Where have all the Account Planners gone?

28 Aug,2012

 

By Tuhina Anand

 

We have often heard how there is a dearth of account planners in the advertising industry, and when we decided to talk to people from the industry we were surprised by the reactions it evoked. The availability of authentic planners in the industry seems to be the subject of many a conversation. While some claim that there are just a handful of planners in the industry, some point how incompetent people wear the garb of planners. Interestingly, there are also few who have never had any issues in finding planners for their agency. We have also tried to understand how planners, once integral to any agency, have become easily dispensable in the set-up.

 

To start with let’s first get clear with what is essentially a planner’s role in an advertising agency setup. If advertising is about coming up with a creative solution, the planner is the one who can identify the problem and come up with the strategic solution which can then be taken forward by the creatives. However, as it stands today many agencies have stopped to invest in planning function believing that it can be surpassed and the creatives can do this role.

 

Naresh Gupta

Naresh Gupta, Managing Partner, Bang in the Middle, who has also played a significant role in planning functions in his earlier stints, said, “There are no planners. Period. In many agencies the planner is seen as the one who makes presentations or a packaging artist. So in times when the agencies need to do cost cutting it’s the planne’rs role that gets the axe first.  This is mainly because the planners don’t generate any revenue, hence when looking at cost function he or she gets the boot first.”

 

He also goes on to explain that the planners don’t get into leadership role in the agency so when the question of what next arrives, many in the profession prefer to move out of the agency set up.

 

Mr Gupta has a radical idea on how to make planning integral to advertising. He says that there is a need to trim the servicing role as with changing time the issue of timely delivery or establishing connect with the client has also undergone a change hence one could equip the servicing guys with planning role. He says many might not agree to his view but he strongly feels that there is a need to change the way the agency now hires and the profile one looks at.

 

Now this view has its inherent issues like when the quality of people that advertising is attracting these days is not creme de la creme so getting planners who can come up with strategic solution is no mean feat.

 

Even at academic level, Account Planning has been always given second preference to Brand Management mainly because the latter attracts a fatter compensation. Dr Falguni Vasavada Oza, Associate Professor of Marketing at Mudra Institute Of Communications (MICA) points that the institute offers specialization in Advertising Management which has a strong focus on account planning. She said, “Brand Management definitely is a favored choice but there are also takers for advertising management. In fact, big agencies like Leo Burnett and Ogilvy do hire every year from the campus. I think the difference now in account planning is that it has taken a new avatar especially with the increased focus on the digital media.”

 

Ms Oza, giving a simplified definition of an account planner, puts it as someone who is the voice of the consumer on the agency side. He or she specializes in research, insight mining and draws the context of communication.

 

Bunty Peerbhoy

Now that we are more or less clear on the definition of what comprises account management, lets also try to understand how and why this role has diminished over the years. Veteran adman, Bunty Peerbhoy tries to put things in perspective, he said, “In old days, account planning was a value added function and he or she almost operated as the product manager of a brand. Account planner was the custodian of a brand from an agency side looking at research, sales figures, understanding the demographic and regional shifts that impact sales and then come up with recommendations to address these gaps.”

 

So what really led to the account planners being non-existent today? Mr Peerbhoy stated, “Unfortunately with globalization also came the truth that advertising agencies have been pushed down the value chain. There is pressure on margin and once the sacred 15 per cent commission has been reduced as far as possible. This has impacted the health of an agency and reduced them to being mere vendors of creative product. Further with media being hived off and that too focusing on buying cheap, the strategic part has completely gone missing from an agency.” He categorically points that it’s not possible to get account planners in the current set up where the agency business has been commoditized but yes the emerging medium of digital where the clients are still clueless will attract some strategists but not planners.

 

Jishnu Sen

Jishnu Sen, President and CEO, Grey India disagrees that there is dearth of planners. He said, “I think the issue is that the agencies are losing desire to invest in planners.” He pointed that like any other role in advertising the role of planner has also undergone a change.  Giving the textbook definition of planner he says that they are representatives of consumers in the advertising business. So just like a creative, a planner’s role is also to ideate.  To promote this role he recommends that there is a need to build a philosophy and culture of planning in an organization.

 

Anil Nair, CEO and Managing Partner at Law & Kenneth, giving his take says that there is a complete lack of clarity on what a planner’s role should be. So there are many resumes floating around but not one among them can be confidently dubbed as planner.

 

Anil Nair

Real planners are those who actually strategize to first find a problem and then come up with a solution.  They require sharpness to identify the problem but how many in the business have that skill today? Planning and creative go hand in hand and best example of this successful partnership would be of Santosh Desai, ex-McCann and Prasoon Joshi who did some noteworthy work together.

 

Explaining further the issue, Mr Nair said, “Unless you define the problem correctly you can’t come up with the right solution. Planner in that sense is a complex creature as he needs to understand both tangible and the intangible in the business. He needs to have consumer insight, exposure to brand management and be inherently creative in nature. Now how many will possess all these three qualities? That’s why the few that are there today are super stars. Unfortunately, the required number of planners is not enough today.”

 

If you have to recount top 10 creatives you can easily rattle their names and struggling to fit all in the list however coming up with top 10 planners one would struggle to get the names. So one way to bring glory back to the planning function is to celebrate the planners and communicate the importance of planners within an organization, recommends Mr Nair. Also there is a need to define the planning function better as it stands today the role is ambiguous.

“I think planning job is the best job in advertising but it is not packaged well. It doesn’t seem lucrative enough for people from IITs and IIMs to join.”

 

Nitin Karkare

Giving an insight into the planning function within an agency, Nitin Karkare, Chief Operating Officer -Mumbai, Draftfcb + Ulka, said, “We have a strong planning culture. This is because our credo is creating Brandwealth for our clients. To do that we need a strong strategic orientation and a relentless focus on the consumer. We invest a lot in understanding the consumer through our proprietary studies like Automood 1 & 2, Women Mood 1 & 2 and many more. This focus requires building a strong Account Planning team. We have a 30+ member team nationally.”

 

“Our industry needs to make these investments if we have to be seen as strategic business partners by our clients. We cannot be just suppliers of creative. If we do that Account Planning as a discipline will get even more marginalised than it is today, concluded Mr Karkare.

 

Partha Sinha

However, giving a different take to this bleak situation is Partha Sinha, Managing Partner at BBH India. He was a banker who got into advertising later and has been a key member in setting up the planning function at Ogilvy in 1994 with Ranjan Kapur as the guiding force. He explained that the lack of planners depends on how the way planning is looked upon in an organization. He said, “At BBH we get planners and we get good ones. We get them from diverse background. I think overall the agencies are facing an issue in getting planners because majority position themselves as suppliers of creativity.” This reason for dearth has been oft repeated by many earlier too. In fact, he says that the ad film company can do as good a job of creativity as an agency so why would the client pay more for just that? The change would happen when there is a strategic solution provided by agencies that would help a brand.

 

Many hot shops whose focus is on creative come up with excellent creative solutions but those are often one up solutions and not really about building brands. What really makes a Piyush or Prasoon different is that they are able to identify a problem like any planner and then come with creative solution. Hence, the planning role should not be given a miss especially if the agencies want to position themselves as more than providers of creativity and command respect for the profession. The content of planning job, the packaging of the role, the definition of what the role entails, the creation of planning environment in an agency, the future of advertising so to say lies very much in how this function is taken forward and given its due.

 

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