Opinion: Perspective - Time to give planners the plaudits they deserve

"Have you ever heard a client talk about how great the planning on their advertising is?" an agency chief executive asked me the other day. "Clients are about as interested in planning as they are the type of pencils our creatives use."

For obvious reasons, I will protect the anonymity of this particular agency boss, but although his opinion is extreme, it is not entirely unique. Planners are rarely an agency's most visible or celebrated assets.

No doubt some clients out there are oblivious to the contribution planning makes to their advertising. It's not their fault. Why should clients feel it keenly when the industry does so little to enlighten them about the vital role planning plays in creating a climate for creative excellence and advertising effectiveness.

It's certainly unusual for planners to hog the agency limelight. In all the "why-we're-great" agency presentations I go to, rarely does the planning director stand up and do a turn, talking about fine examples of their work. Perhaps it's because it's much harder to showcase planning excellence. Or perhaps planners' DNA doesn't comfortably accommodate razzmatazz and showmanship. Either way, you can't see the light for the bushels, mostly.

So it takes something like the Account Planning Awards to platform great planning work. And as a judge, having just sat through two days of intense, live case-study presentations, it's obvious that the planning discipline is thriving. But, planners being navel-gazing planners, it's also obvious that the function itself is in flux.

Defining planning is a more complex business these days. Or rather, defining a planner is more complex. Planners are still the people who ensure the consumer data available to agencies results in relevant creative work (not much internal competition for that role). But in other respects - as ideas-generation has become democratised - they have become facilitators: not necessarily coming up with the killer idea themselves, but ensuring that the agency collaborates internally so that such ideas evolve.

And with more clients demanding collaboration between all their communications agencies, planners - with their empathetic people-skills - are increasingly greasing that process, too. Mind you, on that point, I wonder how many more interesting planning ideas would have come forward if the APG awards actively embraced planning thinking outside the traditional agency confines; none of the shortlisted papers showed any evidence of a media planning contribution, for example.

Anyway, what was clear from the cream of this year's APG entries was that, when planning is at its best, it allows ad agencies to develop deeper relationships with their clients. The best planners earn the right to contribute to their clients' business issues, not just their communications ones.

Clients increasingly see agencies as suppliers of a commodity (advertising), rather than business partners that can help address more fundamental business challenges. So finding ways to dig deeper and contribute more broadly has never been more important.

It's vital that agencies get better at championing the value of their planning firepower, because planning is surely agencies' key route out of the commodity trap. To do that, though, the industry needs more and better planning talent, and it needs to forcibly recognise that planners are more than just the lubricant for great ideas.

Back to the original question: how many clients ever talk about their agencies' planning? The answer actually is quite a few. After all, it's the planners who really give them the ammunition to fight the battles they need to fight internally, and who give them permission to effect change. At their best, planners are partners. That deserves to be celebrated, so the APG's new Strategy Agency of the Year Award should become one of the most coveted around.