4A’s Planners Define Their Lot

MIAMI BEACH, FLA. The American Association of Advertising Agencies’ Account Planning Conference has grown to become one of the trade organization’s most-popular events, trailing only its annual media gathering. With that shared sense of purpose, more than 700 industry competitors set aside their rivalries to descend upon the Loews Miami Beach Hotel here last week.

The two-and-a-half days of presentations, themed ‘Spark!’ challenged participants to find the inspiration to become the catalysts of brand success within their own companies. But even as this year’s sessions recognized the unsurpassed opportunities planners have in an integrated world, they also served as a reminder—in some cases, a warning—that planners need to work harder to earn that place at the table.

“The world is coming to us. It’s no longer about communications as an end in itself,” urged Domenico Vitale, Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners’ head of brand strategy, one of the conference’s co-chairs, at the opening session.

At a later session, Mark Beeching, global executive creative director of Digitas, echoed that imperative, encouraging the audience to look for “more verbs, less adjectives, ideas that work hard to earn their attention, create value. We need to think of campaigns like [we do] product development . . . It’s not what goes into TV, press advertising or even into a Web site. [It’s] what do we need to connect with customers, to shape and engage customers over time?”

Two of the most well-received sessions were presented by Miami’s own Crispin Porter + Bogusky. CP+B chairman Chuck Porter quoted Plato as his agency’s inspiration (“There is no learning without emotion”) and cautioned against industry research traditions: “A lot of people have good instincts, but they get dulled down by process.”

Colin Drummond, CP+B’s group director of cognitive and cultural studies, hosted a standing-room only session about culture versus consumer. Using CP+B marketers, like Mini, he argued his agency believes it’s better to change the existing culture—in this case, car culture—to be more aligned with a product’s best qualities rather than promoting products’ best qualities within the prevailing culture.

But the absence of CP+B planner attendance at the conference may have spoken louder than any of those prepared remarks. Said one insider: “[Industry planners] continue to be very traditional; it would be a case of having [our people] unlearn everything they would learn [at a conference like this]. We’d be more comfortable at a conference of anthropologists and sociologists than planners.”

Nonetheless, there was plenty of industry irreverence on hand. Andrew Deitchman, a partner at Mother in New York, offered a glimpse of the smart, acerbic thinking his upstart office is becoming known for in his explanation of a tongue-in-cheek launch of “Dogmatic,” a new gourmet sausage system (read: hot dog) that he portrayed as a new agency client.

Mark Earls, the former executive planning director of Ogilvy & Mather, convincingly shot down the legitimacy of neuromarketing, comparing it to “navigating to Mars armed only with a [flashlight], a stick of gum, some tarot cards and an abacus.”

Nick Barham, strategic planning director at TBWA\China, whose book Disconnected was published earlier this year, contrasted the disaffected English youth he researched with the optimism and brand enthusiasm of a new generation of young Chinese consumers.

Carl Johnson, in explaining why his new agency is such an “Anomaly,” showed some examples of little-known nontraditional work, asking, “Is that a media-driven strategy? Is it a creatively driven strategy?”

The answer was not clear—and the success, or lack thereof, of such integration lies at the heart of the week’s most dynamic panel, when media company executives aired their frustrations. On Tuesday morning, Paul Hindle, strategic planning director of OMD, quickly got the attention of the groggy crowd, still rubbing their eyes after McKinney’s late-night party at The Shore Club’s Skybar on Monday.

“[It’s presumed that it’s the] agencies that have the big ideas and media companies who have the consumer connections,” Hindle said curtly. “We need to move into each others’ territories without a pissing match. It’s about one big idea, not one big ad.”

He noted that at recent 4A’s planning conferences there were discussions about the merger of media channel planning with planning disciplines practiced by agency practitioners. “[Since then] we haven’t come far,” he said. “Media gets one hour in [this] three-day conference—it’s like ‘And now a one-hour message from our media friends.’ The media message should have been more integrated throughout [this] conference,” he argued. “If you rate our industry integration, we are doing a fair-to-middling job at best. We’re still an industry that hasn’t collaborated.”

Another media panel participant, Shane Ankeney, chief media officer at Doner, asked the audience for show of hands as to how many felt they are equal partners to their counterparts in media agencies. After they complied, Ankeney turned to conference co-chair Suzanne Powers, head of strategy and business development at TBWA\Chiat\Day in New York, and smiled, “For the record, Suzanne, you have 37 liars.”

That exasperation, exhibited on the media panel, hinted at similar sentiments felt by other speakers during the week. At a creative panel—which included Digitas’ Beeching, TBWA\C\D executive creative director Chuck McBride and Ogilvy & Mather New York CCO Chris Wall—the latter was asked about his pet peeves concerning planners. He growled: “Just turn off your friggin’ Blackberries and tell me something.”

At her well-received presentation, Ann Hand, senior vice president of global retail marketing at BP, also asked planners to become more engaged: “Be the glue amongst the blurring lines of the overlapping advertising and media firms. Play a bigger role and make my life easier.”

Even the program’s organizers, on Tuesday, seemed surprised by the audience’s lack of input during Q&A opportunities at general sessions the previous day.

There was little of doubt, however, about the quality of work earning recognition in the 2006 4A’s Jay Chiat Planning Awards. But the 4A’s may do well to consider that CP+B—the beacon of successful integration strategies—did not even bother to enter this year, believing the submission criteria for the awards are outdated.