Bring Out The Account Planners

Once hauled out for the pitch, now they have to save their shops. The second in a series by Matthew Creamer on the future of agency execs

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It's been famously called "the best new-business tool ever invented" by Jay Chiat and proclaimed dead by Jeff Goodby. Focus-group basher Malcolm Gladwell has tried to kill off its favorite tool. It's been called sexy, overrated, domesticated, soft, fuzzy and too star-oriented. It's been lauded as the
home of sharp insights and written off as repository of accented blokes with sleek eyeglass frames who are wheeled out only during pitches.

Account planning is many things to many people and has had about as many lives as it's had phrases to describe it. Now it's getting ready for another rebirth-one that, if it's to work, will make planners think outside of their TV-spot box. Going beyond their generally-accepted role as architects of creative campaigns, planning departments are adding channel-planning and analytics capabilities to compete in the growing scrum for the all-important "lead" role of providing strategic advice to marketers.

As consumers' attention drifts among more and more media outlets, everyone agrees that the time is ripe for the discipline of channel planning to blossom in the U.S. While communications planning is more typically associated with media agencies, more full-service creative shops are incorporating into their account-planning departments the people and tools that can take apart a marketing budget in a media-agnostic way and be willing to shift spending-often away from mainline advertising.

"Channel planning is the Wild West," said Colin Mitchell, chief strategic officer at WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, New York, who sees intense competition in the field among full-service creative and media agencies and specialty shops like Naked that are dedicated to channel-agnostic communications planning, as well as market-research firms.

Not surprisingly, given where he sits, Mr. Mitchell is betting on ad agencies to win the shootout. Ogilvy's New York office has employed its budget optimizer for about 10 marketers, about one-third of its client base. GSD&M, part of the Omnicom Group, is using it for Wal-Mart, BMW of North America and a third unidentified client, and has already seen some major insights emerge.

For one GSD&M client, product innovation and store design, important customer touch points that were previously housed in operations, were moved under the auspices of marketing. For Chili's, it discovered that a consumer's decision to return to a restaurant had a lot to do with his or her interaction with wait staff, who tend to be millennials. That led GSD&M to hook up the chain's human-resources department with millennial experts William Strauss and Neil Howe, and shape an internal campaign to encourage those servers to talk up the restaurant.

"In many cases, we find the most effective way to move people through the purchase-decision process has nothing to do with what we might call advertising at all," said Planning Director Andrew Teagle. "We've gone out on a limb recommending they spend a fair amount of money they could have spent in advertising doing something entirely different."

This kind of talk is a distinct change for a discipline that has long been tethered to shaping ad strategy through big brand ideas.

Mr. Goodby's "Death of Account Planning" speech, delivered just three years ago at the American Association of Advertising Agencies' planning conference, framed the discipline's problems more in its relationship to creative work than in terms of planners relationships' with client demands.

Now, there's a growing consensus that account planning is not just about discovering consumer insights and shepherding creative thought, but about developing solutions-becoming expert in segmentation and targeting and driving consumer behavior.

Omnicom Group's BBDO, New York, is rebranding what's been called its strategic-services department as behavioral planning and has added a number of analytics experts to work with its group of cultural experts that includes Dr. Timothy Malefyt, a cultural anthropologist with access to a network of colleagues in the U.S. and internationally. "Everything we do is focused on identifying and driving behavioral change," said Tracy Lovatt, director-behavioral planning. That outlook has already had an impact on creative, leading home-improvement retailer Lowe's, a BBDO client, to change tacks away from pricing to focus on the aspirations of its customers.

Havas' Arnold, Boston, recently added a cognitive scientist to chart what happens between the time a consumer is reached by a marketing communication and he or she makes a purchase decision. "Heretofore that's been the black box: how do consumers receive information, how do they process it, how do they get to the place where they decide to take an action or not take an action?" said Brian Kastelein, VP-director of integrated analytics at Arnold.

McKinney, also owned by Havas, recently reorganized its planning department, combining account and connection planning and interactive strategy. The idea is to foster integration by putting consumer-behavior and media experts together, working in tandem much the way art directors and copywriters do. "You can't just say 'Go forth and integrate,"' said McKinney's Andrew Delbridge, who was recently promoted to chief strategy officer to run the department. "You have to be structured in a way that facilitates it, by osmosis and by habit."

As to the future of account planning, don't expect it to wholly morph into analytics or, for that matter, communications planning. "The challenge is to balance the art and science," said Ogilvy's Mr. Mitchell, adding that planning departments will host a variety of skill sets and not be dominated by super-planners with mastery of consumer insights as well as media.

"Planning will get more into new areas: media and content development and new-product development," said Domenico Vitale, head of brand strategy-managing director at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York. "The future is about leading, we can lead an industry into becoming channel-neutral."

contributing: lisa sanders
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