Lofty Thinking Gets Practical At 4A’s Planners Conference

No more chaos theory, no more quantum physics. Once known as followers of a head-in-the-clouds discipline, American account planners are now acknowledging that their future depends on their concrete contributions to the agency bottom line.

The trend, which surfaced at last year’s Account Planners Conference, was front and center this year with some tough love from Jeff Goodby of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and a refresher course in data presentation from Howard Wainer, an editor of the Journal of Education and Behavioral Statistics.

“Planning is on the verge of irrelevance,” Goodby told the 600 attendees of the American Association of Advertising Agencies event in Boca Raton, Fla. “It’s attracting more disrespect than ever from people in other departments and, indeed, from clients. It’s not being demanded as much anymore, even by big, jittery clients who used to swear by it.”

Ed Cotton, director of planning at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners in Sausalito, Calif., put a more positive spin on the state of the discipline. “I think planning is evolving,” he said. “One of the speakers said planners are in the third phase of development. We’ve certainly passed the rock-star stage.”

The focus now is on the fundamentals, said conference co-chair Michael Fanuele, global planning director at J. Walter Thompson in New York. “Planners have a tendency to get a little too intellectual, and this [conference] was more about doing great planning with our feet on the ground,” he said.

But talk of planning returning to the basics may be slightly disingenuous, considering the discipline’s youthful indulgence in conceptual thinking. If there is a return, it is a return to the quantitative techniques of the much-maligned consumer research departments of old. The one-time avatars of qualitative research have learned they must become fluent in the language of numbers. “We have to make compelling arguments with data,” Cotton said.

The dramatically titled “Death of Account Planning” talk from Goodby generated the most buzz. As a leader of one of the first “planning agencies” in the country, Goodby urged account planners to guide and inspire creatives rather than serve as ad critics, judging the work. “The right-vs.-wrong mentality is the single most alienating side effect of the planning process,” he said, noting that creatives at his San Francisco agency are increasingly finding planners less helpful and relevant.

Responded Scott Lukas, founder of brand strategy consultancy Dosage in Brooklyn, N.Y.: “Listening to Jeff, my thought is that it’s more complex and positive than he spoke of. Planning is at a crossroads, just like agencies are. Clients are pulling both the planners and agencies in more directions than ever before.”

But by and large, Goodby’s admonishment was received in a thanks-I-needed-that spirit. “It was a great idea to have Goodby come in and kick us in the pants,” said Patrick Kayser, a junior account planner at Merkley, Newman Harty & Partners in New York. “You need a little bit of criticism to grow and become better.”

Goodby’s point was that planners have been “hijacked” by other commitments, said Cathy Clift, evp of brand planning at Rapp Collins in Irving, Texas, and the 4A’s account planning committee co-chair. “It was a plea from one of the most elevated creative directors for planners to spend more time with creatives,” she said.

One notable characteristic of the crowd this year—up 30 percent from 2002—was the youth of the attendees. “I was encouraged by the high number of next-generation planners,” said new-business consultant Neilan Tyree, who has attended five such conferences. “Agencies invested by sending many of their bright young stars.”

But at the same time, the prevalence of twentysomethings highlighted a gap in the middle ranks of planning. More than 15 years after the discipline’s introduction into the U.S., its practitioners are largely split between very senior, mostly British veterans and droves of bright young things. (This is not limited to planning, of course—it is true of the agency business as a whole after many waves of layoffs.)

Also on hand at the conference was poet laureate Robert Pinsky, speaking about communications that move people. It’s good to see that some things about the discipline have not changed altogether.