Happy 50th birthday account planning: may you never go out of style

Or to put it more accurately, it is the account planner’s fiftieth birthday. Looking at it another way, let’s say it will be fifty years since the first account planner strode proudly through the advertising agency with this new label on his sleeve.

Yes, there is some discussion around whether it was Stephen King of JWT or Stanley Pollitt of BMP who was the world’s first account planner. But many are content to give the title to both jointly. In fact, they supposedly met in January 1968 for lunch to discuss the importance of consumer responses to advertising, something that both had been thinking about simultaneously and would eventually lead to the creation of an account planning department.

Both were fired by a passion to get advertising right. However, there is no argument that the term ‘account planner’ was born at JWT. Stephen King is known to have pleaded with the JWT management in April 1968, to create a separate department which a few months later in November 1968, would be known as the account planning department.

The name ‘account planning’ itself was coined at a JWT away-day attended by media planners and account people. By the time it moved to North America however, the title morphed into ‘brand planner’ and the more impressive ‘strategic planner’ which is still in vogue today.

Both King and Pollitt came from different backgrounds. JWT was a large organization with a marketing department established in the late 50s, while BMP was the startup of the 60s. I believe at one time, there were as many planners as account managers at BMP then. Many have made false promises to change the ratio of planners to account men, but sadly it has never happened and the promises have got lost in the dust of time.

So how was it born? King joined the JWT London Marketing Department in 1957 and by the early 60s he had become unhappy with the way creative people were being briefed. Which is why he published a short document called the T – Plan which then became after a little resistance the official creative brief for JWT.

Speaking of resistance, the first few account planners did face resistance wherever they were in the world. I remember that when JWT India (then HTA) introduced the discipline in the late 70s there was some caustic criticism that it had to encounter. Largely because it was resented by account people, who saw it stepping on their feet and usurping their own thinking powers. But that was never meant to be.

Clearly there were two schools of thought in the early days of account planning. All-you-need-is-a-good-account-person-and-if-he-works-with-a-planner-it will-be-even-better school of thought. And the other was All-you-need-is-a-good-person-and-besides-I-don’t-like-planners-although-I-haven’t-worked-with-them school of thoughts.

Unfortunately, there were more of the latter than the former those days, although the equation has changed completely over the last 50 years, and planners are now welcomed rather than shunned. But it was not always so. All evolution is a means of dealing with change. And account planning was an inevitable evolution of the advertising agency as we knew it in the 60s. It completed the circle. And created a specialization that both clients and agencies needed.

Stephen King once explained why account planning had become necessary. He said:

  • Account executives are too busy running the show
  • They are no more objective about the client’s business than the client
  • Media people are too absorbed
  • Creative people are not good at analysis

Those to me were four good reasons why account planning became inevitable.

So, whither account planning?

“At the heart of an effective creative philosophy is the belief that nothing is so powerful as an insight into human nature, what compulsions drive a man, what instincts dominate his actions, even though his language so often camouflages what really motivates him. For if you know these things about a man you can touch him at the core of his being” – Bill Bernbach

I started with that old quote by Bernbach because many people are inclined to think that the new world in this millennium might have changed planning. Media has changed and we live in digital world now. But I think that the basic principles of planning hasn’t changed. Of understanding consumers and their needs and how brands can appeal to them. If we look at planning as a ‘creative springboard’, as long as creative is the raison d’etre for the communication business, planning will always be required no matter what the environment.

The APG in the UK did issue a second revision called “What is Account Planning” ( and what do account planners do exactly ) in 2008.

That document assigned several roles to the account planner that included:

– market researcher

– data analyst

– qualitative focus group moderator

– information centre

– bad cop (to account management’s/client service’s good cop)

– npd consultant

– brainstorming facilitator

– target audience representative/voice of the consumer

– soothsayer/futurologist

– media/communications planner

– strategic thinker/strategy developer

– writer of the creative brief

– think piece polemicist

– social anthropologist

– insight miner

– knowledge applicator

If account planning plays all those roles it is very unlikely it will ever go out of style.

I would like to end this little ode to account planning on its 50th anniversary with a rather poignant, sentimental and metaphorical quote from John Furr, ex-JWT. He said “The account planner is like a mother. Someone who is expected to know it all. Someone who knows what is right and what is wrong. Someone you can trust; whose advice you seek when things go out of sorts.

Someone who can settle arguments without seeming to take sides. Someone who will find time when others can’t. Someone who is interested in everything that affects you. Someone who will be there through thick and thin. Someone you probably forget to thank as often as you should. Someone whose work is never done.”

And as we know, mothers are pretty much immortal.

Prabhakar Mundkur is an ad veteran with over 40 years in advertising in Asia, Africa and India.


Article by channel:

Read more articles tagged: