Planning for Good

Planning for Good: US Account Planning at 25

Geoffrey Precourt
WARC Online

Twenty-five years ago, when Jay Chiat imported the practice of account planning to the United States, the welcome was not always warm. Account people genuinely seemed worried that someone was going to take a golf club out of their hands; writers and art directors resented someone having the authority to look over their creative shoulders; and research departments —where they existed—were more than a little bit taken aback that someone—anyone—could be presumed to have the smarts they thought were their own proprietary turf.

Jane Newman was Chiat’s choice to introduce the new discipline to the U.S agency community. And, as Newman later observed, “Jay was totally counterintuitive. How else could anyone in their right mind believe more research, more numbers, more focus groups could make creative better?" 

But the idea of one individual tracking an account from concept through execution turned out to be a popular one. In just a few years, ADWEEK observed, “Agencies of every description want it or say they have it - even if they don't know what it is.”

Winston Fletcher, author of Powers of Persuasion: The Inside Story of British Advertising, has overseen the work of agencies and marketers for decades. And he was not an early planning advocate: “Account planners, I argued, were superfluous,” he writes. “Account executives should be able to analyze, and plan, and carry out focus groups, as well as buy clients over lunch.” 

Over time, Fletcher became an advocate: “The great benefit of account planning, both to agency and to client, is that it eliminates dud ideas early on, and it identifies avoidable gaffes and clangers buried within good ideas, so they can be changed before the creative work is presented to the client. 

“Better still, if the agency is presenting an extraordinary or groundbreaking new idea, which a client might find difficult to swallow, both sides will know a modicum of market research has already established the idea has some substance. From the agency’s point of view account planning is the greatest sales aid ever invented.”

The earliest UK attempts at account planning date back to the late ’60s and the opening of Boase Massimi Pollitt. The London office of J. Walter Thompson was the first to actually establish an “account planning” department in 1968, but the program didn’t gain immediate traction: “The rush by other agencies to follow our lead was muted,” Steven King, JWT’s first head of account planning, wrote in 1989. “For several years, nothing at all seemed to happen.”

In Powers of Persuasion, Fletcher provides the perspective of time: “What is certain is that if BMP and JWT had not invented account planning, the role of creative agencies in developing advertisers’ marketing strategies could well have shrunk to nil.”


Planning for Good 

Two-and-a-half decades after Jay Chiat hired Jane Newman, account planning is an integral part of the U.S. agency business (indeed, there is a whole generation of agency account management that never knew what life was like before planning). It helps explain why more than 625 people from all parts of the planning universe attended the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) annual Account Planning Conference in July 2008, to examine the state of their art. 

Of the delegates, a group of 32 account planners—each one with five years or less experience in the field—participated in a one-day Planning for Good outing.

Planning for Good —in real life and in real time—is a virtual Facebook group of some 1,800 planners from 30 cities all over the world. Ed Cotton, strategy director at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners in San Francisco, assembled it last August to provide the not-for-profit sector “with a means to collect information and a way to think about their organizations in a brand-type manner.”

Cotton found four other like-minded civic-minded account planners (Aki Spicer, Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis; Mark Earls, Herd Consulting, London; Gareth Kay, Modernista!, Boston; and Jason Oke, JuniperPark, Toronto) to serve as program coordinators. Projects are passed along to the 30 regional clusters, each of which files a planning recommendation. Cotton and his group of four pull together the best thinking and present a fleshed-out plan to a client list that, to date, has included Idea Village (a New Orleans economic development organization), Live Earth (the climate-crisis coalition whose most visible face is Al Gore), and Unicef. 

“Each of these organizations gets so caught up in the weeds of fund-raising that they welcome different ways to think about their work,” says Cotton. “We give them something they can’t get anywhere else.” 

On Sunday night, eight teams of four young account-planners received early-morning briefings from two not-for-profit groups. Witness.org reports that it works with people around the world to train and support them “to use video as an advocacy tool in their human-rights campaigns…. We provide training, support, and an online platform to share and distribute footage, with the aim of empowering people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice.”

Kiva, the second Planning for Good opening-day project, “is a unique service that allows users to loan money directly to individuals in the developing world… allowing users to make direct loans to the global poor in an inexpensive, personal manner…. You no longer need to guess if your money goes directly to the source. Kiva allows you to loan money directly to the individuals in need.” 

By 7 p.m., each of the eight teams had prepared full 15-minute presentations for the representatives from Witness.org and Kiva. For Witness.org, the planning advice included programs to “engage your inner witness,” “get your story told,” and “make a visual difference,” with planning underpinnings that encouraged prospective participants to “engage your inner witness” and the notion “it’s not real until it’s witnessed.”

For Kiva, the planning directives from the four teams focused on brand identity and fund-raising, with platforms that would create communities of donors and the reminder “kiva.com is not a Web site; it’s an action.” “Social investing” was the foundation of one group’s plan, while another encouraged Kiva management to consider the concept of “my personal ripple”—a calculation not just of how much a $25 donation could generate to a business in need but how that gift also might change any number of lives over a period of five years.

Among the agencies that responded to the 4As call for volunteers and a day of full-speed-ahead planning were AMP, Arnold, Cutwater, Draft FCB, JWT, Kline Davis Mann, Martin Williams, McGarrah Jesse, Merkley + Partners, Mullen, Team One, Tracey Locke, TBWA, Wunderman, Team One, and Zimmerman. Guiding them were “mentors” from ButlerShineStem, Fallon McElligott, Herd Consulting, McGarrah Jesse, the Talent Business, Tracey Locke, and Young & Rubicam. 

The herding-cats mechanics of four complete strangers pulling together “instant” planning programs in a day were not unlike the logistics that Cotton and his management group face with their on-going charitable programs. “We need to take all these hybrid organizations and figure out the most efficient way to get their best work into the hands of our clients. We’re still working on it.”

One of the eight planning teams that had gone hungry with non-stop work from breakfast to presentation time articulated the frustration of working against the clock under pressure with the name it gave its organization: “Will Plan For Food.”

It’s a level of passion that Jay Chiat and Jane Newman might have been surprised to discover 25 years ago.