John Fanning recounts the history of agency account planning as it celebrates its golden jubilee
Account planning first started in Britain in 1968, a year of seismic social and political change. From small beginnings in two London agencies it spread worldwide. Although the marketing communications business has seen many new job titles – especially since the digital revolution – no new job description has ever assumed the same level of ubiquity.
Yet although most new agency start-ups now automatically include an account planner in the line-up people still seem to have difficulty describing what the job function entails and doubts are continually raised about its effectiveness. In 1978, former copywriter Jeremy Bullmore wrote a characteristically wry essay titled; What are Account Planners for Daddy?
Bullmore concluded that although account planners had helped and guided him in his work he could still find no agreed definition of what account planners actually do. In a major study of the discipline in 2003, Christopher E. Hackley said confusion still reigned around planning. A new book on the subject by John Griffiths and Tracey Fellows the authors quote Adam Lury who worked for one of the founding planner agencies, BMP, as saying that no one was clear what account planning was because ‘no one would tell him’.
In order to understand the confusion between the undoubted success of the concept of account planning and the lack of an agreed definition of what exactly account planner do it is necessary to examine the history of how the function came into being.
Origins of account planning
In spite of the confusion surrounding the subject there is a remarkable level of agreement about its origins. It began in 1968 and was introduced almost simultaneously in two London agencies; the long-established multi-national J Walter Thompson and the newly-established Boase Massimi and Pollitt (BMP). They had very little in common.
Although American-owned, JWT London epitomised a secure, somewhat superior British worldview. The account executives tended to have double-barrelled names, their secretaries were triple-barrelled and many left early on Friday afternoons to return to country estates.
Over nine hundred people were employed in their Berkeley Square premises and they had their own choir and orchestra. But Britain, especially London, was changing.
The ‘swinging 60’s’ was in full flow and in the creative industries, of which advertising was a vital part, talented men and women from less privileged backgrounds were making their mark led by the Fab Four from Liverpool. The BMP founders were every bit as Oxbridge as their counterparts in JWT, but were more in tune with the spirit of the age; they were more left-wing and went on to create memorable ads for the Labour Party and Ken Livingstone’s London Council. They were more likely to back horses rather than ride them.
The introduction of account planning happened somewhere towards the end of October 1968 when BMP was founded as a breakaway from the awkwardly named multi-national Erwin Wasey Prichard Wood and Quadrant. Account planning was a feature of the agency from the beginning and provided it with a distinctive point of difference.
Coincidentally – and it was a coincidence – JWT introduced account planning on November 1st a week later. Griffiths & Follows suggest a number of reasons why London rather than New York witnessed the birth of a new function in a business always regarded as quintessentially American; that Britain was more resistant to hard-sell advertising than the US, an educational revolution in Britain created a more culturally sophisticated audience, the new awareness of the value of branding and increasingly imaginative qualitative research.
I suspect all of these played a role but from my experience of working in London at the time I believe the main driver of account planning was a reaction against the sterile mechanistic research methods of pre-testing new advertising concepts. In the mid-to late 1960’s this market was dominated by two US owned market research firms; Schwerin and ASL.
Adland pioneer: The introduction of account planning is often compared to the pairing of copywriters and art directors in the 1950’s by Bill Bernbach, above, as the two great innovations in advertising of the 20th century.
Both companies used more or less identical methods for testing ads. Samples of about 300 respondents representative of the target audience were invited to a small cinema to see a film. On the way in they filled out a questionnaire for a raffle to be held at the end of the show. The prize was a year’s supply of one of five or six household items and they were asked which they would prefer if they had won.
They watch the film with an ad break in the middle with ads for each of the household goods mentioned in the questionnaire including the test ad. When the film was over, respondents were asked to fill in an identical questionnaire again on the pretext that they had ‘lost’ the originals. The results of the two sets of answers were analysed and the ‘success’ of the test ad was determined by the proportion of respondents who had moved their preference to the products in the test ad.
The technique favoured hard sell functional ads with frequent reminders of the brand name and repeated mentions of a single-minded product advantage. Because the results were taken so seriously by clients; it was imperative to score above the category ‘norm’, agencies quickly twigged that they could score well with functionally-based repetitive ads.
But a more ambitious generation of admen – there were still very few women – inspired by the cultural revolution in full swing all around them were determined to break away from the standardised research systems and create more challenging forms of advertising. BMP made the more radical break with the past.
They were the first agency to begin life with account planning as a central function. In fact they insisted that on every account an account planner would work alongside an account executive. They aspired to create advertising informed not by what the client or the creative department wanted but by listening closely to the consumer.
The account planner was charged with representing the ‘voice of the consumer’ in all agency campaign planning meetings. Although account planners were expected to study the available quantitative research to enable them to understand the structure and dynamics of the market they were also charged with carrying out their own qualitative research.
Unlike his counterpart in JWT and co-founder of the new discipline, Stephen King, Stanley Pollitt was not a prolific writer but in one of his few articles he outlined his thinking; “my own account man experience had shown-clients on the one hand and creative director on the other made one permanently tempted to be expedient – I decided therefore that a trained researcher should be put alongside the account man on every account. He should be there as a right, with equal status as a working partner—this new researcher—or account man’s ‘conscience’ was to be called the planner”.
Critical to the process was that researchers should be taken out of their back-rooms in the research department and become actively involved in the central issues of advertising strategy. It represented a radical departure from agency practice and explains why the introduction of account planning is often compared to Bill Bernbach’s pairing of copywriters and art directors in the 1950’s as the two great innovations in advertising of the 20th century.
But like all revolutions it also created problems. The first was that not all market researchers were suited to the transition from back-room to becoming active participants in the inevitably messy process of creating advertising. The second was that Pollitt believed that creatives and planners would be more effective ‘in a state of controlled friction rather than artificial harmony’.
Not everyone was comfortable with this friction, which continues to this day, but Pollitt welcomed it because of his Socratic approach to problem-solving. Like King he was brought up in the Oxbridge tutorial system, constantly probing, questioning, and encouraging disputes and argument in the belief that this produces more innovative solutions.
BMP’s philosophy of account planning was based on the belief that if the consumer was observed, studied and listened to with close attention and the resulting findings were debated intensely by first class account management, account planner and creative minds it would result in first class creative and effective advertising. It was a highly cerebral approach.
Pollitt himself was described as a philosopher who held daily tutorials. The JWT approach was equally high-brow but more academic in the sense that it was inspired by a new theory of how advertising worked. JWT chairman John Treasure had gathered a talented management team together in the 1960’s, most of them involved at different levels in running a very large marketing department when strategy was in its infancy or non-existent in client companies.
To fill this vacuum, the agency marketing department effectively developed the clients marketing strategies. In the mid-1960’s this led to two important developments. The most academically-inclined members in the marketing department began to develop their own theories about how advertising worked and in particular to challenge the hegemony of the linear sequential models that were consciously or more often unconsciously applied.
The most celebrated of these models, AIDA, was one that had been originally developed in 1899 by the splendidly named E. St Elmo Lewis. The two key implications of this model were that advertising worked in a series of logical steps starting with creating awareness, then creating interest, leading to desire and finally action; the sale. The second assumption was that the consumer was a passive recipient of advertising messages.
Intuitively gifted: David Ogilvy was seen as an innately talented account planner
In principle it seemed to make sense and it may have been ideal at a time when consumer goods were new to the market and communicating their functional benefits was the primary task of advertising. But new quantitative and qualitative research pioneered by the JWT marketing department was beginning to cast doubt on these assumptions.
In a series of papers, Stephen King and Timothy Joyce put forward a different set of hypotheses suggesting that the consumer is an active participant in the process leading to the conclusion that what the consumer does to advertising is as important as the reverse, that as a result advertising does not work in a linear sequential way and that there is no correlation between advertising recall and advertising effectiveness.
The latter point proved to be the most controversial. It had always been an article of faith among clients, and to some extent it still is, that advertising effectiveness was highly correlated high recall levels. However, a detailed experiment by an American professor, Jack Haskins, in 1964 conclusively demonstrated that no such correlation occurs.
The results of the JWT analysis resulted in a number of useful planning tools like the Brand Planning Cycle that are still used today, but perhaps the most important legacy is their contention that advertising is at its most powerful when reinforcing existing attitudes to a brand among buyers than in converting buyers of one brand to another.
It led Stephen King in particular to the long-term brand-building role of advertising was its greatest contribution to client profitability because of the increasing importance of the asset value of brands. There was also increasing scepticism at the time about whether ant research technique was sufficiently sensitive to evaluate the effectiveness of advertising. A few years later in 1975 Alan Hedges’ book, Testing to Destruction, made this case very forcibly.
BMP always affected a more casual ethos than JWT. Although meant as a throw-away line there was always an element of truth in Martin Boase’s reputed reply to a question about why he started the agency; ‘I wanted to ensure that if I was at a posh dinner party and asked where I worked and I said advertising I wanted people to be impressed and intrigued rather than have them holding their noses’. To be fair, Boase achieved his ambition; namely a career in advertising in 70’s London, something that was perceived as the height of fashion.
JWT adopted a more business-like approach. Although they were intellectually committed to a new approach to advertising development as a result of their extensive research into consumer behaviour they were also motivated by the need to maintain revenue as their own marketing department began to wind down in the late 1960’s as clients built their own marketing capacity and internal departments.
How other agencies responded to account planning
The staff of a well-resourced market research department in the London office of a leading multi-national agency left work one Friday afternoon and arrived back on the following Monday to find that their department had been re-named the account planning department. This story quickly did the rounds in London’s adland and fuelled the arguments of the many sceptics who were dubious of the whole concept.
If a group of people who considered themselves market researchers on a Friday could suddenly turn into something completely different over the space of a weekend surely there was something fishy about the whole account planning lark they argued. Proponents of the new discipline were adamant that it was different from market research, but always had great difficulty in explaining exactly why served to deepen a controversy that has dogged account planning since the start.
Fifteen years after the birth of account planning, John Bartle, one of the ‘B’s in BBH, a very successful young London agency referred to ‘Planning Myopia’ at an account planning conference and went on to suggest that there was a bit of “emperor’s new clothes about account planning at the moment”. Many account executives resented how the introduction of account planners tended to erode their own role in the development of advertising and there were dark mutterings of planners being merely researchers re-packaged at a higher price.
The Hackley study referred to earlier, where the author interviewed planners on both sides of the Atlantic concluded that “confusion still reigns about what planning is’ and he found considerable disagreement as to its value”. Yet, he welcomed the way planning had resulted in more emphasis on consumer insight into the creative development of advertising, which, in turn, paved the way for greater accountability of advertising management.
Nevertheless, he concluded that “there are practical problems of implementation, confusion about what the function entails and a notable lack of a credible body of evidence that can give tangible support for the claims made for this discipline”. The proof of the pudding was in the account gains and BMP’s huge success, quickly led to its adoption – admittedly with varying degrees of enthusiasm – by virtually all agencies in London. It took a while to reach the US where its reliance on qualitative research created suspicion among the more data-driven Americans. As a result, the first planners in US agencies tended to be imported from London.
The success of the new discipline meant that every new start-up agency now featured a planner in a lead role. Some did this out of conviction that account planning represented a more professional way to approach advertising development but others tagged along on the basis that it was essential to the attraction of new business. There was also an underlying belief that account planning facilitated an acceptance by clients of more creative advertising.
Continuing effort to define account planning
Many attempts, often involving Jesuitical reasoning have been made to define the exact contribution of the new discipline. One of the main problems is that there had always been an element of account planning in advertising development and some of the leading ad men of the 1950’s, Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy, were intuitively good account planners.
The practice of carrying out market research, including qualitative techniques, had been used by agencies since the beginning of the 20th century and the output of this research had been fed into the development process. But the introduction of account planning formalised this process and created a new job title. As the agency that took the new job description the most seriously BMP made the most strenuous efforts to define the role.
I had worked in London in the late 1960’s and became friendly with one of the founders, Chris Powell, who soon became managing director. When I was back in Dublin working as an embryonic account planner in McConnells, I used to take every opportunity any time I was in London to visit Chris who proved remarkably generous with his time as I quizzed him at length about every aspect of the agency’s experience with the new discipline.
One of their first planning directors, David Cowan, defined account planning as a philosophy rather than a function; “a philosophy which relates to beliefs about the way advertising should be created – account planning is the application of knowledge of the consumer to the creation of effective advertising – based on the belief that consumers have a valid and vital role to play in the creation of effective advertising”.
The introduction of the IPA’S Advertising Works Awards in London in 1980 – and later adopted around the world – boosted the planning function by emphasising the importance of being able to prove that ad campaigns made a proven contribution to business profitability. The planner was seen as the central player in the preparation of successful case histories.
A more recent BMP planning director, Paul Feldwick (pictured above), who has written extensively on the subject wrote that in addition to being a philosophy, “a way of thinking, an organising principle” account planning involved a “rigorous focus on business effectiveness – as opposed to creative awards, pleading the client or spurious research measures”.
The new discipline continued to attract criticism from people who refused to see any difference from the traditional market researcher; “planners are merely politicised and clever researchers relaunched at a premium price”. There was also a growing resentment at the behaviour of some planners who elected to ‘hang-out’ with the creatives and make occasional forays into so-called ‘edgy’ parts of town waiting for gentrification in search of ‘insights’ from a superficial observation of the unfortunate ‘natives’.
The fetishisation of insights became something of a joke with too many so-called insights being little more than statements of the obvious; Brand X is for mums who want the best for their kids; it is the only brand in its category with the wholesome goodness mums can trust. There were attempts to refine a brand proposition down to two words; affordable aspiration.
Nevertheless, after a tentative start in the 1970’s, there were only six agencies with a planning department by 1979, the movement grew rapidly in the 80’s and 90’s prompting MT Rainey (pictured) to write; “account planning has gone from being futuristic in the 1970’s, fashionable in the 80’s to being a fully functional fact of agency life in the 90’s”.
The subject still attracted debate and discussion, but in a key article in 1989, Stephen King set out clear guidelines for the future when he drew a distinction between the two extremes of account planning; “I believe the most fundamental scale on which to judge progress is one that runs from Grand Strategists to Ad Tweakers and nowadays there are too many planners whose skills and experience are too near to the ad-tweakers end of the scale”.
King also voiced the suspicion that account planning had started in some agencies “without fully understanding the depth of skill and breadth of interests involved”. Not for the first time King’s thinking was both timely and prescient; changes in the industry’s landscape were beginning to emerge which would see the ad tweakers being replaced by the grand strategists.
King was not alone in spotting the divide between two conceptions of planning. Adam Morgan  provided another metaphor when he distinguished between Hollywood and Washington planners but this distinction is much more favourable to both positions. He characterised the Washington planner much the same way as King’s grand strategist. He said “the disciplined uncovering of potential truths within the current business model -stepping into the problem with disciplined analysis, proximity to the consumer, formal brief and strategy preceding the idea”.
Hollywood planning takes a different approach but one with considerably more substance than that of an ‘ad tweaker’; “a bold re-imagining not just of what the brand can be but what the media or even the business model might be around the brand – it fundamentally questions the way the brand’s problems have been traditionally approached and the recognition of the need to overturn legacy thinking about how success should be defined for this problem”. Both King and Morgan’s categorising of different approaches to account planning are enlightening and I believe are very relevant for the future of account planning in a changing marketing communications landscape.
Changing marketing communications landscape
The 1990’s witnessed profound changes in the world of marketing communications. The separation of media planning and buying from the account management, planning and creative functions of the ad agencies which had begun in the late 1970’s gathered apace and the subsequent take-overs and amalgamations in the media sector meant that in the 1990’s a handful of global media agencies controlled the majority of the media markets in most countries.
By the year 2000 the media agencies were becoming stronger than the traditional ad agencies. These changes had a huge impact on the balance of power within the marketing communications sector. But changes outside the sector resulting from the emergence of the internet, the launch of Google in 1997 and the dramatic explosion of social network platforms in the new century resulted in even more profound changes. It was not just the proliferation of new channels of communication but the fact that the nature of the relationship between the public and the media changed utterly.
In considering the future of account planning there are three factors affecting the wider business world that must be taken in account. First the increasingly disruptive nature of business caused by new technology resulting in a significant reduction in the average life of established businesses. This is forcing planning to move outside the marketing communications sector and take more account of the wider issues facing businesses as a whole.
The second factor is the weakening of the traditional fast moving consumer goods companies where the principles and practices of account planning were initially established. While these principles and practices should apply equally to all businesses techniques that work well for FMCG markets may need to be adopted for other sectors.
Finally, there has been increased competition in the planning market with the growth of specialist brand planning agencies and as the difficulty of marshalling the contributions of creative agencies, media agencies, digital specialists not to mention design, public relations and Uncle Tom Cobley and all the others becomes too difficult some clients are establishing in-house planning expertise.
Meanwhile the global management consultancies are waiting ominously in the wings and some have entered the fray These developments have caused much soul searching in the planning community in recent years and a number of common themes are now beginning to emerge about the likely future of account planning or strategic planning, the preferred nomenclature as we approach the fiftieth birthday.
Account planning in the future
Four themes dominate the likely future of account planning:
1)The need to become more involved in the totality of a client’s business. Originally account planners concentrated on understanding people and understanding brands and in particular how long-term branding building was the most significant contribution that marketing communications made to client profitability. The need to understand people and brands is still critical but we also need to know how the whole of a business works.
There are three reasons for this all arising from the digital revolution. The first is that all businesses are being recommended to see themselves as data businesses, having a clear data strategy and imbuing all staff in a data culture. We are all continually tracked by the tech giants for data about what we’re doing, where we are going, who we’re talking to and what we are talking about; almost every action we take leaves a digital trail.
The critical underlying developments are the exponential increase in storage space for the new data and the exponential increase in processing power to analyse coupled with the increasing sophistication of computers who can now see, read, listen, talk and write. Planners must be able to incorporate the insights that will cascade from this data into their proposals and recommendations. Griffiths & Fellows remind us that ‘your credibility on the softer stuff depends on your mastery of the hard stuff’.
The second change is the new emphasis on enhancing user experience at every stage of the customer journey involving greater interaction with all aspects of a business from production to human relations. Finally, the increasing need for content to feed the many social media channels will mean that all businesses will, in effect, take on some of the characteristics of a giant newsroom which will also result in extra editorial contributions from planners.
These new planning responsibilities have led to the role of planning evolving into brand strategists; as Paul Feldwick observed, ‘the word ‘strategy’ travels better globally’. One side-effect of the need for greater understanding of the totality of a client’s business is a corresponding need for clients to become more involved in the totality of our business and it may extend to being directly involved in the planning process. This little issue which is coming through loud and clear from surveys of clients in the UK will need careful handling. The old line about ‘how do hedgehogs make love?’ springs to mind.
2) The need to maintain a long-term focus. The digital revolution promises instant gratification to consumers, instant marketing communications delivered to micro-target groups on or at the point of purchase and instant metrics determining the effectiveness of this communication to marketing managers. But as often happens when the action becomes frenetic overall purpose tends to fall by the wayside as the game is played for its own sake rather than for a for a long term strategy.
In recent years there have been repeated warnings of the danger of short-termism; “marketing seems to be devaluing into a transient present devoid of strategic thinking – the disconnect between executional forces and strategic intent has serious consequences – brands need a completely coherent brand strategy to inspire and guide effective marketing across all channels including social and digital or brand equity will be eroded over time”.. David Taylor has lamented to neglect of long-term brand strategy; “in the rush to experiment with the latest sexiest digital toys”.
We must also remind ourselves that for brands to grow they need to become part of the cultural landscape which requires a degree of fame that can only be achieved by transformational ideas that can become the centre of gravity for a brand’s entire communications strategy. Great brands are often as familiar to people who never use them as they are to loyal users.
Doubts have been expressed at the lack of such ideas in an age dominated by short term promotional thinking and the provision of ‘momentarily engaging pieces of entertainment’. In a recent interview, John Hegarty (pictured above) asked the question: how many people today in advertising and marketing know how to execute big daring campaigns that capture the public imagination? The answer seems to be very few”.
3) We need to renew our foundational vows. Not everyone will agree with this as the marketing communications landscape has changed out of all recognition since 1968. However the people who initiated the movement had thought deeply about the subject and a brief look back at their thinking and vision may not be just a matter of paying respects; it might even pay dividends.
I believe that the most important lesson they have for today is their extraordinary commitment to trying to understand how marketing communications worked.
They overturned conventional wisdom of the time by showing that it did not work in a linear sequential way, that the consumer was an active participant not a passive receiver and that it worked more by subtle seduction than by active persuasion. They replaced previous models of how advertising worked like AIDA and the USP with more sophisticated models “incorporating more complex relationships of interacting variables”.
All of these principles are still valid today but there is a need for the type of fundamental re-appraisal of how marketing communications works in a digital age. A good start would be to examine the implications of Philip Kotler’s latest book which examines the implications of the digital age for marketing communications.
Kotler and his co-authors propose a number of new models; replacing the old AIDA model with what they refer to as the five A’s, aware, appeal, ask, act, advocate and replacing the old 4P’s model with 4C’s, co-creation, currency, communal and consider. The new models are specifically designed for the digital age and, in particular, to reflect the importance of the four F’s, family, friends, followers and fans in determining and confirming our choice of brands. Today’s planners need to incorporate these new models into a new theory of how marketing communications works.
4) The Balkanisation of account planning. The discipline now more often referred to as Strategic Planning began life as account planning in advertising agencies. The function has now spread to media agencies and to some parts of the increasingly specialist functions in the wider world of marketing communications, for example, media and public relations.
The line between market research and strategic planning has also become blurred and there are a growing number of specialist stand-alone planning consultancies. I suspect that advertising agency planners still consider themselves to be the keepers of the authentic planning flame. But the world of marketing communications has always been an amphitheatre that anyone is free to enter with their own ‘motto or theme tune and with whatever banner or other paraphernalia they choose’.
Nevertheless, I would argue that excessive atomisation can be a barrier to the type of transformational ideas that are the best guarantee of long-term brand success and advertising agency planners have the advantage of being able to include creative teams in the early stages of marketing communications development.
In an earlier essay on the future of advertising agencies, I suggested that they would benefit in enlisting a wider range of disciplines, like philosophers and literary critics, at the planning stage of marketing communications. In the year account planning was launched, an iconoclastic adman in the US was doing just that. Howard Luck Gossage, dubbed the ‘Socrates of San Francisco’, operated an agency from an iconic reconstructed fire station.
There Gossage hosted a world-class intellectual salon, which included the likes of Marshall McLuhan (pictured), celebrated writer John Steinbeck, comedian and scriptwriter Stan Freberg and architect and futurist Richard Buckminster ‘Bucky’ Fuller. Energised by these diverse creative talents, Gossage rolled out some of the most talked about advertising of the 1960’s.
Oddly enough, in Britain, Stanley Pollitt was arguing that good advertising was determined by the quality of the dialogue generated. He wanted a symposium, not a system. He would have driven management consultants demented but he showed how agencies can maintain their position as the people most likely to provide ideas that can transform businesses.
 Bullmore, J. Behind the Scene in Advertising. NTC Publications 1991
 Hackley, C. Account Planning: Current Agency Perspectives on an Advertising Enigma. Journal of Advertising Research. Vol 43 No 2 June 2003.
Griffiths, J. & Follows, T. 98% Pure Potato. Unbound 2016
Griffiths, J & Follows, T. Ibid
 Pollitt, S. Pollitt on Planning. PDF 1979
 King S. Practical Progress for a Theory of Advertising. Admap Oct 1975
 Joyce, T. What do we Know about How Advertising works. ESOMAR Advertising Research Conference. 1967
 Haskins, J. B. Factual Recall as a Measure of Advertising Effectiveness. Journal of Advertising Research 1964
 Hedges, A. Testing to Destruction. IPA Publications1974.
 Bartle, J. Today’s Concerns: Tomorrow’s Dangers: Planning Myopia. Account Planning Group 1 Day event 1-11-1983
 Hackley, C. Ibid
 Cowan, D. Planning: Philosophies or Functions. Account Planning Group. 1 Day Event 1-11-1983
 Feldwick, P. “Are We Talking the Same Language?” Account Planning Group 1 Day Event 1-11-1983.
 King, S. The Anatomy of Account Planning.Admap 2008 (originally published in Admap 1989.
 Morgan, A Washington or Hollywood. APG Creative Strategy Awards 2013 (accessed in WARC)
 Griffiths, J. & Follows, T. Ibid
 Taylor, D. Rebooting Brand Strategy for the Digital Age. Market Leader. Q1 2017
 Taylor, D. Ibid (quoting Professor Mark Ritson)
 Hegarty, J. Why Has Advertising lost its Voice? Financial Times 3—1–2017
 Kotler, P et al. Marketing 4.0 Wiley 2017
 Maalouf, A. On Identity. Harvill Panther. 2000.
John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the UCD Smurfit Graduate Business School; email@example.com