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Account Planning – Added Value Or Lost Opportunity

Posted on July 30, 2003 and read 8,481 times

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Account Planning – Added value or lost opportunity.

(5 Myths of account planning)

In Canada, Account Planning, or as it is often called, Strategic Planning, is in danger of mutating into a confusing amalgam of account management, research and fantasy. If the process is to become a meaningful addition to the advertising development process – one which adds value both to the creative process and the agency bottom line – we need to take a fresh look at where the discipline came from, and where it can go.

Account planning originated in the UK in the sixties as a response to what creative directors felt was a barren research discipline that did not provide the intuitive understanding of the consumer that they needed. The phrase “account planning” or (more aptly) “creative planning” was coined, resulting in the enhancement of the creative product through a more disciplined approach: centering the development of the creative idea on a strategic definition of the creative task – hence the “Creative Strategy” which underlies the planning process.

This structure has been introduced in many agencies with greater or lesser success, and the reasons for this are likely to differ in every case. However, there are five common myths about account planning that can account for some of the problems experienced by agencies:

Myth # 1. Account Planning elevates the “thinking” of account teams to higher levels.

Implicit in this is the notion that account planning improves on activities traditionally the realm of account management, and that account managers are somehow inadequate. This demeans not only account managers, but also planning which deserves a more enduring differentiation if it is to be established as a meaningful discipline.

Planning should, bring an entirely different set of skills, responsibilities and viewpoints to the process – complementary to the role of account management. Planners should not absolve the account group of its critical role of business planning: it is the responsibility of the account team to develop a focused business strategy, clearly outlining business objectives, competitive landscape, etc. Account managers are trained in the marketing functions of business – they are business partners of the client, and representatives of the business in the agency.

A useful paradigm for understanding this delineation of roles interprets the advertising process in three discreet but interwoven units:

1. Account management understands the business problem and determines what the target must be persuaded to do if these objectives are to be met, culminating in a concise “Role of the Advertising” statement, incorporating a specific advertising “task.”

2. Planning, through a singular consumer-centric focus, determines what the communication should say in order to get the consumer to do what the business plan calls for. This culminates in the “creative brief,” in whatever form it takes.

3. Creative and the media groups determine how this message will be expressed and communicated.

Myth # 2. Planners are the “guardians of the brand.”

A “brand” is an abstract construct in the minds of individuals, consisting of the intersection of three “inputs”: the product, the company that makes it, and the way each individual relates to these. Every discipline involved in the design, manufacture and marketing of a product is “the guardian of the brand.” Planners assist by traveling through the consumer’s mind and heart, discovering what the “brand” is, and understanding ways in which it can be guided. Rather than “guardians of the brand,” planners are “brand mentors.”

Myth # 3. Planners produce magical “nuggets” and mystical “insights.”

Planners use a variety of tools to unearth attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Planners identify salient points, combine these points and develop a point of view. But this point of view is only one, and effective planners take into account those of the other disciplines as well. Planners are like traditional “Rainmakers” who bring together environmental, human and spiritual components to make rainfall inevitable. Planners bring together elements – human, mathematical and spiritual – that, in concert, force an elegant proposition to crystallize – possibly out of the ether. Mystical? Maybe. But certainly not magical – by combining ingredients to transform ideas, planners become, in effect, brand alchemists.

Myth # 4. Account Planning is about “outputting a creative brief”

Often the “product” of the planning department is defined as the creative brief – but the value to the agency actually stems from the process itself, and the ability of the planner to wrap the creative department into the process, so that the output is in effect a unified understanding. This happens when the planner understands that no matter how “insightful,” or “nuggety” a strategy is, it’s of no value until it’s absorbed into the creative psyche.

Myth # 5. Planners provide “inspiration”

Who knows where “inspiration” comes from, but it’s probably not any single source, such as a planner. Planners define consumer frameworks within which creative can be developed – parameters, even limitations, leaving open gates for creative exploration, and implanting guideposts to show the way toward “inspiration.”

A strong planning discipline adds value to the agency by enhancing the creative product and by nurturing an environment that takes the commitment to the consumer seriously. But only by careful integration can agencies ensure the discipline does not become a substitute for effective account management or an excuse for mediocre creative.


One of Canada’s best known and respected strategic brand planners, Laurence Bernstein has developed breakthrough positioning and brand strategies for major Canadian companies, including TD Bank and Trust, CIBC, Fairmont Hotels, Shoppers Drug Mart, Sears, Whitehall Robbins, LMG, General Motors, Holt Renfrew, Rogers Communications, Procter & Gamble among many others.






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