October 21, 2008

Where Account Planning Came From

In a recent post I was critical of account planning. A reader wrote and asked why it developed as it did.

I have a theory about how account planning developed in the U.S.

It goes back to the late 1970s. In those days, every client had a market research department. The market research department was constantly at war with the ad agency, and it always won.

Every time the agency would say "we think X is a good idea", the market research department would say, "but consumer research says Y," and the agency would lose.

After a while, it became clear that whoever "owned" the consumer, i.e., whoever was in charge of interpreting consumer sentiment, also owned the advertising.

A few smart ad people then realized that if they wanted to re-gain control of the advertising, somehow they had to wrestle the interpretation of consumer thinking away from the client research department.

Nobody knew how to do this. For 15 more years agencies struggled with client-side research departments (and their day-after recall tests, galvanic skin response tests, and all manner of moronic pseudo-science.) The agencies always lost.

During this time, two things happened. First, client management got disillusioned with market research. They started getting rid of researchers who had been so wrong so often.

Second, Jay Chiat took a trip to Great Britain and discovered account planning.

In account planning, agencies found a new, as yet untainted, type of research. Wisely, they didn't call it research. Best of all, it could help them re-gain control of advertising. With traditional market research in decline, account planning promised not just to interpret consumer sentiment, but to actually represent the consumer in the marketing process.

It was a godsend and agencies couldn't get enough. They replaced client pseudo-science with their own. Now, anytime a client said, "we think X is a good idea", the agency could say, "but consumers think Y."

The tables were well turned.

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