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The account planning "philosophy" of creative advertising development has been hyped on both sides of the Atlantic for more than 30 years yet there is still little agreement on what exactly it is and what contribution it has made. This article reviews current perspectives on the account planning discipline from the London and New York agencies that pioneered the discipline. Depth interviews suggested that account planning remains a powerful idea for advertising professionals and a major priority for top international agencies. The complexity and depth of feeling that surrounds the topic, however, is striking. Views range from passionate advocacy to open cynicism. This article offers an interpretation of the major issues that emerged and integrates this with research perspectives to suggest an agenda for the wider understanding and successful implementation of account planning.
To NONADVERTISING PEOPLE it may be hard to imagine why an arcane advertising management philosophy can generate heated and often angry disagreement more than 30 years after its inception. Yet the "philosophy" of account planning does exactly this. The label "account planning" normally refers to a strategic role within agency account teams and also, more broadly, to a "philosophy" of advertising development. Put simply, the role involves distilling insights from research and integrating them into the creative development of advertising and brand communications strategies (Meyers, 1986; West and Ford, 2001). The account planner is known as the "voice of the consumer" (Pollitt, 1979) within the account team and is the expert at interpreting qualitative consumer research data. The account planning philosophy involves instilling an ethos of advertising effectiveness founded on consumer insights throughout the agency. As an "ethos," account planning is more than a creative technique. It is seen as a powerful way of distinguishing agencies and generating new business (Jay Chiat, quoted in Steel, 1998).
However, putting account planning "simply" is a dangerous business. For the converted, account planners are the "thinking beginning and end of the communications process ... " (Account Planner, London). Planning is a "discipline ... that adds value ... helps to raise the caliber of the work ... " and " ... was respected from the moment it was adopted within the agency ... " (Senior Account Planner, New York). In contrast, for the unconverted, account planning is an "elaborate charade" (Kendrick and Dee, 1992). Account planners are the "empty suits" (Anon) who dance onstage to "to entertain clients ... a lot of very interesting points of view are offered then advertising is created by a creative director who's in none of these meetings" (Account Planner, New York).
There are those within the industry (such as John Bartle of Bartle Bogle Hegarty) who, it is reported, claim that the "great" ideas of creative specialists are far more important to effective and distinctive advertising than the consumer insights of account planners (West and Ford, 2001). Within agencies such disagreements can get personal: the word "hate" occurred more than once in interviews with planners in connection with their standing in the agency. Some planners felt that daily working life was a running battle with account executives who excluded the planner from strategic decisions and referred to them for trivial questions such as " ... what colour clothes the actor should wear in a commercial ... " (Junior Account Planner, UK). Clearly, there is a point of view in the industry that is, to say the least, sceptical toward the claims made for account planning and the value of account planners.
In interviews the "official" agency position on account planning was not always reflected in the "unofficial" comments of agency professionals. It seems that account planning can generate tensions that place the priorities of senior agency management at odds with the working practices and politics of account teams. Top management may be attracted by the values and differentiation they feel account planning builds into their agency brand. However, saying the words is one thing; getting account teams to do the deeds is another. Several planners commented that they were not necessarily respected in previous or current jobs. One New York planner lamented that " ... I've only seen a couple of people practice planning in a way in which you can actually see the results in the advertising." It appeared that even in agencies that claim to practice an account planning approach implementation can be a major difficulty.
The contrast between the public and private face of account planning emerged as interviews became more candid under gentle questioning, in some cases with the audio recorder switched off. In one case the author was ushered into a private room out of earshot of the rest of the floor. All work places require some discretion and none are without conflict, but it was clear that account planning can be a sensitive subject within agencies. The self-surveillance advertising professionals exercised over their comments on account planning made it seem, at times, as much like an ideology as an ethos. The striking and occasionally contradictory industry attitudes toward account planning seem indicative of a serious and complex issue of advertising agency management.
The account planning story is well established in the advertising industry, much lauded in some quarters, and equally reviled in others, but as recently as 1995 one author suggested that "the jury is still out" on account planning (Kover, Goldberg, and James, 1995, p. 64). A New York planner explained that, while account planning was well known and "well-accepted," " ... very little attention is given to planning ... even after thirty years it's still somewhat unknown." The advertising industry conducts courses on everything to do with communications, apart from account planning. Two New York planners agreed that their agencies did not "really train" planners. One agreed that agencies did not "really know what they were doing" on training for account planning. The lack of formal or established training programs seems odd since senior account planners in large international agencies talk of the complex skills that the account planning discipline demands. As the comments below will reveal, an agreed curriculum for planning seems unlikely given the diversity of views on the subject.
This article will outline the sampling frame and the interview schedule used before offering a brief account of the origin and development of account planning in U.K. and U.S. advertising agencies. It will then integrate literature sources with interview perspectives to outline the major controversies and implementation problems that emerged. Finally, the article will attempt to distill the major themes and conclude with a suggested agenda for the successful implementation of the account planning approach to creative advertising development.
SAMPLE FRAME AND INTERVIEW SCHEDULE
The sample frame was purposive: the author began exploratory interviews in 1997 at the London agencies that are most strongly associated with the emergence of account planning in the United Kingdom. The discipline was taken to New York in the 1960s so in 2001 the author followed the trail to conduct further interviews with senior professionals in top Madison Avenue agencies. Eighteen account team professionals in all roles (creative, account planning, and account management) were interviewed in the U.K. agencies while a further four interviews with senior account planners were conducted in New York. Interviews were conducted in the London offices of four of the top five U.K. agencies (by billings) and in the New York offices of two agencies in the world's top ten agency bands. Three were held at the author's office in Oxford, United Kingdom and one in the Manchester U.K. office of a major U.S. agency. All interviewees were experienced professionals, three at …