Account Planning: Is Biology Our Destiny?

It was the morning after, but the attendees at this year’s Account Planning Group conference were already wide-eyed from caffeine and intellectual stimulation. All the brain cells that had survived a night of South Beach barhopping were focused on Dr. Sally Goerner, director of the Triangle Center for the Study of Complex Systems, as she explained the mysteries of chaos science, the ordering of seemingly random energy and the organic cycle of cultural life and death.
Then Douglas Atkin, director of planning at Wells BDDP and conference chairman, stepped to the microphone with the first audience question of the day: “Is God dead?”
It was that kind of crowd. The APG conference, co-sponsored by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, is not your average industry confab. The attendees didn’t come to play golf. Some junior planners were so anxious to be here they paid their own way.
They came because they wanted to conduct better focus groups, write better briefs, make better ads, think bigger thoughts. On a cloudless tropical day, they packed the dim Freon-chilled ballroom, finding seats on the floor when all the chairs were taken.
Jane Newman of Merkley Newman Harty observed the record crowd of 500-“500 really smart people”-with satisfaction. Atkin, in his opening remarks, declared the conference a coming-of-age event. Gone is the defensiveness; this is a discipline that has proven its worth. More than one speaker told colleagues that sometimes the best brief is no brief at all. That was a sure sign that planning had finally arrived.
Yet planners, like eggheads of every stripe, seem addicted to struggle. Having secured their place in advertising as the “voice of the consumer,” planners were urged by Atkin to abandon that role and emerge as the voice of the brand.
Having carved out a turf between the account and creative sides, they were called upon to remake media planning in their own image. “We must master change for our brands,” Atkin declared, rallying planners to the front lines of marketing’s permanent revolution.
Except it’s not about revolution any more. That’s 1960s stuff. This year’s hot metaphors were borrowed from biology, ecology and evolution. “Mutant ideas” was the mot du jour. John Kearon of London marketing shop Brand Genetics talked about “brand DNA.” Author Douglas Rushkoff riffed on the “media virus”: a personality, event or ad so unique it breaks through to mass attention, spreading like a bug throughout the media’s bloodstream.
Imagine culture as nature, a chaotic organism that can only evolve through change. Then bring in account planners to mess with the gene pool of ideas on behalf of their brands. This is marketing according to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
There’s no doubt that for advertisers, it’s a jungle out there. In their talk, Atkin and Newman blitzed the audience with statistics about media clutter, consumer cynicism and the mind-bending pace of change. In 1995-96 alone, 20,858 new advertisers joined the marketplace.
Every ad competes daily with 140 other ads for what Kearon called our economy’s single most important-and limited-resource: consumer attention. By the cruel logic of evolution, only brands that make a bold adaptive leap will survive and prosper.
On closer look, however, “mutant ideas” is little more than advertising’s old friend “breakthrough creative” dolled up in fashionable Darwinian lingo.
Still, as any planner will tell you, how people say things is as important as what they say. In a Darwinian world, “change” isn’t a strategic choice. It’s a threat, an opportunity, a virtue, a necessity. It’s inevitable. Change is, quite simply, the way an evolving world works. No wonder planners want to master it.
Would Darwin approve of the other half of the conference’s agenda-ending media planning as we know it? At a conference a few years ago, panelists caused a ruckus by declaring account executives obsolete. Now media departments are the dinosaurs deserving extinction.
“Media departments are under-valued, underpaid and undertalented,” said Atkin, managing to support his media colleagues and insult them in the same breath. “Maybe we should just get rid of everybody else and have agencies just made of planners,” said one conferencee with a self-deprecating laugh.
Yet as media account planner Trish Cafferty asked, if account planners don’t pull media out of the Mesozoic age of mass media, “who will?” Cafferty, who worked for Lowe in London and New York, argued that instead of being an afterthought, media planning should be “pushed upstream” so it’s part of the creative process.
Rather than worrying about media sellers’ GRPs and CPMs, media planners should be thinking about the media buyer’s state of mind. Subjecting media departments, which are still ruled by the big stick of clout, to planning’s feminizing influence may be the discipline’s biggest challenge yet. Let the fittest survive.
After all, despite the evolutionary struggle, the conference ended with the event no ad industry function can survive without: awards. That TBWA/Chiat Day’s Nissan Mr. K campaign shared a bronze with Fallon McElligott’s work for Ralston Purina was refreshing, if a little surprising. This is not because Mr. K isn’t a powerful campaign, but because the ads’ power seems driven by good old-fashioned creativity, not planning. Mr. K, breakthrough “mutant” though he may be, is not the kind of idea that emerges from a focus group.
What wasn’t surprising, on the other hand, was the gold given to the short-lived but fondly remembered 1996 Prudential campaign from Fallon McElligott. “Be Your Own Rock” did more than just preserve and modernize the equity in the old folk saying, “Get a piece of the rock.” It described a shift in the culture at large, a sea change in how Americans see themselves in relation to their world. These are “planning ads” par excellence.
Nor was it surprising that Prudential shared the gold with a pro bono campaign for San Francisco AIDS Foundation-Youth Needle Ex-change that J. Walter Thompson in San Francisco literally took to the streets.
Planning tends to attract idealists and people devoted to a higher cause. Its ranks include Deutsch’s Jeffrey Wolf, who said of Sally Goerner’s morning talk, “I loved it. I don’t know why I loved it, and I won’t know until tomorrow-or next week. But I loved it.”
At times the APG conference had the fervor of a hot graduate seminar, except that planners are better looking than graduate students and much better paid.
And less depressed, too. In fact, judging from this event, I’d say planners are a pretty happy bunch. They roared with pleasure when Rushkoff told them, “Your job is not to sell your clients’ products. Your job is to use your clients’ money to promote the cultural activity of the masses.” In ’90s parlance: survival of the fittest idea.