agency where,
she says, planners can feel devalued by being part of a chain. Nor does
she accept that consultancy is a lonely life. ’There’s lots of
collaboration between people like me,’ she says.
Another big question is whether a group of transient superstars will
demotivate staffers in the agency’s existing account planning
Rimini insists that @JWT will actually incentivise the department as
people get an insight into future career opportunities.
Also debatable is how such a change will affect relationships between
agencies and clients who need the comfort of knowing their planners are
permanently and deeply immersed in their business.
John Ward, Bates UK’s vice-chairman responsible for strategy, believes
planners cannot be truly effective if they operate at arm’s length.
’There is always a need for the physical presence of a persuasive
planner,’ he comments. ’Planning isn’t a distant discipline. It’s about
The litmus test for what JWT is doing is whether or not clients will
give it the thumbs up. John Hooper, director-general of the Incorporated
Society of British Advertisers, applauds the agency for a bold move but
worries about confidentiality. ’I would need to feel very confident that
these people are properly tied in and are not working on competitive
Raoul Pinnell, Shell International’s global head of brands and
communications and a major JWT client, also welcomes the move as
evidence of agencies regaining their rightful place but wonders about
the financial implications.
’I believe agencies give clients consumer insights that consultants do
not,’ he says. ’But if this is being presented as an added-value
service, we have to be quite clear how it’s to be paid for.’
A leading agency chief and former planning director sums up the
collective confusion. ’It’s clear what @JWT is not, but not what it is,’
’Is it a planning department or an independent consultancy? If clients
are offered a superior form of planning as an add-on, does it imply that
planning isn’t central to JWT any more?’