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Adding value through planning

John Griffiths has one of the most useful websites about account planning on the web: planningaboveandbeyond. This is the website that should get the credit for having created Why? Because after visiting it, the idea of having a website for account planning in Romania first came up. And the interview with John Griffiths has been the first one with a planner from abroad to be published on IQads. You should know that John Griffiths has been planning on advertising for over 20 years, direct marketing for 13 years and integrated it all together with sales promotion, sponsorship, PR and latterly the Web for the last 10. The interview refers to the usual things in planning, but I’m sure you’re going to find John’s answers inspiring. I did.

I’ll start simple. What does a planner do in an ad agency?

Account planning is a function designed to add value to the team’s work. In an ad agency this is about making the creative work more effective – and this is best done by making sure that it connects to the audience – as well as the client and a creative jury! Which is why planners write creative briefs, do everything in their power to keep the creatives happy and run research that gets feedback on both the ad ideas in development and how the campaign actually performs. It used to be said that the planner was the consumer representative. But it has always been more than that – if you can produce effective work without talking to real people great – but it has always been about improving the work. Remember any agency can produce advertising without a planner. And if the task is not advertising then the planning role is different because the business model is different – the question is where can value be added.

What is the main advantage that a separate strategic planning department brings into an ad agency? Is planning really “The best new business tool ever invented”, like Jay Chiat put it? A tool that helps creative teams to come up with more creative work? Which of these?

In advertising we have to look at names carefully – sometimes we give people and departments fancy names so we don’t have to give pay rises. When I see the term strategic planning it means a maybe three different things to me. Either the agency is trying to say that their strategic function is more independent from the advertising (which I may not believe) so they are giving media neutral strategic advice The second is that they have build a separate profit center in the agency and they want to persuade clients to pay for it (good luck!). The third is that they are using words like strategy to imply that they are offering extra heavyweight thinking and they are giving this expertise away free to clients to persuade them to buy great ads and spend lots of budget. I think it is this 3rd one which Jay Chiat is referring to. But I would expect this type of department to make less of a contribution to the creative work – it is all about intellect and independence.

Is the freelance planner different from the agency planner? What does your experience tell you?

The freelance planner is a lot more experienced than your average agency planner. We do differ because the planning function inside an agency is about being present, building ongoing relationships with the agency team, with the client, and moving the account forward. Freelancers are rather like special forces – parachuted in to do jobs which need to be done fast or which are perceived to be technically or politically difficult. We don’t have the same level of involvement. We can also be brought in as a spare resource but then people start complaining about the cost! I have always argued that what a planning freelancer brings is qualitatively different from that of a staffer and should be understood as such. Freelancers ought also be good for providing fresh thinking. If I haven’t inspired and energized the people I have worked with then I haven’t done my job.

What is the basic skill or ability that a planner must have?

There isn’t one! I’ve written an article claiming that it’s possible to take a kid off the street and train them up in a few weeks and no one could tell the difference but I was stirring up trouble. Planners are of above average intelligence and they have to be articulate because as an added value function they have to get to an answer quicker than anybody else. But there are a whole range of skills. They must be intuitive to play with and shape half formed ideas (and brands), they must be analytical to understand the market realities and how financial and sales targets can be achieved. And they have to be good with people because it’s no good having the right answer if nobody understands, or believes you (or likes you!). When you consider the range of communication tasks which planners are expected to cover this means that your knowledge base and skillset have to be at least competent for every communications discipline you work in otherwise you won’t get the respect from the other members of the team. The dark secret is that no planner can be good at everything – so play to your strengths and minimize your weaknesses!

What should a good creative brief always include?

Well I could give you the conventional list and a couple of extras I quite like. But I won’t. Creative briefs are a contract with the creatives, and a contract with the client and they are also meant to inspire which makes them tough to write! I used to use an analogy from mathematics how many answers are there to 2+2? Not many. How many questions have the answer 4? Of course an infinity. So a good creative brief is all about creative problem definition. There may be a limited number of answers but the art is all in asking an interesting question. Anthony Tasgal who is another freelance on my website did a great paper this year at the Market Research Society where he talked about briefing as like gardening – less to direct a process (plant tomato seeds 1 cm apart) than to define a desired outcome (how do I grow the best tomatoes). I like that. The simple answer is that it should always include a great proposition but that’s the hard part!

How does planning in the UK differ from planning elsewhere? Are there any particularities?

Somebody – I can’t remember who once said that the purpose of account planning in the UK was to persuade clients to buy funny ads. Which makes me laugh because there’s a half-truth in there. I hope planning in the UK is reasonably similar to what happens elsewhere because account planning began here so we have some parental responsibilities! There are so many styles of planning – more than styles of kung fu! But if there is a UK house style I think it is about eclecticism. On the whole we don’t hide behind processes and framed MBA certificates on the wall. 3 planners working on the same brief may approach it quite differently –it is a creative act. I think in the UK our culture and business culture is tolerant of this – I’m not sure this is the case in other cases. If you’re adding value you’re not trying to find the right answer because there’s a danger that the competition will do exactly the same thing. I’ve always thought that planning is more creative than the creative function because we can’t start from scratch – though I’m careful where I say this! I hope that the UK is continues to be where some of the most creative planning is done. I would also have to add the IPA effectiveness awards where planners have proven the commercial effects of advertising over and over again. This is something still almost unique to the UK and we should be very proud of the achievement. It isn’t just about British humour and eccentricity!

I’ve noticed you plan to write a book about brands and spirituality. Can you brief us on it?

Ooh haven’t I taken that down off the website yet? Yes I planned to write a book on the topic back in 2000 about brands and spirituality but my views changed so I have put it on hold for the time being. It was the time when No Logo had just come out and I wanted to look at the effect that brands and a continual stream of branded communications was having on us. I’m quite relieved that I didn’t actually. My perception of brands now is of how subtly they work – that is why they are so powerful. Brand values can hold their shape in your value system for decades with virtually no input. It’s not because you get brainwashed by sheer volume of exposure – humans are adept at filtering that kind of pressure. What I remain concerned about is the assumption that because someone has a million dollars they have an absolute right to bore, irritate, and lecture their fellow human beings. If there is a build up of greenhouse gases then what is the build up of millions of messages? Are we being colonized by a mass of half formed ideas we don’t have time to process and is this healthy for us? Who is responsible for clearing up advertising smog? Does the polluter pay? We know that these messages don’t disperse but get stored – even if they are forgotten by the conscious mind. What is our responsibility as advertisers? I think we have the right to sell but I’m not sure we have the right to propagandize indiscriminately. The other aspect for me as a Christian is the rather improbable idea of the Christ as the god-human. I think we need a way to ensure that the values we promote stay human. Because the huge ideas which shape whole cultures don’t stay human shaped – they distort our humanity. Freedom becomes a slogan to beat dissidents with. Pleasure becomes infantile. A lot has been written on the proper boundaries of the state but virtually nothing on the proper boundaries of commercial organizations. So now do you see why I haven’t written it yet? You did ask!

Best book about advertising you have ever read. Why is it the best?
Well I love “Ogilvy on advertising” – explaining that he learned to run a multinational agency by working in a Paris kitchen takes a lot of beating. My current favourite is the Simple Truth about Advertising by Guillaume of Duval Guillaume – using the metaphor of the hook the bait and the line is so simple as an analogy for advertising but very profound the way it gets used. And the more you think about it the more you learn about how advertising works and what you are trying to bring about.

Romanian strategic planning is at its start. Only a few agencies have planning departments. Any advice for young planners?

Always be curious, always have stage nerves, cultivate the habit of active listening. Be persistent – expect people to disagree with you and to overrule you – new ideas take time to be accepted. This is always going to be a hazardous job – if everybody agreed with you then they wouldn’t need you. Always hypothesize about how an ad is supposed to work. You’ll probably be wrong but it is because you made a wrong assumption – and you’ll learn something. Many people never learn from mistakes because they have never thought about how the ad was supposed to work. Remember that ordinary people aren’t interested in advertising – they use it to do ordinary things. And ordinary clients aren’t interested in advertising either – they do it because it is one of the cheapest and fastest ways of growing a business. So your obsession with advertising is out of the ordinary. On the other hand if you aren’t obsessed with advertising then all you’ll produce is ordinary advertising so guard your obsession. If you get bored then get out!

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