The Account Planner: A Coroner of Ideas? Or a Curator of Insights?

07 Jul,2022



By Ashoke Agarrwal


Ashoke AgarrwalAccount Planning came to the world of advertising in the eighties and matured in the nineties.


The trope was that while Account Management represents the client within the agency, Account Planning represents the consumer. And Creative? Well, Creative was the agency itself and only needed to express itself!


I started in advertising, right out of management school, as a copywriter. Then, after a few years of a detour into entrepreneurship, I took on the role of Director of Account Planning at one of India’s top five agencies.


In my first stint, I allied with Account Management and struggled to define and express the role of Account Planning. During this struggle, I ended up griping about the function as, to paraphrase US President Harry S Truman, “the piano player in the whorehouse” gently tapping out his ditties while the others, unaffected, went about their business.


However, after a detour into Account Management, I finally discovered the soul of Account Planning. I realised that Account Panning’s natural partner was not Account Management but Creative. And as Creative’s partner, Account Planning’s role was to define and explain “the creative dimension of strategy and the strategic dimension of creative.”


Traditionally Account Planning’s role was to work with Account Management to translate a brand’s marketing objectives into a “creative brief”. Very often, though, the “creative brief” was anything but creative. Instead, filled with Blinding Glimpses of The Obvious (BGOs) culled from reams of marketing research translated into cardboard cutout profiles of target consumers. No wonder you will find these briefs buzzing around as paper planes in any self-respecting creative department.


I discovered that the real work of Account Planning began where the creative brief ended. It lay in bringing to life the person and the context the creative needs to address. This work lay in insight mining. These insights were not in market research but out there in the world, in the news, songs, films, books, anecdotes and conversations. In short, in life. And how does one mine life? With the twin tools of high curiosity and extraordinary empathy. For example, an Account Planner may be a geek and an introvert but should be able to view the world from the eyes of a rabid extrovert. She may be a snob in private life but will dig into every pop culture hit – listen to the songs, watch the movies, surf the memes.


Insight mining leads to, for example, recognizing that the unstated gold standard of freshness is how you look and feel at the end of a hard day. It is in the realization that cooking oil is not a health risk but an essential energy source for most people.


The dividing line between what a good creative and a good planner does is pretty thin. And that’s why they are twins. And like all twins, they sometimes run down each other. A few years ago, one of India’s name brand Creative Directors ran down his Account Planning partner as the one whose job was explaining the rationale behind the hit campaigns to the world. After the fact! A coroner of ideas! Somebody good at explaining why an idea was great after somebody else had thought of it!


The big Creative pooh-bah is not wrong. The Account Planner does put the strategic dimension into the creative part, explaining why a creative idea works. That is useful, not just for the post-facto award shows and the trade papers but can be an essential part of selling a campaign before it can see the world’s light. Because, in most cases, the Account Planner is better at strategy-speak than creative people.


However, dig deep enough into the making of an effective advertising campaign, you will find that the team, as a first step dug out a fresh insight into the relevant attitudes and behaviour of the appropriate target consumer. And then subsequently used this fresh insight and oodles of lateral thinking giving birth to a clutter-bursting, emotion-laden piece of communication.


The first step was Account Planning and the second step was Creative. No matter the labels, the people who accomplished them carried.


A decade ago, as digital marketing was coming into focus, I thought the world of advertising and, therefore, Account Planning would change dramatically. That it has not is mainly, to my mind, a failure on the part of brands and agencies to recognise the true potential of digital marketing. Instead, for the most part, brand and communication strategies have stuck to the many-to-one communication paradigm. Most marketing and advertising strategies still consider the world in terms of broad demographic segments. Dig into the strategy at the heart of fancy programmatic-platform-driven performance marketing campaigns. and you will find that the messaging is one-way targeting based on gender, age and socioeconomic status. The difference is that due to cost economics, a brand can run multiple digital campaigns targeted at a matrix of demographic segments crossed with stages in the marketing funnel.


However, I believe this will change as digital marketing matures over the next decade.


Imagine a world where most marketing communication becomes a one-to-one two-way conversation? How does that change Account Planning? To my mind, a third entity would enter the Account Planning and Creative dyad. This third function would be that of the Data Analyst. Ill-used, as he is in today’s digital marketing world, a Data Analyst is also akin to a “piano player in a whorehouse”. Or is it “a warehouse”?


Instead, over the coming decades, as digital marketing and machine learning mature, brand communications will become multi-dimensional . One dimension of digital marketing will be at the purely cognitive level. Through this channel, a brand’s AI engine will communicate with the CI (Concierge Intelligence – see my earlier MxMIndia column on CI) of the individual consumer. The channel will share relevant information about functional features and promotional offerings and set up a two-way information channel on needs, complaints and wish lists. The second dimension will be a two-way conversation that will be a permission-driven one-to-one conversation between the brand (as an avatar) and the individual whose objective would be to entertain, edify and enable personal growth. Given that the cognitive channel is taking care of selling the brand’s products, this emotive channel could focus on a no-agenda development of “brand friendship.”, a concept that goes much beyond brand loyalty. An individual will share a “friends” relationship with a chosen set of brands, and a new metric for a brand will emerge besides market share – “friendship share”.


The triumvirate of Data Analysts, Account Planners, and Creative will operate both the cognitive and emotional channels by setting and continuously tweaking the parameters on the agency’s proprietary AI – the Spin Engine. Spin Engine? That calls for its very own post one of these coming fortnights!


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