The Ralph Nader of the ad biz
by Dennis Bruce

The advertising business is in a state of crisis. At least, that's the opinion of many of my colleagues. If you've spent an evening viewing TV recently, you'll be inclined to agree. Much advertising is over-intellectualized, cliched and boring. Small wonder that the average CEO in Canada doubts that advertising contributes anything to the bottom line, or that companies have raided their advertising budgets to put the money into promotions and other forms of consumer bribery.

Talk to consumers about advertising and you'll get an indifferent or even cynical response. The old saw about not telling my family I work in advertising but play piano in a brothel comes to mind as advertising people plunge in the public's estimation, coming to rest alongside used car salesmen.

Apparently, it's not that way in Britain. According to The Account Planning Group's web site, there is a high degree of liking for advertising in the U.K. whereas, in North America, the majority feel advertising insults their intelligence. "Not only are people in the U.K. enjoying advertising more," says the group, "they are becoming more skilled at judging it. In qualitative group discussions, when consumers like a piece of advertising, they have to be restrained from casting and directing it."

Why the difference? Are advertising people in Britain simply more talented, insightful and imaginative than North Americans? I think not. There's an enormours reservoir of talent on this side of the pond.

True believers will tell you that account planning is the difference. Account planning, they say, is given more credit and more power in the U.K. than in North America. In the U.K., planning is an integral part of the way agencies are structured. Whereas here, planning is largely a bolt-on operation, an afterthought, that has never been fully embraced by agencies and clients. Hard to believe that Jane Newman, the first planner in the U.S., landed at Chiat Day 15 years ago. The difficulties she experienced finding acceptance back then, are still plaguing many account planners today.

A lot of account people still see planners as a threat. And many creative people regard them as researchers tricked up in new clothes. There is, as yet, no agreed definition as to what account planning actually is or what it's supposed to do.

Today, every agency claims to have account planning in one form or another. Ask them to define it and you get as many definitions as there are agencies. One agency head described his planning process to me like this: "We put together bright minds from each discipline in the agency. Then we sit around and brainstorm. Each of us has a valid view of the consumer to share." When I asked him if there were any actual consumers in these sessions, he admitted that there weren't. "But that's okay," he said, "because the group consists of senior people who are very talented and perceptive." Oookay!

The fact is, even in the U.K., where planning was invented, there is no consistent definition.

According to Max Blackston of Research International in New York, there has never been a single monolithic model of Planning right from its inception. As the function spread to different agencies and then across the Atlantic, it was adapted to fit the prevailing circumstances and culture.

This has led to confusion and cynicism about planning. And, I would argue, has frustrated planners from making the contribution that would validate the function and establish it in Canadian advertising.

I'm not going to be able to define planning in a way that will be universally acceptable in an 800 word column. But I'd like to make a start and invite readers to write me with their definitions. Here goes:

The account planner is the voice of the consumer in all agency - client conversations.

That's it. Pretty obvious isn't it?

"But," objects the account director, "that's my job."
"I do that every time I sit down to write an ad," protests the creative director.
"Listen," intones the client, "the consumer is my business. I hire you to make the ads."

Who's right? In theory, everyone. But, as we all know, theory and practice are often out of sync. Some would say always. In most agency - client meetings, the conversation goes something like this:
The account director says, "Bla, bla, bla, my client."
The client says, " Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb, my product."
The creative director says, "Nobody touches my ad."

While lip service is given to the consumer, she doesn't really have a say. And given the political currents that course through agency - client relationships, that's the way it is most of the time.

That's why the consumer needs a voice, a voice unaffected by political, social or personal pressure, an independent voice that is empowered at all times to tell it like it is. That voice is the account planner - the Ralph Nader of the ad biz.

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