DOES PLANNING HAVE A FUTURE? [SH] At all stages of the ad process, outside researchers are seen as the best use of resources. Just how hard will planners have to work to justify their existence and are they tough enough to hold on to their territory? Emma

It’s mayhem out there. Rapidly accelerating technology, combined with end-of-millennium chaos, has made the world an unpredictable place, where the pace of change and the variety of possibilities are almost unfathomable.

It’s mayhem out there. Rapidly accelerating technology, combined

with end-of-millennium chaos, has made the world an unpredictable place,

where the pace of change and the variety of possibilities are almost


This is not the world that planners were born into when Stanley Pollitt

first delivered the concept in the late 60s. At that time, agency

researchers were mere back-room gurus, but Pollitt set them to work as

equal partners with the account managers, believing that research data

would be used much more effectively as a result.

Although the principle remains the same, the role of the planner in the

late 90s is being threatened from all sides. Twenty years ago, a planner

was the strategic brain for both agency and client, but account men and

marketers are now deemed to be better strategic thinkers, leaving the

traditional planner without a real point of difference.

Any planner will admit good planning is not their sole preserve. The old

baton-passing style - where the client briefs the account director, who

briefs the planner, who briefs the creatives - is too rigid to inspire

the originality, insight and flow of ideas needed to cut through in

today’s crowded market.

On top of this, clients, often sceptical about their agencies’

objectivity, are more frequently turning to consultancies to find

unbiased research and strategic input.

Planners are having to work hard to justify their existence and must

fight to hold on to their territory. The use of outside quantitative and

qualitative researchers at all stages of the advertising process is now

an accepted fact, and is generally agreed to be a better use of

resources all round. But planning directors are warning their staff not

to take this as an excuse to relinquish responsibility - by attending

groups, the planner can maintain some control over proceedings and

retain ownership of the thinking for the agency.

Just getting to the consumer is becoming a problem in itself, what with

the research group groupies who build a lifestyle around attending such

gatherings, and the public’s increasingly fickle approach to


It is no longer enough just to listen to the consumer. Nigel Jones, the

head of planning at BMP DDB, says: ’The world is getting more complex

and it is up to planners to create a new vision. Today’s research is all

about keeping one step ahead - provoking and testing consumers, or

watching how they behave with a product. You look for ideas and

opportunities rather than answers.’

Jones points to the biggest challenge for planners today, encapsulated

in a statement made by Akio Morita, the chief executive of Sony

Corporation: ’Creating ideas is about looking for the unexpected and

stepping outside your experience ... The public does not know what is

possible, but we do.’

So instead of asking people what they want, planners now have to come up

with unique insights and new angles that will help creatives capture the

consumer’s imagination. And this is where the planner can create a real

difference in the advertising process, providing a unique and invaluable

input that leaves his or her validity beyond question.

In past decades, planning was about using research to uncover a ’truth’

about a brand that the creative department then translated into an


Now, Jones explains, ’We can’t just discover a brand’s heart and replay

that in the advertising - we have to create a whole new truth or future

for the brand, inventing a fresh relationship between it and the


An example of this is the famous Health Education Authority spot, set in

a condom factory, which featured a middle-aged woman chatting happily

about her work there. The idea came from the premise that people find

condoms embarrassing, so BMP DDB devised a future where the most

ordinary person felt comfortable talking about them.

MT Rainey, the planning partner at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, also

sees a more flexible future for planning. Since the agency started three

years ago, she has not hired any planning staff to assist her, despite a

heavy workload from clients such as Virgin Atlantic and the Times.

Instead, she uses outside resources for research and testing, freeing

her up to concentrate on developing strategies and contributing


’It’s all about hypothesis testing - not asking consumers what they want

but working to upset the equilibrium and coming up with a new point of

view. I am always looking to disturb the status quo and realign our

brands against the competition,’ she explains.

The increased complexity of markets can make the planner’s job more

difficult and more valuable. Mike Perry, who has just left Simons Palmer

Clemmow Johnson to start his own strategic consultancy, Headlight

Vision, says: ’Some markets are merging - particularly in the alcoholic

drinks sector where beers used to compete solely against other beers but

now, with alcoholic sodas, it is blurring into one massive drinks

market. A beer planner must think wider than beer and attack other


International work, still in its early days, is adding another dimension

to the planner’s role, providing a tough challenge for even the most

creative strategist. Brands such as Coca-Cola and Levi’s are fairly easy

as they are all about selling Americana, but some other products present

unforeseen problems.

Working on Dulux, BMP came up against an unexpected hurdle when its

planners discovered that hardly anyone has skirting boards in Germany,

so the market for gloss was limited. Advertising vacuum cleaners across

Europe also uncovered awkward differences - the British are houseproud

and fond of carpets but Italians tend not to entertain at home and often

have wooden flooring.

However, the agency’s spot for Sony television, where a man is thrown

out of a plane clutching an armchair, ran successfully in 24 markets

because, as Jones says: ’It is about a vision of the brand and it

clearly communicates the message that Sony enhances your


Charlie Robertson, who founded the planning consultancy, Red Spider,

spends much of his time doing international work, coming up with

’solutions that can travel’. In an ideal world, he says, his company

would not exist, but there just aren’t enough planners to go round -

partly because agencies are still penny-pinching and partly because

training in the discipline is shockingly hard to come by. ’Agencies

shouldn’t be outsourcing,’ he says. ’They lose so much by not being in

constant touch with their own business.’

Research innovations, such as econometrics, are almost inevitably

outsourced, except in the most dedicated of planning agencies, notably

BMP. Econometrics, which was developed in an attempt to make sense of

chaotic consumerism, is the application of scientific measurement and

prediction to the increasing number of variables that are brought to

bear on consumer choice.

For example, BT used the technique to separate out the effectiveness of

its advertising from other influences on call volume, particularly

economic factors such as prices. Even weather can be isolated as a

factor using econometrics.

Max Burt, the author of the BT Bob Hoskins strategy who is now the

planning director of DMB&B, says: ’We must be as rigorous as we can in

our testing - it justifies our existence. If we are going to ask clients

to put their faith in us, we have to button-down how advertising


In the leaner 90s, clients are demanding even greater effectiveness.

Nigel Brotherton, the advertising manager for Volkswagen, says:

’Planning is essential - you can have the best creative agency in the

world but if you don’t get the message right, you are wasting your time

and money.

With TV prices going up and media fragmenting, advertising has to be

ever more effective and well targeted.’

As well as the might of the BMP planners, VW has an in-house planning

department that concentrates on statistical analysis and strategic


Yet Brotherton stresses the importance of creating a close and seamless

relationship between the two sets of planners.

This division of planning tasks usually means the client takes the

’upstream’ trip - centering on company strategy and innovation - while

the agency travels ’downstream’ - focusing on creative inspiration and

brand strategies.

Brand strategies are now almost as likely to relate to direct marketing

and new media as to above-the-line advertising. Agency planners must

work towards the ’total communications solution’, and can only maintain

their advantage by convincing clients that they are prepared to work in

a variety of media.

The escalation of media, messages, and product innovation is creating a

confusing marketplace, where smart targeting is more important than

ever. But it is up to planners to make sure they are the ones devising

the all-important strategy.

When the Berlin Wall came down, East German housewives rushed greedily

into West German supermarkets but, once inside, many of them burst into

tears, overwhelmed by the choice. As Robertson says: ’The solution to

the mayhem is still the same as it was in the 70s - well-known, classic

brands generate trust and reduce the problems of choice. Only good

planning allows creatives to target the emotions, and that is where

brands have always lived.’

The story of planning since Pollitt pioneered the discipline

This graphic shows the total population of account planning and research

staff in IPA member agencies since 1960

Source: IPA

1968 607

At the newly formed ’academy of planning’, Boase Massimi Pollitt,

Pollitt becomes a magnet for graduate talent. He develops a system of

pre-testing that is honest, effective and friendly to creatives.

Planners, as he now calls them, undertake their own group research.

Under Stephen King (above), its head of new product development, JWT

also establishes a department called account planning.

1966 814

There are a staggering 814 researchers in adland. Stanley Pollitt

(right), the inventor of account planning and an account director at

Pritchard Wood, takes over the agency’s four research functions.

Violently opposed to the ludicrous techniques then used to assess ads,

such as measuring pupil dilation, Pollitt’s views are reinforced by the

lessons of Bill Bernbach’s creative work: ’Be simple, direct,

essentially honest and credible and emerge as a sponsoring



Clients break the mould by choosing fashionable start-ups with planners

as founding partners. Planners with their name over the door include

John Bartle (BBH), Leslie Butterfield (BDDH), Adam Lury (HHCL) and

Damian O’Malley (WMGO).

1978 338

The Account Planning Group is born. Its first chairman is Charles

Channon, of Charles Barker (left). The aim? To bring together a

discipline that had been started in diverse agencies with different


1980 455

Launch of the IPA Effectiveness Awards highlights the role of account

planning. The focus has shifted from planning as a creatively focused

pre-testing tool to planning as a strategic discipline.

1982 402

Chiat Day’s president, Jay Chiat, responds to what he sees as the more

innovative and focused work coming out of the UK by making his the first

US agency to introduce planning. BMP-trained Jane Newman is recruited to

the task amid initial resistance from colleagues and clients. In two

years, however, she has recruited 21 planners - including one

Marie-Terese Rainey, from Gold Greenlees Trott (below). Other Brits have

since followed in Newman’s footsteps: John Steele left BMP for Goodby

Silverstein, Damian O’Malley left WMGO for DDB Needham in New York and

Chris Riley left BBH for Wieden and Kennedy.


The 80s sees the birth of the ’planning independent’. Most early

attempts end up as market research agencies. Red Spider - established in

1995 by the former BBH and Leith’s planning director, Charlie Robertson

- is a success, positioning itself as a brand communications


’A shrinking world increases pressure on being imaginative about

strategy ’ Robertson says.

1989 676

McCanns’ chief executive, Brian Watson, abolishes planning, dubbing it a

’con’ and incorporating it into four new account groups. McCanns’

creative director, Jerry Green (left), says: ’Planning has been dead for

years, but no-one had the guts to admit it.’ The industry scoffs that

most McCanns work is imposed from outside anyway. By 1991, McCanns is

quietly hiring heavyweight planners. The latest twist, as of this month,

is for McCanns to take planning back into account groups, abolishing its

planning department.

1993 483

Launch of the APG awards, intended to honour agency planners whose work

has been a catalyst for creativity. Cheers all round.


Explosion of media channels. ’It’s all about getting to the future

first,’ one agency chief says. The complexity of many markets has made

the planner’s job more difficult - and more valuable.