The chief knew the name of his advertising agency. Good. He had never met anyone who worked there. Bad. But he was very happy with the work it was doing. By which he meant, on further quizzing, that the ads were "nice", seemed to be saying the right things about his brand and he was satisfied they were effective enough to represent value for money.
But it was an unsatisfying conversation. As far as this chief executive was concerned, his advertising agency was there to support his marketing team; if they were happy (and made his procurement department happy), he was happy and that was the end of it.
The idea that his agency could offer him anything beyond the execution of a marketing strategy was not part of his boardroom thinking. And, to be fair, it seems that the advertising agency in question had never really made much effort to persuade him that it perhaps should be.
In the context of Richard Huntington's article on planning (page 24), such attitudes from the top of client companies pose a real challenge. It seems marketers are demanding, and appreciating, good planning more than ever as they acknowledge the growing complexities of communication. But many client boardrooms simply don't see the value that agency planning expertise can add throughout their business, beyond the job of marketing communications.
Agencies with long memories rail against the demise of their status with client companies, complain that they are no longer seen as business partners but as commodity suppliers. The best route out of the commodity box surely lies in the hands of brilliant planners. And not just because of planning's ability to help shape transformational creative ideas but particularly because of its ability to inform fundamental business decisions (NPD, retail strategy, international expansion and so on) through deep consumer insight.
If there is a crisis in planning, perhaps it's one of confidence. Not the confidence of the planners themselves, though in my experience they're hardly the pushiest, most attention-seeking people in adland. It's agencies' confidence in their planning departments that needs attention.
Rarely do agencies talk about the brilliant planning insight that goes into a great new piece of creative work. And in many agencies, star planners are rarely given the same sort of oxygen enjoyed by star creatives.
But I suspect senior clients like the one I met the other day would be more interested in engaging with their advertising agency if they really knew it could help unlock fresh insights into their target consumers and how best to serve them. And perhaps then they might start taking agencies seriously as business partners once more.