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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Is It Really Account Planning?

In recent years, more and more advertising agencies of all sizes claimed to be account planning centered. It would be fantastic if they really were. Sadly, many still grind out some very mediocre advertising despite their claim to be totally driven by account planning.

Just what is account planning? The textbook definition goes something like this: The process of conducting research that is relevant to the client’s product or service and can be used in the development of creative strategy as well as all other aspects of an Integrated Marketing Communications campaign. The account planner’s role is to serve as the eyes and ears of the consumer and represent the consumer in every agency department.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? A few do it really, really well but for most the staffers dubbed account planners are really just window dressing for the clients.

When the account planning boom-let got started a number of years ago, I and dozens of other veterans at many shops immediately became suspicious. It always seemed that an account person or maybe a market researcher would attend a seminar for three days and come back full of enthusiasm about what they learned. Then, within 30 days his or her business card would change and the account person would instantly morph into an account planner. It impressed prospects at new business meetings but never really took hold back at the office. The creatives still did a lot of what they wanted and media people at many agencies were not let in to the process until very late.

In my career, I have only had relationships with two people who were extraordinary account planners and I never formally worked in the same company with either. One was a burnt out creative who sadly was really a hack by the time account planning came into vogue. He managed to reinvent himself as an account planner. Garrulous, enthusiastic, he devoured the trade press and all that was going on in marketing and consumer behavior. While his days as a creative executive had passed him by, he wrote the best creative briefs that I have ever seen. When the creative team got their marching orders from him, they were well armed for the assignment. I was pulled in for media counsel as an outsider and was always stunned at how current he was with evolving new media, especially online, and began to look forward to his endless questions. His enthusiasm was contagious and what little I contributed to the entire process was enhanced by his zeal and constant encouragement to keep reaching for more.

The other was a Brit who learned it in London where account planning was formalized. She was a renaissance woman; she did not know a little about everything, she knew a lot about everything. An omnivorous reader, she started every phone call with “what have you been reading lately.” Within 3-4 days, I would get an e-mail with a critique of the book in question. We did not always agree but she lived and breathed the game 24/7 and always was bursting with ideas. Unfortunately, I never worked with her but she had me on her “panel” or kitchen cabinet and I loved it when caller ID told me that she was reaching out once more.

Recently, I got in touch with a former colleague who is still at it after several decades. He runs a highly successful business far outside of New York and, looking at his reel, it is obvious that authentic account planning is taking place even on accounts with very modest budgets. Interestingly, he made the trek to London a long time ago and did NOT spend a long weekend there and then call himself a planner. He studied it closely, saw the flaws, and saw through the British pomposity that hid what was truly going on.

To quote him we find that “account planners are qualitative researchers, quantitative researchers, media sensitive, and sales message understanding. They weigh in on media weights, schedule timing, word selection and parsing, color themes, the entire process. A good account planner is a student of the game, a diplomat, and his/her greatest strength is pure curiosity and the endless use of the word WHY.”

His breaking of the code was that account planning often came down to dramatically improving internal communications. I could not agree more. It always stunned me when a CEO would talk about how valuable an account planner was to a prospective client. If they meant that account planning can help all clients because the agency is run better, okay. To me, they were really more valuable internally to keep the creatives in line and on track and get media involved early in the project. They pushed both disciplines to explore new options in recent years and they never forgot what the consumer had said to them. To hell with how fun a spot a young writer wanted to do would be or how it would look on her reel. They fought to do what was right.

My old colleague says that account planning is much more than a title; it is a culture that has to come from the very top. “Every ad has a strategy that consumers can understand. Management has to make it easy for all to sit around and get rejected or congratulated as a team.” Some small shops have done account planning almost by default because communication is generally far better than in larger agencies. Mid-sized shops can go either way but can implement it if the CEO empowers the planner(s) and gets involved personally as well.

How do you spot a psuedo-planner? Here is one test that I use and it has been foolproof so far. When someone tells me that they are an account planner, I ask who they think is the best consumer behavior guru among Martin Lindstrom, Paco Underhill, or Rob Walker? Amazingly, some planners at large shops say that they have never heard of any of them. The odds are good they took the three day course. Also, get suspicious if they just want to talk about Malcolm Gladwell. Everyone reads Gladwell and he is really in another genre. If they start to argue about which of the three guys mentioned above (my gurus for 2009-2010) is strongest, you at least have someone who reads widely and is trying to stay current.

If you run an agency, where can you turn for account planners? Here is an offbeat idea. Go to a large shop and try to raid a bright young media researcher. Today, the good ones have one foot in conventional media and one foot in new media. Usually, they are translating all the new terms for everyone and the boss doesn’t want the Google reps to meet them for fear of losing them. If they are personable, have a reasonably good feel for creative and are not too meek, you may have the makings of a really good account planner.

The process of account planning is happily here to stay. Just make sure that you get the real thing when you hire an agency.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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