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
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
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