All Together Now

At the 2003 Account Planning Conference, Jeff Goodby notoriously—and apocryphally—declared planning dead. He didn’t mean it, of course. He just wanted it to be better. Last week’s conference suggests that it’s trying.

This was the 15th annual gathering of planners in America. With attendance near 800, it was a far cry from the first group of 30 or so who gathered on the floor of Hart Weichselbaum’s office at The Richards Group, complaining that no one understood them. (According to Nigel Carr, it was in Dallas because Hart was the only one whose boss wouldn’t pay for travel; everyone even had to chip in 10 bucks each to cover Xeroxing.) This time, 778 attended, including visitors from 12 countries and a fair number not defined as “account planners.” They focused less on whether planning is imperiled or misunderstood than on how planners can help the industry face its perilous, hard-to-understand times.

The topic was “Creativity Now,” and there was much talk about the “new creativity.” Speakers emphasized the need for more collaborative, media-neutral, integrated creativity, for less division between creative strategy and creative execution, for more “co-creation” with consumers, and even for more creative compensation arrangements. MDC’s Miles Nadal shared his “theory of compensation irrelevance”—basically, that it doesn’t matter how we get paid as long as we’re paid fairly for the value we create. Some curmudgeons argued that there’s no such thing as “new creativity,” or that the phrase is redundant, but attendees seemed to agree that traditional agency models and processes needed to be re-evaluated, and that planners should roll up their sleeves to help reinvent the business.

I missed John Hunt’s “incitation” on “The Power of Creativity” on the first day, but heard it was inspiring. As exciting as he was, I’m told a number of Japanese attendees close to the front set up fancy cameras and recording devices, then proceeded to sleep off their jet lag.

At one of the first day’s breakout sessions, Mark Earls of Ogilvy Europe used a video of a song migrating from stage to army to street to show how consumers co-create content, leaving his audience buzzing. Later, Jerry Hirshberg of Nissan suggested managing creativity by not trying too hard to mange it at all.

It was the Year of the Chair. Hirshberg used the design of a child’s chair as an example of how to reframe problems. A colleague changed his group’s thinking about “What’s a kid?” from “A miniature adult” to “A misshapen adult”—in need not of a smaller chair but one shaped differently, even oddly. Tipping Point and Blink author Malcolm Gladwell used the example of the Aeron chair, panned by focus groups, as support for his passionate call for an amendment to the Constitution to end focus groups completely and limit people’s rights to free assembly and free speech in this one case. Though his speech was more an indictment of seven-point scales than of focus groups per se, he got hearty applause.

On the second day, Mike Hall, founder of the innovative research company Hall & Partners, gave a hot-off-the-database look at new models of how different types of communication work, using a chair to typify the effect of design. His presentation seemed brilliant, but since he tried to explain 12 models where three would have been a stretch, he was forced to buy people drinks later to revive his reputation as someone not just intelligent but reasonably entertaining.

Much of the actual content, of course, happened offstage. The hot drinks invitation to get was from Jonah Disend of the rapidly growing innovation company Redscout. When Jonah’s soiree was asked to leave his hotel, everyone relocated to a local bar. A small group trying to find the party wandered in, looking lost, and then someone said, “It’s 3 a.m., and I just heard the word ‘dialectic.’ I think we found the right place.”

In spite of hangovers, most of the crowd made it to the final morning, where Keith Reinhard shared Business for Diplomatic Action’s findings about America as a brand. He spoke passionately about the need for business to take a leading role in shaping “Brand USA” and asked the room to apply some of its brainpower to the task.

Russell Davies, global planning director for Nike, had been blogging the conference throughout (www.russelldavies.com, though he’ll be annoyed to have even more readers), and was one of the last speakers. He got laughs and inspired many when he said, “No one ever comes out of a movie and says, ‘I really liked that; it was really clear.’ ” He asked planners and agencies to care not only for brand and message clarity but also for vitality and complexity, to recognize that there’s more magic in execution than in strategy, to care as much about sounds and visuals as words, and to allow for and encourage messy, nonlinear paths to creative solutions.

And then the crowd for the Air Force Housing Privatization conference showed up, presumably with their own dialectic to worry about.

Robin Hafitz heads Big Picture Strategy and is former co-chair of Mad Dogs & Englishmen, an advertising agency, and CEO of Mad Logic, a research and strategy consultancy. She can be reached at robin@bigpicturestrategy.com