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Ad agency hiring strategy today consists of, more strategy.

Though overall employment at 20 of the nation's largest agencies stayed even from October '94 to October '95, many of them enlarged their strategic-planning ranks.

"Planning is a bloody good investment. It saves money," says Douglas Atkin, exec VP-account planning director at Wells Rich Greene BDDP, New York.

Almost half of the 4.3% increase in WRG BDDP core employment (see accompanying chart) came from planning hires. Mr. Atkin essentially started the agency's planning department when he arrived at the agency last fall; today there are eight planners.

"Each year we find ourselves spending more on resources in that area," says Philip Palazzo, exec VP, general manager and chief financial officer of Ammirati & Puris/Lintas, New York. "We really view the strategic-services area as the hub of the wheel, with the wheel being client services."

Staffing in the planning area increased this year even though total employment at Ammirati stayed flat, Mr. Palazzo says.

"We're mostly hiring in strategic planning," says Bruce Kelly, exec VP-general manager of Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York. Lowe's core-level employment dropped almost 10% in the 12-month period, but strategic-services employment increased.

New planning hires in the past year included two in new positions: a cyber planner and a trends expert.

Employment at Campbell Mithun Esty, Minneapolis, dropped 31% this year largely from the sale of offices in Houston, Chicago and Detroit prior to a management buyback from Cordiant. In the Minneapolis office, where total employment has remained constant, hiring in the planning department has risen, says Paula Baldwin, PR director.

Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, the largest U.S. agency measured by core employment, saw an 8% gain in research staffing during the 12-month period, double the agency's increase in overall employment.

Planners bring a variety of different backgrounds to their work. Many come from the client side: WRG's Mr. Atkin is a Procter & Gamble Co. brand manager alum; other planners at WRG come from client marketing departments.

Many others come from account management. Two years ago, Dick Lynch, senior planner at Campbell Mithun Esty, served on a task force to determine whether CME should set up account planning. He had worked in account management for 15 years.

"At first I felt threatened by it, as an account person," he says. "But then, as I got into it, I knew our agency had to have this. I petitioned for [my current job], and it's been terrific."

There are enough planners out there that an agency can hire someone with years of planning experience, says Paul Alvarez, chairman of Ketchum Advertising/USA, Pittsburgh. Ketchum started its account-planning department three years ago and today has about 10 planners in three offices.

Most were planners before they were hired, Mr. Alvarez says.

"Strategic planners can be hard to find," says Glenda Shasho Jones, president of Shasho Jones Direct, New York. "They must have a very different way of thinking about things-not out-of-the-box thinking, but a combination of a learned way of thinking strategically plus experience."

Jim Ficco, president of Ketchum's Pittsburgh office, seconds that and adds two other attributes of good planners.

"They have to be inspirational to creative people-able to not merely provide them with information but to inspire them," he says. "And they have to be good salespeople, to sell focus."

Agencies have different names for strategic planners, but at most the job boils down to coordinating the efforts of researchers and creatives. Planners help identify a brand's strategy and then communicate it to the creatives.

In short, Mr. Atkin says, "The planner's job is to get to the point."

In many cases, agencies have created new departments for strategic planning within the past five years. These departments typically report directly to top management, not to account management or research. And indirectly, they can produce revenue.

Planning departments are seen as good investments by agencies because they help win new business, and because they help save money and rework on existing business, Mr. Atkin says.

"You don't have to create 10 campaigns to sell one," he adds. "We are able to present more on-the-button work."

Mr. Atkin says planning was a big part of WRG's winning pitch for the $15 million Heineken USA account in September.

Likewise, Mr. Palazzo credits strategic planning for helping Ammirati win accounts such as Burger King Corp. and MasterCard International in recent years. Planning also has helped the agency reverse declining sales trends at those clients, he says.

"The seed [in those cases], and in most cases, is strategic services," he says.

Planning played a "pivotal" role in CME's winning accounts worth a combined $250 million in billings from DowBrands, Kmart Corp. and Mannington Mills in the past year, says Mr. Lynch.

"It has made a profound difference here at CME in the development of new business," he says.

Mr. Lynch stresses planning, not a new organizational chart, makes the difference. The cosmetic benefit of showing clients you have a planning department doesn't matter, he says. What matters is achieving a "seamlessness" between strategy and creative.

Behind planning, creative hiring also is on the upswing at some large agencies. In several cases, agencies whose reputations traditionally have rested on strategic and client-service skills are looking to improve creative resumes.

New hiring this year at Grey Advertising, New York, mostly occurred in the creative and interactive areas, the shop says.

Bill Whitehead, the new president-chief operating officer of Bates USA, New York, stated recently that a key priority is improving the strength and numbers of the creative department.

The largest gainer among the top 20 agencies was Ogilvy & Mather, New York. A 14.8% gain in employment largely reflects "getting into the swing of" the agency's $500 million IBM account, won in 1994, and eight other new accounts worth a collective $120 million in billings won since January, says PR Manager Diana McSweeney.

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