98% Pure Potato: The Origins of Advertising Account Planning

By John Griffiths and Tracey Follows

The story of how account planning began, told by its pioneers

Monday, 30 November 2015

Where account planning came from and why it might be going

STOP PRESS Heather Lefebre author of a brand new book about the bmarketing strategy posted an interesting blog last week on WARC in which she speculates about the beginnings of the word account planning.  We took an interest in this not least because of meeting Tony Stead the man who came up with the term account planning in an internal meeting at J Walter Thompson in the summer of 1968 and interviewing John Bruce who was in that very meeting. Heather suggests that the term account planning was a mash up between account as in account executive and planning as in media planning.  It wasn't as straight forward as that.

Firstly Stanley Pollitt had been running a department called the Market Planning department at Pritchard Wood since 1966. Those who worked in in were called researchers (not planners). Stephen King had been thinking how to bring together consultants out of the Marketing Department together with some of the planners from the media department.  Stephen and Stanley had lunch together in January of 1968. What they discussed isn't known though Stanley's experiment is bound to have been talked about. The term marketing was leaking away - client after client was opening their own marketing department so whatever came next would have to lose the 'marketing' tag.

What we do know is that the name account planning was chosen by Stephen King in the middle of the year after that fateful meeting. By the end of that year J Walter Thompson had an account planning department whose members were called account planners. And Stanley had borrowed the term. There was a new agency Boase Massimi Pollitt which from day one had an account planning department thought it operated rather differently. The two of them had put their heads together and come up with a concept that involved a lot more than a media reboot. It involved brand planning (though they didn't use the brand word because at that time it was too close to FMCG -  it wasn't broad enough). It involved marketing planning and also advertising planning: the development of long running campaigns. 

Heather's question is about whether the term Account Planner is on the way out to be be succeeded by the word Strategist. That's why Richard Huntington's comment on the blog out that he wants to be a strategist AND a planner is so telling. Because planning is about implementation (although it is also associated with organisation - which most account planners aren't particuarly good at!) . If planners rebrand as strategists and retreat to the high ground, the danger is that they become hollow theorists, detached from the creation of advertising.  Planners never used to claim the high ground because they were used to working at board level with marketing directors and owners. Is the rush to strategy in part because they have been demoted down the foodchain and want a title that positions them higher?

Tracey has another explanation - that the planning of advertising was appropriate to consumerism which was still in its infancy after the 1950s. Today's customers subjected to a blitz of publicity on every conceivable channel are as likely to entertain themselves by constructing their own identities using all sorts of content some of it made by advertisers. But they also consume content not put together by marketers either. So we have moved from a consumer economy to a user economy. In a consumer economy we controlled the messaging and could therefore be planners. In the user economy, all we can do is choreograph what could happen and sequence as much as schedule messages, so we're coping with situations over which we don't have 100% control, hence we're more like strategists. The user economy breeds more strategists than planners.

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