HAS PLANNING LOST THE PLOT? In the 1960s, planning brought a new objectivity to British advertising but, says MT Rainey, the rise of outside research may mean that it is in danger of losing the high ground to more creative thinking

Like the video, the microwave and, increasingly, the mobile phone in our everyday lives, it is hard to imagine what agency life was like before planning. Yet the discipline of planning was equally an invention; a bit of advertising technology.

Like the video, the microwave and, increasingly, the mobile phone

in our everyday lives, it is hard to imagine what agency life was like

before planning. Yet the discipline of planning was equally an

invention; a bit of advertising technology.

Unlike many other modern inventions, however, planning was not a

labour-saving device. It was not designed to make agency life easier and

more convenient. In fact, if anything, planning added cost to the

agency’s overheads, time to the advertising development process and

often controversy and debate to its resolution.

Yet against these odds, from its beginnings 30 years ago at Boase

Massimi Pollitt and J. Walter Thompson, planning has moved from being

futuristic in the 70s, fashionable in the 80s, to being a fact of agency

life in the 90s - albeit in different forms within different


Planning can, and should, take no small credit for helping to sustain

the high quality of British advertising over that period by building an

effectiveness culture in British agencies which is not at odds with -

and which, in fact, is dependent on - innovation and creativity.

Recently, however, I have sensed a loss of evangelism in planning,

particularly among younger planners, and the risk in taking planning’s

history for granted is that we marginalise its future. Because it’s also

true that the industry is now changing faster and more significantly

than before, planning must change or be changed. Wouldn’t it be ironic

if planners were the last to know?

So, to understand why planning has prevailed and thrived, and to know

how we must evolve it, we should surely remind ourselves of why it was

invented in the first place.

In the 60s, insightful advertising thinkers and practitioners, most

famously Bill Bernbach at DDB in the US, began to vociferously reject

the frightening and archaic concept of the passive consumer and the

notion that advertising does things to people. They replaced it with the

concept of an active, complex and essentially disinterested consumer

doing things with advertising.

’Distinctiveness’ was added to relevance as a dimension of how

advertising works. This created a recognition of the two-way

relationship between consumer and advertiser and, simultaneously, a

requirement for creativity in advertising.

Yet in America today, in spite of the best efforts of Bernbach and, more

recently, Jay Chiat, there is still the entrenched belief that there are

two kinds of advertising: creative advertising and advertising that


In Britain, however, we believe in the creative imperative, not the

creative option, as a requirement for effectiveness.

The difference between the development of our two advertising cultures

from the same point of insight is the difference that planning has


(The fact that we simply develop a better piece of advertising

technology is also far more acceptable than the dubious Eysenckian

notion that we are somehow more creative than all other free-market


In the US, the model of the passive consumer had led to a mechanistic

research culture in which over-simplistic stimulus-response ’testing’

promised to be able to measure whether ads worked in a laboratory


This was irresistible to clients and fostered a culture of ’hard sell’


Advertising development and evaluation was effectively out of the hands

of agencies and controlled by powerful research companies, each with

spurious one-dimensional models of how advertising worked. The

relationship between the US research industry and the more creatively

ambitious faction of US advertising was distant and combative.

Luckily, this kind of research culture had not yet gained a foothold in

the UK, though agency research departments were still ’staff’ functions,

external to the process of advertising development.

Both Stephen King at JWT and Stanley Pollitt clearly recognised the

flaws in this system. Both men had a vision to institutionalise

’objectivity’ within the advertising structure by bringing research

information more closely into the process of advertising.

JWT coined the term ’account planning’ and Pollitt took it to its

natural conclusion with the launch of BMP and the introduction of the

account planner.

While the rest is history, it’s difficult to imagine how innovative and

brave planning was at the time, and how it shook the foundations of

agency life and politics.

Also, in contrast to the US, planning could never have thrived to the

extent that it has in the UK without the co-operation and academic

contribution of our own generally enlightened research industry, to

which I believe we owe a huge debt of gratitude.

Around the late 80s, however, planning practice and certainly planning

styles started to diverge. There were those planners whose skill and

interests lay in helping their agencies develop and sell increasingly

entertaining, unexpected and colloquial advertising that recognised, and

played to, the sophistication of the consumer - effectively entering

into a contract of complicity with them. This kind of planner has,

rather pejoratively, been termed the ’ad tweaker’ and is always in


Another type of planner evolved who tended to focus on enriching the

front end of the process by giving as full a picture as possible of the

product and the consumer, in the belief that the secret would lie in

some quirky detail which would inspire the creative team. This kind of

planner might be termed the ’storyteller’. They would write the kind of

briefs which told us what the target audience had for breakfast, even if

they were advertising a bank.

There was yet another type of planner whose remit tended to be defined

and, indeed, confined by what might be called ’brand positioning’. This

kind of planner would be knowledgeable about the brand, its competitors,

its market structure and dynamics, its products and, of course, its


They would have a close relationship with the client who might consider

him or her to be the fount of all wisdom, but be a relative stranger to

the creative department.

Almost certainly no single planner exclusively resides in any of these

planning caricatures and, indeed, they all represent valid planning and

contributions. However, this fragmentation is really retrenchment to

’corners’ and may have begun to undermine or evacuate the more important

’pivotal’ role for planning in today’s and tomorrow’s communications


Over the medium to long term, an emphasis on the ’ad tweaking’ style of

planning may have insidiously weakened the perceived objectivity of

planning to clients and, therefore, reduced its power to sell and


Similarly, over time, an emphasis on the ’storytelling’ style of

planning may have created the perception that planners are about

uncovering interesting information for advertising and not creating

valuable insights for brands.

A relegation of the planner to the high priest of positioning leaves the

field of advertising research open to outside third parties and,

increasingly, the very kind of third party that the invention of

planning was designed to obstruct.

As a result of this evolution of planning into a divergence of method

and style, two major challenges to traditional, or ’ideal’, planning are


The first is a gradual encroachment of US-style mechanistic advertising

research methodologies into the UK marketing culture. Worse, they are

being reinvented and endorsed by some influential UK research agencies,

who should know better but who are finding it a very significant

commercial opportunity.

Planners and, therefore, agencies are losing the high ground in

advertising research. Advertising risks being ’tested to


Secondly, clients are beginning to look outside the agency for

higher-order thinking. This is partly the result of planners and

agencies being obsessed with execution and focusing on advertising

strategies, rather than brand or communications ideas. (It’s also

because agencies have always given this thinking away free with the ads

and have, therefore, reduced its perceived value - but that’s another

story.) This is happening as clients are moving more towards an

integrated through-the-line future.

So, planning is also in danger of losing the high ground in strategic

thinking. The challenge of the planning pioneers of tomorrow is to get

it back by creating a new and unique role for planning which is much

more relevant to today’s market.

Perhaps research, which is all about finding answers, really isn’t the

domain of today’s planner. Perhaps it’s about asking new questions.

People in creative businesses always speak rather witheringly about a

scientific approach. Yet the purest scientific method is highly


It is that of hypothesis testing. The ability, on the basis of what we

know, to imagine what doesn’t yet exist or what could be. The creation

of the ’what if’ scenario. To step outside convention and constraint,

not just in terms of advertising and communication structure and

execution, but also in brand context, competitive realignment and media


The invention and creation of new marketing scenarios; new brand visions

and new communications paradigms can be the new remit for planning.

The need is there. Technology has facilitated a world of integrated

brand communication. Media is fragmented and multiplying like cell


The Internet and other interactive technologies change the contract

between the brand and the consumer. More than ever, clients need

transformational ideas that transcend advertising.

It’s actually a new kind of creativity. It does not displace the

specialised and invaluable craft creativity of art directors and

copywriters. Nor is it the exclusive domain of planners - great creative

people have always done this. But I believe that planning can lead


Planning can continue to objectively represent the consumer on the

agency team and can continue to bring research to bear on decision

making. The ability to be objective is entirely consistent with the

ability to ’create’ if the ’hypothesis testing’ model of creativity is


Also, if the planner’s job is to ask much better questions, then perhaps

we can afford to delegate the successful, sensitive and constructive

answering of those questions to a highly skilled research industry, both

quantitative and qualitative. What we should ask of them, though, is

that they don’t collude in throwing away three decades of enlightenment;

that we collaborate on new models and new measurements for

communication’s value, effectiveness and contribution; that we continue

to believe in the creative imperative - perhaps more than ever.

Adapted from the introductory chapter of How To Plan Advertising,

available from the Account Planning Group, 16 Creighton Avenue, London

N10 1NU at pounds 19.99, excluding p&p


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