For years, my own relatives had the hardest time understanding what I do for a living. “Do you write the ads?” Well, only sometimes. “Did you take the photographs or draw the illustrations?” No, definitely not. “Did you buy the ad space?” No, mom, that’s the media buyer. “So what do you do exactly?”
One of the most invisible roles in advertising, and possibly the one that’s the most responsible for the effectiveness of advertising, is that of the planner. It’s easy for the public to picture a creative director, in the manner of Don Draper, or even an account guy in a nice suit, having swanky lunches with clients. As inaccurate as some of these tropes might be, there’s at least a reference to act as a handrail. But what is a planner?
In many quarters, this is referred to as “account planning”. It is also referred to as “strategic planning” and “brand planning”. The discipline began in the UK and spread to North America during the 1980s. My former agency, J. Walter Thompson (JWT), is largely credited for having originated the planning discipline. David Ogilvy referred to the planner, rightfully, as “the voice of the consumer”. Clients represent the client’s interests. Account service people are there to maintain the account and ultimately serve the agency’s business interests. Creative people in many ways serve the interests of creativity itself. But it’s the planner who has the exclusive and full-time role of representing the often unspoken interests of the consumer.
In the 2000’s, many agencies started to scale back or even eliminate the planning function for financial reasons. Planning does not correlate to awards, and one cannot directly attribute a return on investment per se to planning. It was easy to cut. And a grave mistake to do so. More recently, there’s an increasing tendency among clients to ask pointedly of their agencies, “Where’s the thinking behind this? What’s the insight that led to this creative, and where did that insight come from?” Clients of all stripes are realizing, some for the first time, that without insight, there’s no viable strategy. And without strategy, you are groping in the dark – while spending millions of dollars in some cases on a creative strategy that may or may not have meaning for the audience.
The key word in that last sentence points to what, in my humble opinion, a great planner actually does: He or she discovers, through a variety of means, what it is about a brand that will be meaningful to the audience, and why. The planner also plays a central role in helping the agency and the client determine who in fact is the most appropriate audience (or set of audiences and stakeholders) for a given brand, and why.
Words like “meaning” and “why” are fundamental to a planner. In fact, a planner should be obsessed with these things. Whether one is formally trained in social science (which is not always a good thing if said training forms a concept of human behavior that is too rigid), the quality of curiosity about human motivations and emotions – is the essential ingredient.
In the next post, we will explore some of the techniques and tools that planners use to ensure that strategies are successful, and form a more concrete picture of what a planner actually does.