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Medium to large-sized advertising agencies divide their work into various departments, traditionally splitting functions into interacting with clients and looking out for their interests (account management), buying advertising (media), and creating advertising (creative). The importance of the voice of the consumer has grown over time. Around the 1980s US ad agencies introduced a new discipline from the UK called account planning which became a primary function in most US ad agencies in the 90s. Account planning brings the consumer into the process of developing advertising.
Account planners have often been called 'the left side of a creative brain'. Their primary function is to find consumer truth and insight that helps the creative teams to create work that is not only entertaining and highly memorable, but that is relevant to the consumer and effective in the marketplace. Creative ideas that drive business are more typically the result of a strong collaboration between creative teams and account planners. Account planners (sometimes also called brand planners and strategic planners) use primary and secondary research to inform their strategic thinking and are ultimately responsible for the work that informs, and the penning of, the creative brief. If the creatives are closest to the idea, and the account manager is closest to the client, the account planner is closest to the consumer. The account planner is the person on an advertising team who is most likely to have spent time with consumers (for B to C) or customers (B to B), observing the consumer's path to purchase, by using research such as ethnographies, focus groups or quantitative/social studies, asking consumers how they think about and use the product or service. And in an era in which the brand is at least as important as a specific product (for instance, Nike as a brand has a place in the culture that far exceeds the particular performance characteristics of their shoes), the account planner is responsible for understanding the place of the brand in the consumer's mind. This is not just a simple research function - planning truly begins when research ends - and account planners stay engaged in the campaign process from the initial client briefing and throughout the advertising cycle. Rather than offering research insights to others at a single point in time, they use research to continue to provide insights within the campaign process and most importantly these days, help to track advertising effectiveness. Whereas previously, account planners focused on the use of traditional primary research tools, digital/social networks have given them the ability to listen to and interact with consumers in new ways, and to work more closely with channel or media planners throughout the process closely also, to not only help plan effective advertising but also engage with consumers in the most effective ways.
Account planning is a job title that exists in most London and UK advertising agencies. Account planning gained an initial foothold in the US in the early 80s but really only evolved to become an essential function is in most mid to large sized agencies in the early 90s.
Beginning in 1965, Stanley Pollitt felt that account managers were using information incompetently or inexpediently because the researcher was not involved in the campaign process. Because of this, Pollitt suggested that a specially trained researcher should work with the account manager as an equal partner. After the opening of the Boase Massimi Pollitt (BMP) agency, in 1968, Pollitt introduced his idea, only slightly revised. Stephen King, believing that clients deserved a better way of doing things, proposed a process of advertising development that had a little less gut feeling and a little more scientific foundation. This process involved rigorous analysis of a brand and its position in the competitive market place. This process creates an advertising message from the marketing objectives and the client’s business objectives. In 1968, J. Walter Thompson (JWT) established a new department called “account planning,” coined by Tony Stead.
In Australia the course of history was different. The inventor of the role in 1965 was David Brent, a senior researcher at Unilever who had served as a senior para-military police commander in a long, major counter-insurgency jungle war in Asia and in the national secret service followed by ad agency account service, creative writing and media management. These qualifications, skills and experiences led to the launch of the new role in a Sydney agency in 1966.
From the UK to the U.S.
The first agency in the United States to develop an account planning department was Chiat\Day (now TBWA\Chiat\Day). Jay Chiat took notice of the new department that was being met with success over in the UK and throughout Europe. (Tran, 1999) Chiat believed that account planning was crucial to creative work and he also believed, at the time, that British creative work was far better than American work. He was also not a fan of typical market research, stating that it is "what already has been done." Planning is about discovering new things.
It has been stated that "Jay Chiat did not decide to experiment with account planning. He decided to have account planning." He knew that he had to integrate the idea into his already established agency. In 1982 he hired Jane Newman, a British planner, to come and work for his office in New York. Newman had previously worked at BMP and Ammirati and Puris. To develop the department, Newman hand picked Jeff DeJoseph from the Young and Rubicam media department to be her first planner on staff As the department grew, so did Chiat\Day. In ten years the agency grew from billings of $50 million to $700 million
Many agencies noticed the success of Chiat\Day, and desired to have their own account planning department. Their rationale was that it would be the key to their success as well. Many creative shops added planning departments, helping propel them from boutique to agency, and picking up national accounts along the way." (Tran, 1999) Other planners such as Jon Steel and Nigel Carr came over from the UK to help pioneer. (Newman, 1998) Companies such as Ogilvy & Mather, DDB Needham N.Y., and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners quickly restructured their agencies to fit in a planning department
It is obvious that in the US, a country with an average of 12 minutes of ad time per hour of television programming, a large amount of advertising seems clutter. For those marketers who had the fear of getting lost, planning seemed as though the magical tool to "break through the clutter." For, the "mantra" of account planning is "relevant plus distinctive equals more effective.
It was during the 1990s that account planning grew tremendously within the United States. (Tran, 1999) As of 1995, planning was "at a boiling point, spilling into every corner of the advertising landscape." (Goldman, 1995) Goldman states: "Agencies of every description want it or say they have it - even if they don't know what it is." After some of the best agencies in the field added account planning to their list of services, planning became a "buzz word" within the field. "Agencies of all sizes, specialties and philosophies began posting want ads, practically recruiting anyone who was 'related to the discipline.'" 
Account planners, strategic planners, planners
"The account planner is that member of the agency's team who is the expert, through background, training, experience, and attitudes, at working with information and getting it used - not just marketing research but all the information available to help solve a client's advertising problems." - Stanley Pollitt
"Planners are involved and integrated in the creation of marketing strategy and ads. Their responsibility is to bring the consumer to the forefront of the process and to inspire the team to work with the consumer in mind. The planner has a point of view about the consumer and is not shy about expressing it." - Fortini-Campbell
The ultimate goal of the planner is to work with consumers as partners in the process of developing advertising. This relationship with the consumer allows planners to involve their input at every stage of the process and to inform and inspire creative ideas that guide and validate the resulting campaign in the consumers interests. Planners are the “consumer’s representative” of the account team. According to Jon Steel advertising can exist without account planning, but planners add an element of creativity to the advertising mix. They are typically people who are interested in meeting people and talking to the consumers. Planners want to find out what makes people tick and use that market information and research data to guide the campaign process. It is the planner’s job to take all this information and funnel it down into a short idea that helps inspire and directionalize the creative department.
Planners have the ability to bridge together their understanding of the consumer and the awareness of how this knowledge will be used within their own business. It is the account planners' job to understand and draw insightful conclusions not only from the consumer, but also the brand. Because communication channels have presently multiplied, it is even harder, and more crucial, for communication to break through this clutter and reach the target audience. The planner must provide "the edge" that will ensure that a client's message will do just this
According to Fortini-Campbell, there are five main roles that an account planner must fulfill; First, they must discover and define the advertising task. They have the job of organizing information about the consumer and the marketplace from every possible source, including the client and agency data and secondary research. Second, they prepare the creative brief. The creative brief is the tool that the creative department uses to conceptualize ads. Another main purpose of the brief is to define the proper positioning of a brand. Third, they are involved in creative development. During creative conceptualization, it is the account planner's duty to represent the consumer. They may also interact with the creative department through the sharing of initial consumer responses to ad ideas or advertising approaches. Fourth, they must present the advertising to the client. The planner informs the client of "how and why a consumer will react to [specific] advertising." Finally, they track the advertising's performance. Through their follow-up research, account planners track reactions to the ads in the actual marketplace and provide Creatives with additional information.
There are numerous characteristics that make for a good account planner. Fortini-Campbell state that a person must possess intelligence, experience, strong observational skills, and judgment. The account planning group adds that account planners must have the skills to "conceptualize and think strategically. They must also be able to argue their viewpoint coherently. Being a team player and having a strong personality are also positive attributes. Ideally, an account planner candidate will have some experience in market research, brands, advertising and communications, and people management.
The account planner is the bridge between the business side to the creative side of a marketing campaign. On the business side, the planner works with the account manager to understand what the client is looking for and then relate that to what the consumer wants. On the creative side, the planner helps to create an expressive snapshot or a single-minded directional creative brief to lead the way to the drawing board.
A good account planner is inspiring by nature, passionate for advertising and has respect for creativity. They are intuitive and curious about consumers and relationships. Planners must be educated in marketing and research techniques. Secretly planners must be little detectives looking for truth and understanding. They must also be numerate, imaginative, and creditable when it comes to translating and presenting research.
It is safe to say that the way planning works varies from agency to agency, and even within an agency, from planner to planner. A typical account planning cycle starts with a study of the brief from the client and secondary research, meaning any research that is currently available. Then the planner must delve into the consumer and retrieve primary research that is applicable to the client brief. The planner must brief the creative on the upcoming campaign. Understanding the brand attitudes and its individual elements is important to the diagnostic research. At this point all the information must be funneled into a creative brief and presented to the creative team. It is important that the account planner rationalize the advertising and its message to the client. Once chosen or approved by the client the planner can take steps to pre-test the ads to ensure that the research, branding, message recall and ideas of the consumer are appropriately applied and at satisfactory levels. The account planner’s job never ends. Once the advertising is public the planner must constantly evaluate the campaign for effectiveness, so that changes can be made if necessary.
In today's advertising field, "almost every advertising agency (and their clients) benefits from a disciplined system for devising communications/advertising/commercial strategy and enhancing its ability to produce outstanding creative solutions that will be effective in the marketplace." It is the account planner's task to act as the "consumer's conscience" and guide this process through the use of their knowledge of the consumer.
Stanley Pollitt believed that the following three attributes are essential in producing effective account planning:
1) It means total agency management commitment to getting the advertising content right at all costs. This means creating effective advertising instead of focusing on maximizing profits or keeping the clients happy. Pollitt believed that you could only make "professional judgments about advertising content with some early indication of consumer response." He did not mean that this rule would "represent a choice between effectiveness and profits, stable client relationships, or outstanding creative work." It would represent the choice how to prioritize the three.
2) The agency commits the resources to allow planners to be more than temporary role players. Account planners must be given the leeway to work with the data and research that they see fit, and must not be pressured into working more, than say, an account director. If planners are stretched over too many accounts, their knowledge of the account and the consumer will suffer. The account planner and account director must form a relationship common to that of an art director and copywriter. The two roles "have a common aim," but bring forth different skills.
3) It means changing some of the basic ground rules. Once consumer response becomes the most important element in making final advertising judgments, it makes many of the more conventional means of judgment sound hollow. "Conventional means" representing the affection a Creative has over an idea or the prejudice of a client that challenges research evidence.
Fortini-Campbell state that, because the role of account planning varies from agency to agency, it must be "constantly worked at to be done correctly."
Account planning exists for the sole purpose of creating advertising that truly connects with consumers, according to Jon Steel. Planning has made its move to the forefronts of larger agencies in the US, thanks in part to Jon Steel, but for some it is still considered a luxury. In many accounts, the account directors will claim the development of strategy. In case there's no account planner on the account, it's a team effort; client, account director and creative director. It must be clear where account planning is creating an advantage. Account planning adds context, a wider perspective, guidance and opinion to advertising development.
Having an account planner involved in the account has led to more integration within the agency, which has resulted in better teamwork in trying to combine the needs of the client, the market and the consumer. Account planners stimulate discussions about things that were overlooked before, such as, purchasing decisions, brand-consumer relationship and specific circumstance evaluation.
The main change inflicted on advertising by account planning is, to approach every marketing challenge, starting with the consumer. Traditionally qualitative research has been conducted via focus groups, but it is the Jon Steel style of focus group - focus groups in a creative way - that has changed the way some agencies apply this kind of research. “The best research and strategic thinking in the world is absolutely worthless without a creative executions of similar stature,” Steel said. The goal, in turn, is to create and maintain a meaningful relationship with the consumers.
In present day society, there is no doubt that consumers around the world have knowledge and interest in advertising. It is something that has become part of our society and it possesses a "means of contributing meaning and values that are necessary and useful to people in structuring their lives, their social relationships and their rituals." However, there is a difference among cultures concerning advertising. One such difference is between the UK and the US. While in the UK there is a high approval for advertising among consumers, consumers in the United States believe that advertising insults their intelligence. There are seven goals that have been achieved in the UK thanks to account planning:
- Having a planner on the account has led to more integration within the agency and better teamwork in trying to combine the needs of the client, the demands of the market, and the expectations of the consumer.
- The planner has brought an added dimension of understanding to the process of developing ads, by stimulating discussion about: purchasing decisions, the brand consumer relationship, and how the advertising is working in specific conditions.
- Helping to win new business: by instilling confidence in the prospective client as a result of a comprehensive and disciplined approach.
- Defining more tightly-focused strategies: the result of an enhanced understanding of the consumer.
- Stimulating creative development: the result of more productive contrast between the creative department and the consumer.
- Helping to sell ads: by explaining the way they work.
- The quality and creativity of advertising in the UK has grown in line with account planning, thus proving that the function has helped, rather than hinder this trend.
Myths about account planning
Taken from an article by George Creel which appeared in Advertising Age on September 16, 1991.
- Account planning is the solution to the advertising industry's malaise. (While account planning can strengthen an agency's creative product, no one discipline can solve all of the problems of an agency.)
- Account planning leads to breakthrough creative. (Account planning does provide the background and consumer research to develop creative work, but breakthrough creative is a result of a superior creative staff.)
- Account Planning is the key to winning the new-business pitch. (Pitching is a "team sport" that requires all of the departments of an agency to work together.)
- There is a process for account planning. (There are numerous ways to execute proper account planning; Intuitive skills, a passion for advertising, and personal involvement are all essential and are a good place to start.)
- Account planning is a continuous process. (Advertising is expensive!)
- Account planning is new name for research, qualitative or otherwise. (Research is only one of the tools that account planners use to discover insightful information.)
- Account planning and research departments can coexist. (Each department must have a clear definition of its role and must know who is in charge of whom.)
- Clients like account planning. (They LOVE it - if it is free).
- Account planning is the role of the account planner. (Good solutions can come from anywhere or anyone.)
- Account planning is glamorous. (It is fun as well, if you have the passion to fight for your beliefs.)
- Account planners sit in the room while the ads are made. (The account planner must articulate strategy to the creative team before the ad is created.)
- Good account planners are hard to find. (Account planners can come from all backgrounds and disciplines.)
- The best account planners are the English. (No particular culture. race, religion, sex. sexuality, or national origin is better at account planning than another.)
- Pick of the Litter Account Planning Awards - Includes a library of winning account planning case studies
- "Planning Hall Of Fame". Plannersphere.
- Goldman, 1995
- Tran, 1999
- Newman, 1998
- APG Group, 2001
- Steel, 1998