Account Planners at a Crossroads

Former Agency Rock Stars Scramble to Keep Up With Fast-Changing Media

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Pity the poor account planner.

Not long ago, planners were the undisputed rock stars of the agency business. But they're now mere mortals in "the middle of the maelstrom of everything going on -- what communication, what media, how to compete and how to become versed in multimedia," said Edward Cotton, director-strategy, for Influx Insights, a unit of Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, Sausalito, Calif.
James Fox

James Fox, chief strategic officer, Taxi, argues that changing media models have rendered planning more valuable to both marketers and agencies.

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Notable Account Planners
Not to mention that they are increasingly finding themselves on teams with other disciplines of, yes, planners. Media planners, connection planners, trans-media planners, channel planners, directors of user experience. "How do you [prepare a] brief if there's 10 on a team?" Mr. Cotton asked.

It's an evolution sure to be discussed at the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Account Planning Conference in San Diego next week. Whereas the discipline was once rooted in the stately British tradition of representing the consumer in the advertising-creation process by pushing marketers and agency teams to produce the best TV spot, today's planning ideas need to stand up to all forms of advertising and every way consumers spend their time. "A big challenge is being up to date with what's going on," Mr. Cotton said. "Six months ago, it's MySpace. Now it's Facebook."

Key insights
James Fox, chief strategic officer, Taxi, argues that those changing media models have rendered planning more valuable to both marketers and agencies. "It's on the planners' shoulders to facilitate all of that," he said. His point: Planners find the insight that is key regardless of whether it plays out on YouTube or the boob tube. For example, a product like Axe deodorant is 1% perfume and the rest compressed air, but planners unearthed the emotional need -- the insecurity of young men -- and promised them seduction.

Of course, selling marketers on intangibles at a time when they are pinching pennies and demanding measurable results isn't always easy for planners, especially when their emotional propositions are executed in a nontraditional manner. "Planners have to find new metrics to evaluate and measure things that are ... in some ways unmeasurable," Mr. Fox said.

The first planners had "giant personalities and could go head-to-head with the creative people," Mr. Cotton said. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners' famed account planner Jon Steel had "an approaching-zeitgeist moment" with Jeff Goodby, Mr. Cotton said, in creating what's become perhaps the most well-known account-planning success in this country, "Got Milk?" The push was born from the insight of what would happen if people were deprived of milk.

Falling prestige
Since then, account planners have slipped a few rungs down from decision makers. Suzanne Powers, executive strategy director, TBWA/Chiat/Day, sits among the agency's top decision-makers in her New York office but recalls a moment of planning clarity while working on the Pedigree account with Worldwide Chairman Lee Clow a couple of years ago. Ms. Powers said she walked into the meeting thinking she had cracked the marketing puzzle until he spoke.

"You sound like our client," Mr. Clow chided. "Speak to me as humans speak."

That's becoming even more difficult in an era where, Ms. Powers said, even the term "consumer" is misleading. "To me, you have to earn the right to have a conversation with somebody," she said. "You can't assume they're already consuming."

No longer can planners just be good at strategy, said John Thorp, director-brand strategy and associate partner at Goodby Silverstein. "It's a cross-silo activity. They have to be good at a lot of things that run across advertising. Ambidexterity is required across the house."

In a way, the new realities also have put planners in a predicament much akin to those of a marketer trying to sell a product. Planners need to "productize their offerings -- should you produce a mini-documentary or go with a PowerPoint presentation?" Mr. Cotton said.

All this has created a humbler attitude on the part of planners. "It's my way or the highway" isn't as prevalent anymore, he said.

The changes may be enough to bring more planners to a psychiatrist's couch, of sorts, as some describe the upcoming account-planning conference. "A planning conference served a necessary purpose 10 years ago, but at this point it's a mature discipline, and I'm not sure anything is getting advanced -- it's become the equivalent of a trade show," said one prominent planner who won't be in attendance. It's little more than an opportunity to "get drunk, catch up with my friends."
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