Planning's next step

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The late Stanley Pollitt, a brilliant advertising man at the U.K.'s Boase Massimi Pollitt, is said to have invented strategic planning. More accurately, he invented the "strategic planner." (Agencies could make fair claim to inventing the strategy thing.)

Pollitt's revolutionary step turned a shared task of the agency brand team, strategic planning, into a staff assignment: strategic planner. He focused agencies on the primary importance of developing a consumer-oriented brand plan by putting a researcher in charge, and he made that person equal with account management and creative.

Account planners are variously described as the consumer's representative, the brand's champion, the communication plan's architect. They're said to have broad knowledge of consumer behavior through research, and to know brand marketing and marketing communications. The planner uses these skills to lead, shape and finesse development of brand strategy to the point where the craftsmen-writers, art directors and media planners-can take over and create the campaign.

gone kaput

It sounds like a good way to do advertising-until you realize it's a full-service agency concept when full-service agencies are kaput. The clinker in account planning seems to be the rise of the media agency as the brand's other marketing partner, one that also competes for the brand's affection. What has things so muddled is the sorry state of media agencies.

Independent media is a widespread, but misunderstood, phenomenon.

The 2002 Association of National Advertisers "Trends in Agency Compensation" shows 83% of advertisers have kept planning and media buying at the "primary" (read: "creative") agency. That suggests unbundling has a way to go until you realize the largest of these "primary" agencies (WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson, Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam; Bcom3 Group's Leo Burnett; Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson; Omnicom Group's BBDO and so on) no longer have media departments. They have independent sibling media agencies. In this narrow sense, all the so-called "full-service" clients at the 10 largest agencies are sort of unbundled. Their media planning and buying is done by independents such as WPP's MindShare or Omnicom's OMD and so on.

But how real is their "independence"? In my experience, big agency media hasn't changed a whit. It's just moved across the street or to another elevator bank. If the primary agency owns the account, its account people still call the shots.

In the taxonomy of media agencies-of-record, there are "full independents" (by my definition, media agencies that were not spun off from a creative agency) such as Aegis Group's Carat, Zenith (owned by Publicis Groupe and Cordiant Communications Group) and Interpublic's Initiative Media. And there are "half-independents," such as WPP's MindShare and Omnicom's OMD. At the half-independents, media hasn't been unbundled. It's just been repackaged, along with all of the old problems of a loyal-but-not-too-bright subordinate who sees half the picture. The rapid growth of media agencies is based less on their ability to think strategically and more on opportunities for new business, globalization and economies of scale.

control is key

Where you put account planning is important. He who controls account planning tends to control the account. But few advertisers are willing to make that assignment so account planning isn't really being done. Or, better said, it's being overdone. Co-agencies seldom come to the client with a single point-of-view called the advertising plan. That puts the client in charge of reconciliation. Clients hate that. This suggests a restructuring is inevitable. Either account planning will be taken over by the client, which is probably where it belongs, or agencies will sort it out.

The traditional place for account planning, the primary creative agency, doesn't work as well as it once did. Creative agencies are by assignment, and transient. Creative is too important not to be expendable. Creative loses accounts; media doesn't.

There is a second reason the importance of creative disqualifies the creative agency: Advertisers need more than one creative agency. An agency may present multiple campaigns but it's already picked the winner. To get real choice, advertisers need several creative agencies.

That gives the media agency a good shot at morphing into the "account-planning agency." Media agencies don't need to add creative departments. They need only add creative management. The new account-planning agency would develop strategy, coordinate budget, plan and buy media and be general contractor for creative-working with creative shops to develop alternative campaigns. The big holding companies seem ready. Most have a cadre of big and small creative shops flanking their media agencies.

Stanley Pollitt made account planning equal with creative and media. But the idea is big enough to deserve its name on the door.

Erwin Ephron is a partner in Ephron, Papazian & Ephron, New York, a media consultancy (ephronny@aol.com).

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