To the outsider, account planning can appear a strange specialism with a very stupid name.
One minute, planning appears to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, with headhunters bemoaning the difficulties of finding experienced planners.
Then yet another agency, struggling to survive and cutting budgets back to the basics of client service with creative output, rejects the whole planning concept altogether.
The planning movement was born of a flame of frustration that creativity was stifled by poor research practices. I don't think research is today's frustration so much as the mundanity of the majority of ads. But planning always has been and always will be a percentages game of improving the odds of getting better solutions, more often, more consistently and more quickly.
Some clients will tell you that they cannot get enough of it and that agencies are letting them down in the planning stakes; at the same time, agency bigwigs are saying there is no call for planning. What is particularly odd about this is that the agencies denying the need for planning just happen to be on that same client's roster.
The real question facing agencies is not the usefulness but the affordability of planners. "Our account directors are our planners," was the proud boast of a trade press advertising campaign for one agency, but it was getting such a caning from the competition across the street on new business week in week out that it soon joined the ranks. The agency could no longer afford not to have account planning because too many clients look to agencies for insightful strategy.
In the old days, when ad agencies were paid by commission, I was presenting the value of planning at Bartle Bogle Hegarty to a Norwegian agency, who were friends of the creative director. One of the managers pulled out a costing sheet from his briefcase and asked: "How do you handle this situation with clients?" It was an itemised menu of prices including a tick box with a price for planning. In 16 years as a planner, I had never seen anything like that. I said: "You don't stand a chance of having anyone tick that box who has never worked with account planners before. How would they know what they were buying?"
The glass-half-empty brigade could say that account planning has not served itself well, because it does not display its wares as plain, simple and sufficiently useful to be able to command its full market price within agencies. Yet the London account planning diaspora is impressive, and the world has pockets of its excellence in Amsterdam, Madrid, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney and Tokyo, and many towns in between.
Three reasons led to the spread. London was seen as the seat of creative excellence. It had an extra ingredient in the shape of account planners who were putting in better briefs. Hotshop US ad agencies decided to copy the London style. Glass ceilings in London agency structures meant senior account planners were capped in their careers, so some of the more ambitious joined the brain drain. Headhunters started specialising in account planning and created movement in the market for talent.
And these trends will continue because London's account planning method is desired by the other marketing services organisations. The betting has been on media companies for some time now to embrace more and more of the consumer planning advice that clients want and need. Media companies have built client relationships where they have the client's ear on targeting debates. Media used to have to play tail-end Charlie and take what was put on the media brief, but not now. At the same time, the past ten years have seen a flurry of mid-ground activity with lots of marketing services start-ups. All of these new breeds of company now have access to a surprising array of creative freelance talent, and some of them begin to behave like ad agencies. You have to wonder why the media companies have not gone down this path and tapped into the creative freelance markets, so offering account planning and creative services to rival the traditional creative agencies. This would go back to where ad agencies started. Once they sold the media space, they hired writers for clients who did not want to write their own ads.
Meanwhile, a vast array of advertising agencies are going through a crisis of confidence and, in looking to their future, have reverted back to basics, saying: "We do the ads." This mentality leaves the communications planning to go a-begging, and potentially undermines the entire raison d'etre of the traditional ad agency.
Marco Rimini presented a challenging piece of thinking some years ago on the balance of talent and money. He suggested that market forces would apply and that ad agency talent would end up shifting to media companies.
His 80/20 rule was that 80 per cent of talent currently sits with 20 per cent of the money, which is an odd balance when you think about it. The resistance to market forces, I think he would admit, is cultural (our priorities, how we believe the market works and the style we do things around here). This is not to say that the shift across of planning talent cannot be done, or will not happen, but it will require significant adaptation of how planners work.
A big cultural block is the idea that ad agencies are ideas factories (an early Jeremy Bullmore comment) and, as such, remain very attractive and stimulating environments to work in, despite the doldrums of the market and the current hangdog expressions on the faces of many senior practitioners.
Ad agencies still have a higher proportion of fun to be had than other sectors.
However, it is not just about ideas in themselves: there's no money in that. It is about applied ideas in the art of selling. In this respect, the account planning light will not dim, because to be better at selling you need to have a better understanding of buyers.
Although the industry talks a lot about aligning the advertising strategy, the campaign idea and the style of execution, rooted in consumer insight, all too often this ideal structure gets all mixed up. Planners are good at untying the knots agencies and clients sometimes get themselves in to.
There is a lovely illustration by Jeff Fisher that accompanies a business essay by the guru of business gurus, Peter Drucker. When Drucker was asked for the best business book of all time, he chose My Years with General Motors by Alfred P Sloan. He recounted a story that Sloan would mystery shop for cars before board meetings and then quiz his fellow directors on various aspects of the business based on his own grass-roots observations. The illustration is of a variety of sizes of cogs in a massive machine with a small figure in the bottom corner of the picture turning the only crank handle. Great creative campaigns are born of great strategy, which in turn is born from a great insight into how people choose and buy, or don't buy, products and services. That is what really cranks the handle.
But to move account planning on, we need to be able to adapt its methods to fit better with business imperatives where: time = money + resource (a neat equation borrowed from a McKinsey article). Inevitably, account planning skills will find themselves increasingly at the centre of business models built for integrated communications, including talk of next year's fashion - the brand experience. Integrated communications planning won't be done by itself. Clients have the money but do not have the time. If agencies do not have the resource, they cannot ask for the money. Ergo there is a market to be made as money seeks resource.
The call to account planners is the same for others in the industry, that there is a need to adapt to your environment and the business imperatives.
Get real about time. In working with process-led culture, you should have more than enough to draw upon in the planners' toolkit to use this system to your advantage.
But perhaps one of the biggest barriers to progress is internal. "Planning does not have enough No 1 types," was the concluding remark of a speaker at the Account Planning Group USA at the end of the 80s. This ex-West Point military strategist expounded a theory of strategy that there are only "monster missions" and that all other strategies are useless. He gave a chilling example of a monster mission from the Gulf War - kill Saddam. With this in place, all plans and operations were made simpler to co-ordinate as everyone was focused on this one goal, he argued. His remarks rang true as I looked around the assembled audience. What was our monster mission, where were our killers, and who or what is the enemy these days?
I think today's enemy is that the urgent continues to drive out the important, which leads to the death of great advertising. All parties in the advertising decision-making process have a hand in this and must take some responsibility for it. But despite the Drucker story, one of the things you learn at business school is that the chairman of the company is the least-well-placed person to know what's going on on the street. The market researcher is actually the best-placed person to have a handle on those issues. But it's the account planners' skills that are what's needed to bridge the gap, to understand the opportunity to create advertising that turns people on. We should never forget that it is the buyer at the end of the chain who is paying everyone's bills. It's the account planner's job, and always will be, to ensure we always remember that fact.
THE BRAIN DRAIN
'Glass ceilings in London agency structures meant senior account planners were capped in their careers, so some of the more ambitious joined the brain drain'
'A big cultural block is the idea that ad agencies are ideas factories and, as such, remain very attractive and stimulating environments to work in'
'A speaker at the Account Planning Group USA at the end of the 80s expounded a theory of strategy that there are only monster missions and that all other strategies are useless. He gave a chilling example of a monster mission from the Gulf War - kill Saddam. With this in place, all plans and operations were simpler to co-ordinate as everyone was focused on this one goal, he argued'.