Planning Gets Domesticated

In 1999, at the annual conference of the Account Planning Group-U.S., there were a lot of ways to tell that planning was the sexiest job in advertising. Salaries of top-level planners were soaring. Star U.K. agency planner Adam Morgan, a speaker at the convention, had outgrown the ad business altogether and moved on to create his own brand consultancy. The APG-U.S., for years an ad hoc organization, was newly incorporated, with a full-time administrator and big plans to provide training to junior and midlevel planners. The conference itself, which in 1995 fit into a 250-seat auditorium, attracted 800-900 participants that year.

Perhaps the most telling observation came from a senior planner as we chatted just outside the main ballroom. “You have to admit,” he said, as hordes of junior planners streamed past to take their seats, “planners do hire the best-looking women.”

No doubt there are still enough good-looking women in account planning to fill several trendy Lower East Side bars. But planning has seen its cool quotient erode since the days when, in the words of veteran planner Jon Steel, such conferences were host to “lots of people wearing black clothes and funny little glasses.” By and large, the buzz has evaporated.

Absence of hype, however, does not mean lack of presence. No one goes gee-whiz over the Internet anymore, either-but most everyone uses it. Account planning finds itself in a similar situation: It is relied upon if not talked about.

Eight years ago I wrote a feature about planning, at a time when its practitioners were still, as I described it, “haloed in the glamour that used to be the exclusive preserve of creatives, from whom they’ve poached the roles of advertising iconoclast, crusader and cutting-edge hero” [Adweek, April 10, 1995]. On March 4 of this year, I met at Adweek’s offices with seven planning specialists, several of whom were featured in the earlier piece: Ted Nelson, Jeffrey Wolf, Adam Stagliano, Martyn Straw, Emma Cookson, David Hackworthy and Douglas Atkin. Their observations, along with those of other veterans of the discipline, offer a self-portrait of account planning today.

“Before, planning was a shining, glistening new thing,” says Atkin, director of strategic planning at Merkley Newman Harty & Partners in New York. “Now it’s just accepted as modus operandi.” The lack of buzz, he says, “is in a sense flattering, because it shows the attitude is, ‘Well, of course we’ve got planning. We’ve got to have it.’ ”

BBDO hired Martyn Straw eight months ago to head a planning department as chief strategy officer. A little over a year ago, Martin Sorrell persuaded Jon Steel, who left Goodby, Silverstein & Partners three years ago, to serve as part-time “planner without portfolio” throughout the WPP Group network. And clients have paid the discipline the ultimate compliment by hiring planners-or at the very least, rechristening their research departments as “consumer insights” groups. Says Straw, “I think it’s to do with the research people on the client side wanting to be more sexy. They all want to be called planners and want to write the briefs.”

Some claim that recession may have been good for planning by putting strategic thinking at the top of clients’ agendas. Says Hackworthy, chief strategic officer of TBWA\Chiat\ Day, New York, “When people ask things like, ‘Is planning dead?’ it’s sort of like asking, ‘Is thinking dead?’ Of course not. But I do think that the economy we are in makes planners more accountable.”

Accountability may be the very word that defines the mood of American planning at this juncture in its history. Not too many years ago, an account planning conference was a little like a poor man’s Modern Language Association convention (or perhaps a rich man’s MLA, since planners get paid more than literature professors do), a showcase for lots of smart people holding forth on the fashionable intellectual topics of the day: chaos theory, neo-Darwinism, quantum physics, ethnography and more. Today, the ethos is less MLA and more MBA, less DNA and more ROI. Along with accountability, the buzzwords of the moment are effectiveness, execution, shareholder value and data.

In the ultimate irony, the cutting-edge tool in many planning departments is quantitative research, once the province of the politically enfeebled research departments that pioneering planners in the U.S. looked down upon and set out to replace 15 years ago. Observes Nelson, director of brand planning at Mullen in Wenham, Mass.: “Qualitative insights alone are no longer where the action is. One of the most exciting areas for Mullen planners today is the work they’re doing with statisticians and media strategists. I know this runs counter to a lot of the perceptions about planners. But you’ve got to understand: For a young planner today, this is really exciting, skill-set-expanding stuff.”

With this new pragmatic focus, a lot of the egotism and antagonisms that once made planning controversial have faded away. Planners no longer snobbishly obsess over separating the “real” planning agencies and planners from the “fake” ones and the wannabes. The great internal turf battles of the past decade, in which planners muscled in on the territory of creatives on the one hand and account executives on the other, have largely subsided as planning has become integrated into all agency functions.

“There used to be a sort of battle mentality,” says Emma Cookson, strategic planning director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York. “Now I think there’s more of a running-alongside mentality.” Agrees Jeffrey Wolf, director of planning at Deutsch, New York: “The bad thing about planning was always its overinflated sense of self-importance. The good thing is that now we’re becoming more humble, more sober and more grown-up.”

More humble, planners may be; more sober, perhaps; more grown-up-well, they’re certainly older. Yet when planners talk about the future of their discipline, they still see themselves central to the ad business in its fight against the McKinseys and the Interbrands for clients’ trust and dollars-indeed, in the course of our roundtable, the name McKinsey came up 10 times. “I can predict that every four or five years, the issue will be raised: What’s going on with planning?” says Adam Stagliano, a pioneering American planner who is now director of Brand Architecture, New York, a consultancy within TBWA. “But what people are really asking is, What’s going on with advertising? Planning has become the focal point for a lot of the issues in the industry. It’s become the surrogate.”

So what is going on with advertising? Above all, there is the ongoing struggle for agencies to transcend the business of making and selling ad executions and become clients’ true “marketing partner” and provider of integrated communications solutions. This has been the aspiration since the ’80s. It has proved easier to pay lip service to the concept of becoming integrated-and thus more indispensable-than to achieve it. Instead, the agency business has seen its influence with the CEO deteriorate. Clients have turned to consultants for hard intelligence on their branded assets, and agencies then have had to live with whatever the consultants dream up. Complains Steel, “I have been given a brief from a brand consultancy, and it has been completely unusable for the creation of advertising. But it comes as a fait accompli.”

To BBDO’s Straw, who returned to the agency business after six years at the consultancy Interbrand, the answer is that agencies have to think like consultancies. “I was astonished when I got inside [Interbrand] and found how far down the chain the agencies are,” he says. “And I suddenly realized that I’d been on automatic pilot, that I thought that clients were in business so they can have some ads. But not only are they not in business to have ads, they’re not even in business to have brands, and they’re not in business to have product. They’re in business to create shareholder value.” If agencies want to be true marketing partners, Straw says, they’re going to have to think about shareholder value the way the consultants do. Instead, “our standard is imagery and awareness. And to me, that is three or four yards down the pike.”

Stagliano points out that there is nothing really revolutionary about this goal. “What a lot of agencies are trying their best to do is to bring ad agencies back to where they once were,” he says. “Thirty years ago, they had enormous power. They were upstream. I always saw planning as one of the principal ways to get agencies back into the position they once held.” Straw agrees, “It’s back to the future. In the old days, clients didn’t have a marketing department. They made stuff and distributed it. And talking to David Ogilvy would help them work out what they needed to do creatively.”

These days, clients not only have marketing departments, these departments have been made over in planning’s image. Steel says he has been approached by clients wanting him to recommend planners to hire. He is, however, dubious that planning can work in-house, since part of its job is to be willing “to butt heads with the client.” He points out that Stanley Pollitt was inspired to invent planning “out of anger. He was pissed off by the bad research coming from the client.”

Yet 40 years later, bad research is still coming from the client, but now some of it is planning’s fault. Particularly in its old incarnation as the “voice of the consumer,” Stagliano believes, “planning has become a catalyst for some of the most insidious tendencies on the client side.” Worse, advertising agencies rarely get past the marketing department to get the ear of the CEO, as David Ogilvy once did.

In any case, many agencies are not waiting for the second coming of David Ogilvy to provide integrated services to their clients. Their means are more modest, though they are also, in their own way, back to the future. According to Wolf, integration works at Deutsch thanks to planning’s new focus on quantitative research. “In the beginning, the important thing for planning was to partner with the creatives,” he says. “And then the big thing was media, when planners were thinking not just about the message but about the whole environment in which it is delivered. Today the big thing is data analytics. It’s all about being accountable and proving ROI. I can work with my data analytics people and know that direct mail is getting a different buyer than TV. I can know precisely who I can reach with various vehicles” and thus spread the client’s money among different channels.

And then there is the integrating power of a really good idea. Jay Chiat once called account planning “the best new-business tool ever invented,” a remark that still rankles people like Steel. Yet in some agencies that are seeking more of the client’s budget, that’s exactly how planning functions. A strategic idea, says Atkin, “is more sellable to a client. They need some kind of basic thing to hold on to. And at the end of the day, I’m going to get a logo or a piece of advertising or an 800 number. This is how integration has been good to us. The ones who are doing it right are able to show executions across a whole range of points of contact.”

BBH’s Cookson believes the true advantage ad agencies have over competing “brand stewards” is “the imperative to execute in some way or another. It keeps you real, and it makes you seem practical.” Agrees Nelson, “The nature of planners’ contribution is better when it’s applied.”

This emphasis on execution has toppled planning from the conceptual high ground and brought it down into the trenches. “I used to think planners had to be media-neutral, that it was devaluing to be tainted with advertising,” says Atkin. “I don’t think that anymore. You need to make sure your strategy is going to work, and you need that creative dialogue with other creative people.”

Yet some worry that on their way to becoming pragmatists and team players, planners have lost something more substantial than their cool quotient. Rather than having a “running-alongside mentality,” says Steel, planning needs to be willing to fight with clients and creatives, “to take a position that they would never want to take. You do need the conflict.” Adds Stagliano, “I do think planning has lost some of the verve it had. Planners have become as conservative as advertising itself in that we don’t surprise and don’t shock. Therefore, we don’t necessarily delight or inspire as much, either.”

For Jeff DeJoseph, who was Jane Newman’s first American hire at Chiat/Day, planning might be a little too much “back to the future” for its own good. “Planning needs a planner,” says DeJoseph, who is now chief strategic officer at Doremus, New York. For all its revolutionary fervor, he says, in the end planning has become “just the research department, but now it has a new name.”

But Wolf, who started his career in the research department at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample in the ’70s, disagrees. “Back then the research department was a back-office function. It was not involved in the making of the work. Today it is used throughout the process of creating communications.” Planning may be a lot more like traditional research than it was, but that research has been pushed upstream.

In the meantime, many of the first generation of U.S. planners no longer do account planning day-to-day. Newman, who landed at Chiat/Day in 1981, bringing account planning with her from the U.K., retired several years ago. Rob White serves as president of Fallon, Minneapolis. Rosemarie Ryan is president of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York. Abigail Hirschhorn holds the title of chief marketing officer at DDB, New York. Steel has returned to the field but works part-time to support his new career as a novelist.

One has to wonder whether today’s planning departments are still incubators for agency presidents. “It’s hard to see where the next generation of leadership will come from,” says Steel. American advertising’s mostly British planning directors complain that, at the height of planning’s buzz, the field was flooded with mostly American lightweights, badly trained midlevel planners who were promoted and paid beyond their capabilities. Yet with the exception of APG-East, planner training is in worse shape today than it was five years ago. While planning departments have weathered the recession reasonably well, agency investment in training has dried up. Tough times have claimed APG-U.S., which was supposed to take the lead in training; in March it was subsumed by the Association of American Advertising Agencies, which will now administer its programs, including the annual conference.

Does planning still need stars? “Planning became far too associated with the strengths and the weaknesses of the discipline’s early spokespeople,” says Nelson. “As a result, it became too much about the individual planner rather than the institutionalization of a process that surfaces and applies insights at a previously unimaginable rate.”

Others bristle at this notion of “process.” “My process is to hire the best people and then make them work very hard,” Cookson declares. Yet the cult of the individual runs deep in the planning culture. Steel has long said planning’s salaries and egos are over-inflated, and believes planners should aspire to invisibility, like “officials in a football game.” Yet he occupies a job that exists only because there is a Jon Steel there to fill it.

Even if it makes a lot of business sense, to veterans of American planning’s romantic period, the idea of the discipline earning its keep by tweaking taglines or wringing more efficiencies out of commercial rotation is a depressing one-not just because of what it says about the future of planning but because of what it says about the future of advertising agencies. The big prize for agencies is not winning the 800-number business but regaining the seat that onetime researcher David Ogilvy once occupied next to the CEO. In the coming years, will planning help lead advertising forward into the past?