Shops Settle In For Lengthy Account-Planner Searches

Account planning chiefs, once seen as a rare breed of white knights riding to the rescue of the creative process as the “consumer surrogate,” are much in demand these days, but for a broader range of reasons than before. And top agencies are taking their time in finding the right executives to fill those positions.

The top planning posts at Publicis Groupe’s Saatchi & Saatchi in New York and Omnicom Group’s Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco have been vacant since last summer. And it took six months for the New York office of Omnicom’s TBWA\Chiat\Day to fill a similar hole, hiring Hugh Duthie last week. Duthie, 42, a consultant who has held top planning jobs at Fallon and M&C Saatchi, starts his new job on Feb. 24.

Even though planning has long been a critical piece of the creative puzzle, it’s now becoming even more central to new-business growth, as clients increasingly demand business-building ideas that extend beyond advertising—a process in which planners are key players. “I really do believe there is a demand on planners that didn’t exist before to be wider and deeper thinkers than they were in the past, and we’ve been lucky enough to have planners like that,” said Goodby co-founder and creative director Jeff Goodby, whose agency is seeking a successor to Chris Chalk, who left in July to became of head of strategy at London shop Boy Meets Girl. “You can’t just hire a guy with an accent,” Goodby said.

Saatchi, which has been searching for a replacement for director of strategic planning Claire Hassid since she left in June, hopes to make a hire by the end of February. “We see the planning partner as an absolutely critical member of the core team,” said Saatchi New York CEO Mary Baglivo. “Planners are just so valuable in terms of their ability to drive the insights that lead to the big ideas.”

Not coincidentally, Duthie’s hiring was not finalized until after he met with Mark Schweitzer, svp of marketing at Nextel, the agency’s largest client in New York. “It’s a sign of the importance of the client and the importance of the role,” said Brett Gosper, TBWA New York Group president and Duthie’s new boss. (Further evidence of this came when Gosper tried to hire Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s David Terry in November. BBH countered with a promotion and a raise for Terry, which sources said underscored his value to key client Unilever.)

At the New York office of WPP Group’s Young & Rubicam, former Fallon New York planning chief Maria McHugh became executive director of brand planning in November. The need for planning acumen has grown as clients seek multifaceted solutions to business problems, said John Gerzema, Y&R’s chief insights officer for North America. “Planners cannot be operating in their own world, writing briefs,” said Gerzema. “They’ve got to be in the middle of writing a client’s business strategy.”