Account Planners: The humbled persuaders

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In a main session at a recent advertising industry conference in Washington, D.C., a participant asked a guest speaker this question: "Have you applied finite and infinite game theory outside the Greco-Roman cultural tradition?"

No one batted an eye.

Obviously, this was not your ordinary business meeting. This was the annual gathering of the Account Planning Group or APG:US, an organization that represents a job category within advertising that would probably flourish in a medievalist society or a think-tank like the Rand Corp. Account planners do not create ads. They don't buy media and they don't handhold clients. They are the devisers of brand strategy. They research and analyze, they write marketing plans and they apply the findings of disciplines as wide-ranging as semiotics, quantum forensic mechanics and method acting to the task of determining a brand's essence.

Now this discipline-whose practitioners have been called the heirs of the "hidden persuaders" identified by Vance Packard in the 1950's-is taking some hits as jobs within agencies have been eliminated and its ability to contribute to a client's return on investment is questioned. It was a humble group of planners that gathered in the nation's capitol for the 10th APG conference, which used the images of boxers in the ring as a motif. In the past, planners would have identified with the dominating Muhammad Ali. This year, the likeness of his pummeled challenger was more fitting as planners admitted that their past esoteric musings may have led people to misunderstand their role in the ad business.

"Account planners are the informed thought leaders in the business," said Douglas Atkins, partner and director of strategic planning at Omnicom Group's Merkley Newman Harty & Partners, New York.

As recently as two years ago, account planners in the U.S. were heavyweights. Legions of these highly educated-and expensive-advertising people began to migrate here in the `80s from London, where the discipline was born in 1968. Others were groomed within agencies. Suddenly, Madison Avenue was shoving gender theory, Marxology and phenomenology down the throats of bewildered marketers of toilet paper and hamburgers. Conferences hosted by APG, started as an informal organization of planners in the U.S. in 1992, resembled university graduate programs. Planners strutted on the beaches of locales such as Miami sporting designer towels like chips on their shoulders.

changing minds

"'We're smarter than them,' that's what we used to say," said a planner who requested anonymity. "Clients and consumers should listen to us, and change. That was our credo."

Things were different at this year's conference, the theme of which was "Changing Minds in America. The Art and Science of Persuasion." It was held not in Miami or Las Vegas, but in the workmanlike District of Columbia, where the business of persuasion is the local industry, practiced in the offices of lobbyists on K Street and under the dome on Capitol Hill.

"We're not just discussing changing the minds of other people, it's all about changing our minds as well," said Emma Cookson, director of strategic planning at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, an APG board member and one of the stars of the discipline.

The charismatic Ms. Cookson led a conference forum wielding a microphone and fussing with her lustrous black hair like Siouxsie of the rock band "Siouxsie and the Banshees." Her theme, though, was less than rebellious. "Does anybody know how much clients pay us? We should be aware of it, and we should ask ourselves, are we worth it? Do we show responsibility? Do we show respect? Do we care?" she asked attendees.

Ms. Cookson and her forum partner, David Hackworthy, director of strategic planning at Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat Day, New York, presented a list of dos and don'ts, including "Listen to the boss" and "Don't talk bad about the clients."

Mr. Hackworthy made the point that a planner's job today is to fix what they've broken. "It's time for planners to admit complicity in building a lot of processes that cause us to get stuck doing the same thing. I hope we start to change the way we do things."

This change in direction developed as a result of a change in the ad market. Brainy planners enjoyed a field day during the dot-com boom, ruled ever so briefly by marketing savvy hot shops that shared their taste for applying structuralist literary theory and cognitive anthropology to consumer issues. But as the market dipped so did advertising spending. The rarified ranks of planners were suddenly hit by layoffs.

"Up to about a year ago, even when downsizing was going on in the business, account planning was insulated," said Terri Feuerstein, senior recruiter at Jerry Fields Recruiting, which specializes in placing account planners. "About a year ago was the first time I was aware of downsizing affecting account planning departments. ... There are agencies that are hiring to replace people but agencies are not growing these departments."

Attendance at the APG conference was down by almost half this year. More than 800 people showed up at the Vegas show last year, which introduced the theme of accountability that was taken to full throttle in D.C., where about 500 attendees turned out. Many spent time in practical quantitative research courses and training sessions led by Headmint, a planning consultancy. Other sessions explored the ethics of marketing and one presentation, "From Pennsylvania Ave. to Madison Ave.," delivered by Boston University Professor Tobe Berkovitz, examined the similarities and differences between brand advertising and political campaigning.

less funny business

There was one offbeat presentation by Juice Talent, a shop that helps executives brand themselves and develop campaigns as if they were package goods (see Adages, P. 24). Otherwise, there was very little of the wacky stuff-the improvisational mime workshops and psychotherapy classes-associated with account planning in the past.

"I always enjoy the mind food at the APG," Mr. Hackworthy said, "but this year there was an emphasis on practicality. It was a `let's take a long hard look at ourselves' type of conference."

According to Mr. Atkins, the real theme of the conference, perhaps underscored by the joint appearance of guest speakers Newt Gingrich and James Carville, was, "It's the economy, stupid!"

Mr. Hackworthy believes the account planning profession is maturing in the U.S. and that its mission is fundamentally changing to include duties normally associated with account managers.

"Client service [now] plays a role in what we do," said Mr. Hackworthy, whose title as director of strategy reflects the changing role. "At the front end our work is about business strategy, and account planning people need to understand this. Our practice is evolving upstream."

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