US Perspective: The rise, fall and rise of the US account planner

The year was 2000 AD. The place: Southern California. The halls outside the busy conference centre hummed with a gentle buzz as serious-looking, blue-suited men offered copious amounts of money and promises of enormous future riches to geeky-looking twentysomethings barely out of college. Sponsors threw parties full of goodwill and girls who fawned over these one-time victims of the sand kick from the bully on the beach. Not to be outdone, vixens in combat pants and San Diego T-shirts dripping with irony discussed the finer details of stock option plans to the beat of the latest imported house music.

Meanwhile, inside the meeting rooms, powerful presenters converted the jaded among them into believers and the recently converted became instant gurus. Jaws slacked in pure wonder at the utopian visions laid forth.

This event? COMDEX? E3? No, it was the US APG conference. Those were the days in agency land here. The late Jay Chiat imported account planning to the States. Inside Chiat/Day the seed was nurtured. Brit planners flooded America's shores and the breed was incubated within numerous successful boutiques until it was subsumed into the US behemoths. But just like the "dotcom" bubble, it all came crashing down around us planners.

With the chill of recession being felt, budget-squeezed clients started to ask: "What exactly is behind those Paul Smith glasses? What manner of person populates the ubiquitous black turtlenecks? How, exactly, is it that those people with the funny accents help my rapidly diminishing bottom line?"

And so began the era of the planning book. Previously gainfully occupied planners started to write books about their contributions to US business success, not unlike other ad luminaries. Meanwhile, the legacy of the account planner was being torn down by recession-empowered CFOs. Groovy open-plan office seating areas were emptied and sub-let to anyone who would pay 50 cents on the dollar for the ergonomically correct furniture that was within. Like the dotbombers of the same generation, it seemed the account planners had met their demise.

But being strategically brilliant, and wily in our ways, this was only a momentary setback for planning and the towering ambition of those who bear the name. Not satisfied with occupying the diminishing space of strategic boffin within the agency, we had the brilliant and characteristically contrarian notion of taking over the whole agency. A new breed of planner, the CEO, emerged.

The possibilities were immense. Now couldn't everything, not just the presentations or the brilliant leap taken on the way to the creative, but the office space, the financial reports, even the choice of coffee to be served, be smart, insightful and laden with meaning?

So what next for these mavins of cultural influence on commercial intent?

Now that media planning has been transformed from a crude game of numbers to a sensitive understanding of the role that media properties, and therefore your brand, play within the lives of the viewer. Now that design has fallen under the spell of strategic inquiry. Even the shelf wobbler and sales promotion are no longer random acts of recycled ideas. What next? Golf? No. Hollywood.

Mr Scorsese, we have to tell you that your vision of "maleness" is out of step with how American men see themselves today. Cigars and handguns have been replaced as signifiers of meaning by yam pills and hand cream.

We think you might want to revisit your script. Oh, and by the way, we have a few ideas for you to consider. Not really creative or anything, you know, just thought starters.

- Stuart Elliott is away.

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