Account Planning

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Account planning is an approach for generating consumer insights that aid in the development of strategy and tactics and in evaluating communications campaigns. Account planning was developed in the mid-1960s and can be traced to the British offices of two advertising agencies, J. Walter Thompson Co. and Boase Massimi Pollitt. The discipline gained in popularity and spread to the rest of Europe during the 1970s.

In 1982, account planning was "discovered" by Jay Chiat of Chiat/Day and introduced into the U.S., where it was widely embraced. Account-planning departments are now fairly common in the U.S. advertising industry.

Account planning originated from a need to concentrate client research, which in the 1960s was diluted across marketing, advertising and media-research departments. The need for this sprung from great changes taking place in society and the nature of consumerism. After World War II, when more women entered the workplace, new product categories catered to the needs of women. Other cultural changes such as the Civil Rights movement, the growth of technology and the rise of health and fitness concerns also influenced the advertising and purchasing of products.

As a result of these changes, the number of companies conducting market research increased. These companies specialized in generating and selling information that analyzed and dissected the changing populace. Among the biggest purchasers of this information were advertising agencies. The resulting deluge of information meant that the account-management team often was not able to put it to good use, and agencies continued to produce advertising without fully understanding the impact of these societal changes on the market.

Thus, account planning was born from the changing consumer environment and the need for a single department to assimilate and analyze relevant product data that could then be applied to the day-to-day decision making on an account. The presence of an account-planning department positioned an agency as having exceptional creative solutions and set it apart from competitors during the all-important stage of seeking new business.

Role in advertising

Account planning encompasses three phases: strategy development, creative development and evaluation of effectiveness. Account planners function as a liaison between the account exec and the creative department as well as between the creative department and the consumer. In this sense, account planners are both fully integrated members of the account team and advisers to the creative team.

The primary responsibility of account planners is to understand the target audience and to "represent" it throughout the advertising-development process. This is accomplished through the use of market and research data on the product or service, the category, the market, the competition and the client. Consumer insights into the potential purchaser provide an understanding of what motivates consumers first to try a product and then to continue buying it, which enable advertisers to establish an innovative connection between a brand and the consumer's life.

Account planners rely on qualitative research techniques that provide an unstructured environment and opportunities for revealing insights into the more emotional aspects of a brand. These techniques include traditional one-on-one approaches such as interviews and focus groups, as well as more innovative approaches such as accompanied shopping, word associations, use of visual prompts, video montages, projective techniques and consumer diaries. Account planners also depend on behavioral and attitudinal data from long-term studies to uncover social and cultural changes that may be relevant to advertising. In this capacity, they use primary and secondary research sources such as published market reports, usage and attitude surveys, and awareness-tracking studies.

While many of these techniques are similar to those used in other research functions within an agency, account planning differs in that the research becomes part of the process instead of being used only in an advisory or evaluative capacity. For example, while more traditional research may uncover consumer insights, account planners take these consumer insights, interpret them and advise the creative team how they can be used to develop creative strategy.

Account planners are part of the account-management team and work as equal partners with account execs. While each has his or her own areas of expertise, there is substantial overlap between the two roles. The account exec and the account planner share responsibility for the development of most aspects of the agency's marketing input to the client. However, while account planners complement the work of account execs, explaining through research how consumers respond to ads, they do not sell the work of the agency.

Account planning influences the entire creative development process except for production. It has a crucial role during strategy development in helping to incorporate the consumer's point of view. Research gathered by account planners is presented to the creative team in the form of a creative brief, which serves as a blueprint for the creatives in the development of the ad strategy. During creative development, account planners are responsible for researching the advertising before production to make sure it is as relevant as possible and, once the ad runs, they monitor its effects with an eye toward improving subsequent executions and campaigns.

Use in ad campaigns

Account planning has been used successfully in a number of high-profile campaigns. For example, the "Got milk?" campaign, designed by the Goodby, Silverstein & Partners agency, was the first campaign to bring about an increase in milk consumption and sales during the 1990s. The original "Got milk?" campaign was regional in scope and had been initiated by the California Fluid Milk Processors Advisory Board. Per capita milk consumption in California had declined 20% from 1980 to 1993, and the total volume of milk consumed had declined an average of 2% to 3% each year since the late 1980s. The main reasons for the decline were concerns about milk's fat content, a feeling that "milk is for kids" and a boring image for milk overall when compared with other beverages (mainly sodas).

Past campaigns had attempted to stem declining milk consumption by giving milk a fun, trendy image and by running advertising that featured healthy-looking people. While this advertising had been successful in shifting attitudes toward milk (more than 50% of Californians agreed that "I should drink more milk than I do"), these new attitudes did not translate into sales. These campaigns also targeted Californians who either did not consume milk or who consumed very little of it.

Goodby Silverstein recommended instead targeting the 70% of the population that used milk frequently. Behind this recommendation was the belief that it is easier to get people to continue doing what they would normally do than it is to get people to start doing something that they have not done before.

Planning played a key role in the development of the campaign and uncovered a basic truth about milk: the only time consumers think about milk is when they are out of it. This insight led to the "deprivation" strategy used in the campaign in which complementary food items were presented without milk in order to stimulate a desire for the product. All executions started with one food item-for example, a cookie-for which milk is the perfect complement. The twist in the ads was that there was no milk available to accompany the food, so both the food and the moment were ruined.

This insight was integrated into all levels of the campaign, including media and creative executions as well as promotional programs. As a result of the campaign, which later was expanded to the national level under the sponsorship of Dairy Management, a national diary industry organization, overall milk consumption grew, frequency of use climbed and sales increased.

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