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On the surface, planning appears to be extremely healthy. More than 800 planners were at a recent Account Planning Group conference. The APG is now officially incorporated, and it's rare, indeed, for a client reviewing its account not to ask about an agency's "planning capabilities."

So far, so good. However, a number of problems stand in the way of planning's continued growth in U.S. agencies -- some created by planners themselves and others as the result of false expectations imposed by agency management and clients alike.

I am often asked for advice on how to introduce planning to agencies. I always ask "why do you want to do it?" The senior executive who called me invariably cites poor creative work, inability to sell work to clients, unstable client relationships or poor new-business performance -- all problems that planners have no business trying to fix.


Planners can surely help address these problems, but they cannot do so alone. An agency's philosophy on effectiveness, and its willingness to listen to opinions other than those of its creative director, are much more likely to affect performance than the contribution of a new planner, however accomplished that planner may be.

Much of the PR surrounding planning, unfortunately, has enhanced those expectations. Jay Chiat once described planning as the "best new-business tool ever invented," and it probably was -- when Mr. Chiat's agency was the only one that had it. Planners like the world to think they are central to great work and business success.

Now there's a feeding frenzy. Agencies that hadn't heard of planning a year ago now want to invest in it, and they're paying big bucks for planners to come in and "transform" them. The bigger the bucks, the bigger the expectations -- and the greater the likelihood of failure. This failure, in turn, will prejudice agencies, individual staff members and clients against the planning discipline; prejudices they will carry with them into new jobs and relationships. And planning's light will begin to fade.

I made myself extremely unpopular at the APG conference by putting up a slide saying, "We're all making too much money." But planners are getting like Internet stocks. Against admittedly unrealistic expectations, the discipline is overpromising and underdelivering.


I have no doubt that planning will continue to prosper over the next decade in certain agencies. But even those agencies with well-integrated departments and planning directors at the highest levels are encountering problems hiring new talent. And even these bastions of planning are failing to train planners at the entry level. In other words, we are not producing enough planners of our own to ensure a healthy gene pool for the new millennium.

I also fear planners have created some broader problems for themselves. Planning is still too consumer-centric. It's all very fine to represent consumer opinions, but they should be just one of a number of sources of information and inspiration. The client has a pretty important role to play. So, too, the instincts of creative people. Consumers do not have all the answers.

We're also too advertising-centric. As planners, we are most useful when we go beyond advertising solutions and into broader business solutions. We should be telling a client how demographic, cultural, economic, competitive and attitudinal change is affecting their overall business, and how changes in fundamental business practices are required if they are to succeed. The best agencies are already doing this. But elsewhere, planners think that once they've done a few focus groups and written a creative brief, their job is done.


In Britain, the planners of the late 1960s and early '70s (and, I believe, the planners of today) made it their mission to challenge the methodology of the research industry that they believed was counter-productive to the development of great advertising. I don't see that happening in the U.S., and, believe me, there's an awful lot of research out there that gets in the way of good advertising.

Planners should be trying to advance the industry's knowledge of how advertising works and how new methods can help it work better. Instead, they gather once a year like schooling fish, with safety in numbers, to complain about how misunderstood they all are. And with such an isolationist stance, the discipline will continue to be misunderstood.


I am concerned by many people's desire for planning to be "more integrated" and "more accepted" over the next 10 years. If planning is to be successful within an agency, I believe, there needs to be tension between planners and creative people. There has to be tension between planners and account people, even between planners and clients. If they all slap each other on the back and accept each other's thinking, the work will only be mediocre.

Unfortunately, what many planners define as being "accepted" or "integrated" really means having others do what they say.

Mr. Steel is vice chairman-director of planning, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners,

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