Planner v planner

Can a communications planner do an account planner's job, or vice versa? Or are two heads better than one? TRBR's account planner David Hackworthy and Naked's comms planner Ivan Pollard argue their points of view.

Planners...David Hackworthy and Ivan Pollard
Planners...David Hackworthy and Ivan Pollard


When I first considered whether a communications planner would make a good account planner, Stinger's words to Maverick in Top Gun sprang to mind: "Son, your ego is writing cheques your body can't cash." Surely we account planners, the Brains Trust, the Oxbridge Brigade, the last proponents of geography teacher chic, are a cut above? No Johnny-come-lately, channel-neutral, social-networking, co-creative, engagement planner could match our thinking, let alone do our job.

Then I got to thinking. Perhaps they could or, indeed, perhaps they should. After all, if account planning is supposed to be based on a deep understanding of what makes people tick, then comms planners are particularly well placed these days. They pride themselves on looking at all the ways people come into contact with brands and, when it comes to analysing consumer behaviour, they've got more tools than Homebase.

However, it is important to remember that account planning is a value-added discipline. You don't need planners to make great work: planning exists to make things better, so you need to be damn good to justify your presence in the first place. There's a lot of tricky things you need to grapple with to add value as an account planner: such as arguing Millward Brown off persuasion scores in impulse categories, isolating the incremental effect of communications rather than just producing a cor- relation, or writing briefs that are as practical as they are inspiring for any discipline that may have to create content from them.

I suppose the acid test for a dyed-in-the-wool brand planner such as myself is not only whether you can find fresh insight into the customer's mind, analyse reams of data and come up with interesting things to do, but whether you can focus everything into a powerfully cohesive, practical and inspiring idea. An idea that can set the essential meaning and direction that all brand activity should take (from internal culture to new product development to corporate reputation to advertising), a living idea that can flex appropriately with consumer involvement. This is where, in my experience, comms planners tend to come up short, especially the ones who think that account planning is just about making ads.

Here are a few reasons why this might be: good account planning should be relentlessly focused on "ends", whereas comms planning focuses more on "means". In other words, we are never just thinking about how or where to connect with customers, but what specific effect we want to have on people's thoughts, feelings or behaviour. A lot of today's comms planners seem more preoccupied with utilising the myriad of media and technological possibilities that exist out there.

Although we are all more in tune with brand "behaviour" today, good account planning still has to deal with intangible notions such as the brand as an abstract noun (such as dedication, curiosity, bravery or freedom), requiring strong blank-slate conceptual skills. Comms planning is more focused on the brand as a verb and so a lot more attention goes into tangible stuff such as channels, activities, placement and so forth. Hence, there's a lot more fun ideas than big ideas in comms planning land.

While both disciplines must represent the interests of the business, the brand and the customer, the fact that account planners get to sit down with creative teams on a daily basis teaches valuable lessons, not only around what are great ideas and what are not, but which ideas can actually be made into something good. Ideas matter a lot in creative agencies, and you learn damn quickly whether you have a good one or a bad one when faced with a gnarly creative director, regardless of what discipline they come from. I just don't see comms planning ideas being subject to the same level of internal scrutiny.

Good account planners tend to be a little older, more neurotic or at least somewhat psychologically disturbed, whereas a lot of comms planners are younger and groovier, so naturally don't know what they don't know yet.

If I really wanted to start a fight, I would pursue a fashion metaphor ... placing comms planners down at the stylist or personal shopper end of the scale; they have a client and a budget, and because they have an intimate knowledge of all fashion possibilities, they can clothe the brand in the most striking way, and guide it to the most fashionable places to hang out. Account planners are further along, at the designer end of the spectrum, tasked with the job of inspiring the designers themselves to come up with ideas that will turn heads next season.

Of course, none of these distinctions are necessarily true, nor stops comms planners being good account planners, but they do warn against the natu- ral presumption that, because you know the consumer from a comms perspective, you make a good account planner.

I would also like to make the point that in a world where there is a tendency to fancy oneself as a "renaissance planner", who is at home with any area of strategic development, maintaining specialisation in areas of planning is a much better idea. No-one is good at everything, and there are points at which one skillset naturally should pass on to another. I get really freaked out when comms planners start talking about communications as "everything that exists between the brand and the customer". Pretty soon they put themselves in the position of judge and jury as well as executioner, which is just plain wrong, when (as is often the case) they haven't fully got to grips with all the business and brand issues.

So, can a good comms planner make a good account planner? Well, possibly. There's no reason why not. But he or she is going to have to learn the job, just as I would if I wanted to become a fully fledged comms planner. They are two different jobs, and I suspect that few people have the talent and inclination to be equally good at both. I also think that good planners on both sides of the fence recognise this fact and realise that working together in a respectful manner is the way forward.

Perhaps Kenny Rogers should have the final say: "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run."

- David Hackworthy is the planning partner at The Red Brick Road


My grandfather was a bricklayer and an electrician in Rochdale. A good working man. My father shrugged off his background and his family's wishes and put himself through university to become a doctor. His son began reading his medical books at the age of six and learned many things, from the intricacies of the human reproductive process to the appropriate procedure to remove a peritonitic appendix.

In those formative years, I learned an awful lot about sex and surgery - in theory, at least. But I wonder if that would be enough to make me worthy of taking a hack at Mr Hackworthy should his appendix ever flare up.What would he think of that?

The point is that I know enough to do a job and I have no doubt that the initial part of the procedure would go swimmingly. From then on, I would try and do my best. After an hour or two of fishing around in his innards and removing the occasional piece of odd- looking anatomy and stitching him up again, the job would be done.

Could I do my father's job? Yeah, you bet. Could I do it well? Er, maybe not. And would Hackworthy trust me on that basis? No way.

It's the same for account planners who think they can step into our shoes, clogs, boots or flip-flops, and do any better than my attempts at surgery.

That is not to demean their intellect or their capability, but more to point out that the job of a communications planner is as different to account planning as goalkeeping is to gardening. Both of them require gloves, both involve grass and both require balls, but that is where the similarity ends.

I have been lucky enough to work with some staggeringly brilliant people in my time, and many of them have also been brilliant planners. Jon Steel to John Grant, Rachel Walker to Rachael Hatton, Chris Riley to Rob White, and a hundred others, each of whom was inspirationally wonderful at their job.

But none of them could have done mine. Not without wanting to do it and being willing to learn how. The skills and the methodologies are not instantaneously transferable, and here is why.

Our objectives are different: the planner is aiming to make something; the comms planner is aiming to make something happen.

We have differing methods: the account planning method is convergent - look at what is out there, strip away the irrelevant, distill it down to the brilliant; the comms planning method is divergent - what is out there to make people look, amplify the relevance, explode it out in brilliance.

We don't have the same customers: account planners have creative teams as their customers; comms planners have agencies and clients as theirs.

The jobs require different knowledge: account planners know how to move people; comms planners know all the different things that can be used to get people moving, including big ideas.

So, sure, we can cross the divide from one form of planning to the other, but either way, we have to re-skill, change focus and learn new stuff.

Fundamentally, we do different, but conjoined, jobs.

I have always thought that the role of the account planner is to understand the way people relate to the world of brands and then create the most exciting, compelling place within that world for their particular brand to occupy.

The role of the comms planner is to understand the way people navigate the world of brands and then construct the most imaginative and noticeable means of guiding people through that world towards the beautiful space that their brand is occupying.

Or, more prosaically, account planners create the picture so people can paint it; media planners hang it so people see it; and comms planners guide people to the gallery so they can enjoy it. And in this day and age, the journey is as important as the destination.

But here is the rub. Good comms planning absolutely demands the application of account planning skills to get to an idea that is big enough to direct, inspire and inform the creation of any form of content - not just advertising. Account planning just develops ideas that creative teams can use.

The more enlightened planners get this. They know the world has changed and that the skills they have learned are now being applied to a different brand eco-system. We no longer build and construct brands, we nurture and curate them.

Some planners - brilliantly clever people but unwilling to change - are still attached to their old role in the world of brands. They sit in their ivory towers painstakingly drawing up the plans to "build" their brand and then bask in the vainglory of their own erections. And you know where I am going with that line of reasoning.

I have also worked with planners like this and I have nothing good whatsoever to say about them. There is absolutely no way they could be a comms planner but absolutely every way they would tell you they can.

The know-how that goes into a modern approach to the environmental nurturing of brands is a combination of the skills of both the comms planner and the account planner. The challenge is to merge the definition of what something needs to be with the most fertile management of the ways it can become that in a fluid, changing environment. The two disciplines should sit seamlessly together and work hand in hand. They both deal in the same base currency - understanding the consumer - and they both apply that understanding to different, but mutually dependent, ends.

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a paper for the IPA (while heavily under the influence of a buxom girl from Devon and an incident involving a snorkel and mask), which said this: "One day, account planners and media planners will sit as equals and work as a team to find the most potent way of bringing a brand to life."

So can we do each other's jobs? No, not completely. But if we each do our own jobs, but do them together, we can exploit the areas of similarity to see new things that enable us both to excel in our areas of difference. The net result is that we get better at our own jobs but also do a better job together. As a team.

In a straight comparison of brainpower, the best planners I have worked with - including Hackworthy - would always be a Ferrari to my Fiat. But put that power together and we would no longer be cars, but rockets. Or something like that. Now if only I could find a good planner to help sharpen up that last line.

- Ivan Pollard is a partner at Naked Communications.