John Griffiths: Pioneers in Planning – The Rise of the Gumshoe Strategist
Author of 98% Pure Potato calls for a reboot of the days when human interaction was at center of agencies' account planning departments
Considering the obsession for numbers, vast datasets, and real-time analysis in current marketing there’s a certain irony that 50 years ago these approaches would have been vilified as ‘scientific advertising’ and discarded. Creatives such as Howard Gossage and Bill Bernbach railed against the use of quickfire quantitative techniques to choose which ads would be effective. And drop those which failed the first round of tests. The fightback started not in New York or San Francisco but in London in the late 1960s when two very different individuals, Stephen King and Stanley Pollitt, created a new department in their agencies and called it the account planning department.
98% Pure Potato is a book Tracey Follows and myself are crowdfunding about how this movement began. The papers of Stephen King and Stanley Pollitt are still available though not read as much as they ought to be. What no one has done until now is to go and talk to the people they hired who actually did the job, helped to create some of the most famous campaigns of the 20th century, proved their commercial effectiveness and did all sorts of other interesting things as well.
King worked for J Walter Thompson, the biggest agency in the world. Boase Massimi Pollitt was a startup. They used their planners very differently to demonstrate long-term brand value for large clients some of whom had been with Thompson for decades. Boase Massimi Pollitt sent its planners scurrying out into the sticks hulking video recorders to show hand-drawn animations with voice overs to see how real customers consumed advertising. They return to the agency the following day and say what happened. The creatives reworked the ads. Then the planners were sent out again. A second third and fourth time—until the ads were right.
It worked. Today you find planners or strategists in every type of communications agency all over the world. Agencies have stayed lean to survive. And the planning function has proved robust. An individual asking awkward questions about who the real customer is. Why they should respond to the communications concept. And what their response is likely to be. Agencies are still far too likely to be distracted by the suggestion that the idea is the right one because it’s cool, or social, or because that’s what the client first had in mind. But somebody needs to be the conscience to ask if the emperor has any clothes. However much planner have been subsumed into the sale function of their account group they are programmed to think harder, build a case. And utter inconvenient truths when they discover them. Our interviewees demonstrated that by the bucket load from the very start.
Jane Newman who was headhunted by Jay Chiat to start planning in Chiat Day the first agency in North America to do so told us how in a coat hastily borrowed from a colleague she stood in a room full of Apple concepts and watched as one by one they were taken off the wall until only 3 remained. One was ‘Why 1984 won’t be like 1984’, the second was was ‘Why we’ll never call our product an AKZ1010 or something’ and the third was ‘Think of it as a Maserati for the mind.’ And she describes her horror at the waste of creative effort and how at that moment she saw how planning could make a difference in America. And how they then deployed it on every single pitch until the entire client roster used planning. Jane was ex BMP so she knew how to implement planning in a startup.
Doug Richardson first head of planning at JWT London to succeed Stephen King eventually went to New York to start planning at Ogilvy & Mather in New York. It wasn’t promising. The agency employed scores of analysts writing reports using quantitative research who treated buying and consuming as rational activities and emotional dimension wasn’t on the scale. So knowing that he would only be there for 18 months he worked on a handful of individuals who as he put it would become a virus and bring the old order down after he left. Planners he observed are a kind of thought police to keep the agency on track.
Jim Williams another of our interviewees went on to create the Brand Asset Valuator for Young & Rubicam Worldwide. It wasn’t all quantitative, though Williams’ prowess as a postgraduate physicist must have helped. He also brought in the theory of Jungian archetypes—claiming he could tell your brand preference for brand x by looking to see what other brand names you had in your cupboard at home. And that came from his interest in the theatre; he left Oxford because he was spending more time working at the Oxford playhouse than in his lab. He told us how he pitched the idea to Frank Kroll in New York and got a budget of $2 million dollars to develop the BAV program.
Jon Steel who did so much to establish planning in the USA while he was at Goodby Silverstein told us about the years that American agencies hired only British planners having been told that planners were the unique product of the Oxford and Cambridge University system and Americans couldn’t do planning because they hadn’t been taught to think! Of course, eventually that ludicrous argument collapsed. One of the fascinating things about planning is the way it has mutated into so many different forms as it has taken route in different cultures. At least five of our interviewees had been responsible for training planners in other parts of the world and had interesting perspectives on the different styles of planning which had emerged from different cultures.
Adam Morgan who started his career at Boase Massimi Pollitt wrote his second book The Pirate Inside because of the complaints he got following his best seller Eat the Big Fish. It was all very well said his detractors to take on outsize competitors but working for their corporations was like working for the navy. So Morgan explained how to be piratical in the workplace to take your organisation with you. It’s a classic planner’s argument—to assume from the outset that the rest of the organization won’t agree with you so it’s your job to win them round. The gumshoe that cracks the case by keeping on going when the big battalions have long since slunk home. The planners who were most highly rated by their peers were rated not because of intellectual brilliance though many had it, or their creativity though most had plenty of this. What made the best standout was their powers of persuasion—their ability to take others with them. To work with other people instead of telling them what the right answer was.
However different the communications channels today that planners work with, what has not changed is the way that the planner plays an individual role, sometimes as contrarian, working within the team to take others along with them. What may have changed is the way technology has made scalability the core value. The first generation of planners achieved what they did using human contact: face-to-face conversations with customers. Despite all the technology we are further away from customers than they were then. It’s not all about observed behavior—we still need empathy and the customer’s point of view. That’s why we hope that people will support us by pre-ordering 98% Pure Potato, the pretext for a reboot to return to the best of what these pioneers made happen.
John Griffiths works in communications and marketing as a strategist, researchers, facilitator trainer. He is also a budding author just about to put out his first book via Unbound. This Op-Ed is published with his kind permission. Tracey Follows, his co-author, runs the futurist consultancy Any Day Now. She is also current chair of the London Account Planning Group and a former CSO of J Walter Thompson London.