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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles >  Mommy, Where Do Account Planners Come From?

Mommy, Where Do Account Planners Come From?

Posted on July 30, 2002 and read 16,089 times

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In this three-part article I will attempt to demystify the mystique surrounding the art of account planning. As Strategic Editor for, my mission is to celebrate great ideas and clever thinking and one of the ways I can do that is by recognizing the people, the case studies and the stories that demonstrate the benefits of account planning in Canada. In an effort to show you real-world evidence of account planning’s impact on advertising, I will speak to the people who’ve been there and are the most familiar with the discipline. I welcome your suggestions and comments. You can e-mail me anytime at

And, now, Part One:

In 1963, James Young’s How to Become an Advertising Man clearly stated the value of increased strategic thinking within the realm of advertising:

“Finding the one best opportunity in the market for the particular advertiser, and shaping his advertising to exploit that opportunity, is one of the greatest contributions the Advertising Man can make to his client. And his chances of making that contribution, I repeat, will depend upon his penetration into the real facts and nuances of that advertiser’s situation…Such strategic thinking and planning is especially valuable for the advertiser who is financially unable to match forces (or dollars) with a strongly established competitor. And it will be seen that here CREATIVE thinking may be even more valuable than in the area of messages, where most of the talk about “creativity” in advertising is focused.”

Perhaps it was after reading Mr. Young’s book in 1965 that Stanley Pollitt, an account director in charge of research at Pritchard Wood and Partners, had the idea that he’d be better suited as some sort of research specialist: someone who would decide when research should be done and what information was relevant to the creative work, and who would remain independent from the pressures of clients and creative directors.

A few years later, a dissatisfied Stephen King of J. Walter Thompson in London experimented independently with a similar idea. King developed a system that became known as the T–Plan (Target Plan) which he would train his account people to use in setting strategic objectives.

Then, on July 15th, 1968, while Paul McCartney obsessed over the vocals for ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,’ and 5,000 demonstrators gathered at the Alameda County Court House to support Black Panther chairman and accused murderer Huey Newton, an unwitting and lucky few were present at a meeting in a posh hotel in London when Tony Stead of JWT coined the term ‘account planning’.

Later that year, Stanley Pollitt and Martin Boase left Pritchard Wood to form their own agency, structured around Pollitt’s philosophy that if consumers were involved throughout the process of advertising development, then better advertising would result. Pollitt decided to drop the “creative tweaker” moniker he originally coined opting instead for King’s label, “account planner,” and the seed was planted.

The account planning department at JWT was then set up “to improve advertising planning, particularly in relation to a) setting of objectives b) contributing to creative development and c) improving the methods used to evaluate the effectiveness of advertising campaigns.” (King, 1968)

While Stephen King’s model of planning at JWT was built around the classical strategic planning loop (Where are we? Why are we there? Where could we be? How could we get there? Are we getting there?), Pollitt’s model at BMP was less structured. His planners worked more like qualitative researchers. Furthermore, the need for an account planning department was growing due to clients’ increasing marketing know-how, which was making parts of the marketing department redundant, and the increased availability of data, which could improve the planning function.

Today, the traditional advertising agency has an account manager who “sells” the agency’s services to the client. The account manager works directly with the account during and after the ad campaign, but they’re part of a team that includes creative artists, copywriters, media buyers and, from time to time, researchers. Together, this team creates a campaign.

In the account planning model, the client works with two people from the agency: the account manager and the account planner. While the account manager works to keep the “customer” (the client) happy, the account planner works to keep the customer’s customers (the folks buying their stuff) happy. The account planner acts as a strategist and qualitative researcher, speaking for the consumer through the advertising process and ensuring that the client is offering something the consumer really wants (Steel, 1998).

Ultimately, the best advertising embraces the three perspectives: the client’s business, the agency’s creative talent, and the opinions and prejudices of the individuals to whom the advertising is going to persuade. The planning philosophy acknowledges that the consumer, not the advertiser, holds the power in this relationship.

Basically, you’ve got to understand what the customer wants before you can change, enhance, or otherwise manipulate those wants. By finding some truth and incorporating it into how you speak to your audience, you can make your message authentic, or at least feel authentic, and work in the minds of your target, the only place any advertising ever works. An account planner thinks along these lines.

“Unlike traditional research, which is a staff function, account planning is a line function. It has a line responsibility to insure the advertising is relevant and motivating to the consumer and ultimately is accountable for its effectiveness.” (Newman, 1998)

Just as Gemma Frisius, the foremost astronomer, mathematician and surveyor of his time, with the help of 16th-century cartographer Gerard Mercator, codified the vastness and uncertainty of our world with unrivaled accuracy, clarity and consistency to produce early depictions of the earth and its regions, so are the goals of the account planner. By employing a similar theory of triangulation – the basis for cartographic surveying – the planner can trace reality and guide the advertising to its desired destination. Much like Gemma’s surveyors, the planner harmonizes sightings from prominent points, not on land, but within the brand’s core properties to free the creative output from the guesswork that tends to accompany the majority of advertising today. Frisius and Mercator freed human thought from the imaginary world of the Middle Ages; the planner endeavors to break the binds of “I think” to arrive at much more client-friendly place called “I know.”

In advertising what the message says is not always what the receiver understands. It is through the art of persuasion, by appreciating the context of the targets’ lives – their homes, their friends, their habits, their language, their media, their moods, values, hopes, desires and behaviour – that the planner is able to create a multidimensional model for understanding and influencing the individual. Simply put, the planner is on a truth-finding mission for actionable insights. They turn the process of communication around by focusing on the prospects’ feelings about the message. To paraphrase Jon Steel, finding stuff out, filtering through those findings, rethinking it all laterally and then exploiting that knowledge to guide the advertising team to come up with a better idea than they – the client, the account manager and the creative team – could have without the planner is where the benefits of this unique discipline are realized.

The tangible product of the account planner, together with the account manager, is the creative brief which serves primarily to inform the creative team, but more importantly, to inspire them. A strong brief will reduce all the information gathered from the client, the consumer, the research, and every other source to identify the brands platform for communicating with the intended audience. The best briefs, however, funnel this knowledge down to a single compelling idea. It’s great advertising potential just waiting to be realized.

Jeff Goodby, at a conference in New York in 1995, described the creative briefing process to a room full of account planners using a fishing analogy. The brief, he said, is the equivalent of a fisherman’s experienced guide – he takes you to the best place on unfamiliar waters, shows you where to fish, and he has a good idea about which hooks to use. He doesn’t fish himself, but he makes sure that you (the creative) have a more rewarding time than you could have had without him.

Unfortunately, the lack of a single definition of account planning has caused some confusion and cynicism surrounding its function, even to the detriment of the advertising industry in Canada. Imagine, though, the ensuing allocation of rights in the hypothetical breakup of a modern agency with one client and one campaign. As there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the creative director’s lawyer would be demanding ownership of the ad, the account director would most likely be fighting for rights to the client, and some of us, but hopefully fewer now, would be surprised to know that the account planner wouldn’t sleep at night without custody of the consumer.

One more thing:

“Planning can only work when there is a total agency management commitment to getting the advertising content right at all costs. Getting it right being more important than maximizing agency profits, than keeping clients happy or building an agency shop window for distinctive-looking advertising.” – Stanley Pollitt

Jay Thompson
VP of Stuff




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