The role of Account Planning in a digital world

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When I joined advertising a couple of decades ago, we did not have Account Planners in our agency (Trikaya, which later became Trikaya Grey which later became Grey Worldwide). The team interfacing with the client – senior management, Creative, Media (please note) and to an extent Account Managers were the ‘planning’ team. Since those were the days of bundled services, most of the specialists got together as one team and figured out the best communication strategy & execution. I came across Account Planning during my brief stint at JWT (thanks to their MNC roster mainly) and later it was pretty much common among big and mid-sized agencies.

In my experience, Account Planners have been used by agencies at 3 broad levels: (a) catalysts for creative (b) drivers of new business pitch and (c) business analysts of sorts on client brands. Sadly, over the years the emphasis has shifted from the first role to the other two.

Account Planning had its origins in the UK and was meant to facilitate a scientific approach to advertising based on consumer research. Over time, the practice has  meant to be the ‘voice of the consumer’ within the ad agency.

“Planners are involved and integrated in the creation of marketing strategy and ads. Their responsibility is to bring the consumer to the forefront of the process and to inspire the team to work with the consumer in mind. The planner has a point of view about the consumer and is not shy about expressing it.”

The above quote is from Lisa Fortini-Campbell who also outlined 5 broad roles for Account Planning:

  1. First, they must discover and define the advertising task
  2. Second, they prepare the creative brief
  3. Third, they are involved in creative development
  4. Fourth, they must present the advertising to the client
  5. Finally, they track the advertising’s performance

Now, one can safely say that in most agencies Account Planners spend most of the time with the first role i.e discovering and defining the advertising task. After which, everyone else takes over. I have come across very few Account Planners who play an active role in the creative development once the advertising task has been defined. It is also a function of the creative team seeing value addition from the Planners and actively seeking inputs from them. I feel most of the Account Planner’s time is spent on faux consumer understanding – based on focus groups conducted by 3rd party research agencies. And such focus groups are usually reactions to product & ad concepts – not about getting a deep consumer insight. In my view:

– The primary focus of Account Planning should be to facilitate great, relevant, effective advertising. This may come about through consumer research, everyday observations about life & people, a deep understanding of the category and so on. Everything else – the role as a business analyst, pitch lead etc. is a side show.

– Clients (mostly) and agencies (sometimes) use Account Planning for everything other than facilitating great communication. This may include stuff like brand positioning, market entry strategy, competitive strategy, brand architecture and so on. All of which is important but if it saps so much energy and takes away focus from the primary task, what’s the point? Some clients tend to ask for ‘Planning’  at every step – since its free any way. Call a consultant to advice you on positioning and brand architecture and you’ll be charged a bomb.

Farrah Bostic, a strategist puts it very well in a superbly written blog post:

But as agencies scramble to solidify client relationships, move ‘upstream’ as ‘partners’ in the business, and to be quite simply taken seriously as the experts on consumers and brands that they are, I find planners are cleaving ever closer to the client, aspiring to be ‘problem-solvers’ and business partners and consultants… But while they court clients and read data tabs and steep themselves in consumer and media and technology trends, they risk neglecting the importance – sometimes even the transcendence – of great ideas artfully executed.

– Currently whenever Planning gets involved in a Creative Brief, the focus is on figuring out how to change consumer perception/feeling towards a brand or service. It usually involves arriving at a one-line brief or thought starters in terms of creative direction. Planners at Wieden +Kennedy apparently use the phrase ‘The Exciting Possibility’.  (The creative team usually chooses to ignore these and do what they please, though).

– In the fast changing digital world, where the focus is on creating ‘share-worthy’ content for the brand in the online world, I think traditional briefs which focus on ‘what is the one thing we want to say?’ kind of one-way communication must be re-looked at. Would a Blendtec campaign have emerged from that kind of creative brief? Or the Tippex Birthday Party one? Gareth Kay had proposed a new kind of brief for the digital age. One doesn’t see this being a topic of discussion in industry forums though.

Anyway, my point is simple: get Planners to re-focus on the Creative Brief and make them play an active role in creative development, not just in number crunching. It will be even more important in the context of new media.

Photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photo pin cc

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  1. This was (obviously) a very interesting article for me to read! I must say that I do agree with a lot of the points which you've made – especially what you said about account planners now taking on the role of consultants, rather than helping with advertising strategy.

    I guess what I took away from two months in account planning was that planners play a really important role in ensuring that the message that the advertisement is trying to express is relevant and resonates with the intended audience (or any audience for that matter). In a world where the internet can be the both the greatest boon & bane to a product, where consumers have more and more avenues of sourcing information about a product before buying it, an advertisement is one of the strongest ways in which a brand, or a product, can "pitch" itself to the audience. Its voice, therefore, has to be one which people can relate to. One can even say that the product has to try to become a person who people want to be friends with.

    So as you once told me, account planners represent the customer. They play a really really important role – a preliminary sound-board for advertisements, before they're released to the public. The most important focus group (or at least, the focus group with the most amount of knowledge). To ask planners to carve out a brand identity or to define a market position is tantamount to saying "we just want sales – you do whatever you want". In that case the planners would, I guess, have to figure out what kind of person would want that product, and again, take on the role of that person. So if we look at planners in this capacity I'm not sure why more agencies do not actively involve them in the creative process :). That said I really enjoyed the work even though there WERE a lot of analysis & numbers 🙂

    Just my two cents!

  2. karthik perumal Reply

    My 2 cents

    Overall agree, etc etc. I don't think there can be a debate about that 🙂

    My biggest issue with planning on digital is that the digital spends are being driven by the options available (media options) rather than a real creative idea (creative options). Its not like there is a great idea that comes through and digital plays a role in connecting the dots (like Blendtec) but its the other way around (Video is big, so lets do something on Youtube).

    I'd like to believe that its a process issue and not a capability issue. Why is advertising, even now, able to generate a GREAT print ad, or punch line but not able to generate a single noteworthy FB status update (which i believe falls into the realm of classic copy-writing), inspite of most creative teams being more savvy on digital rather than on print? Its because of the process. And probably a gap in the brief process. Which can be bridged by Account planners.

    Having said that i have enjoyed working with digital specific Account Planners. Because they are usually the smartest guys in the agencies 🙂

    • hi Karthik, thanks for the comment. Agree with you on the current approach to Planning on Digital. I think its partly a function of attracting creative talent who are good with new media. Which is again a function of affordability driven by client spends:) Clients agonize over strategy for a Social Media campaign and get into re-work mode on everything – all for a relatively measly amount. They don't blink before spending a couple of crores on a film production but 1 lac a month for FB is 'huge'!

  3. everybody is rushing to create content that can go around the world with the help of social networks with in no time. however, not everybody succeed in this race but people with brilliant ideas and out of box thoughts can turn the world upside down.

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