Planning guru Jon Steel’s video about what he looks for in an account planner has been widely viewed and praised within the planning community. And for the most part, with good reason: He talks a lot of good, solid, common sense that’s both informational and inspiring, especially for young account planners. And for many more experienced planners, it reminds us of some of the fundamentals of our craft.
So perhaps it’s risky to sound a discordant note or two amid all the positive feedback.
After taking a second look at the video, a lot of different issues arose in my mind based not only having moved up through the ranks of account planning and having been a department head on three continents, but also having mentored account planners of all levels of experience and having listened to what they saw as important concerns.
Jon spoke about seven different topics, and in the coming weeks I want to address each one in greater detail. Not to throw stones at him, but rather create debate and perhaps raise some awkward questions on the subject.
One the underlying themes running through all this will be “how much compromise is necessary in doing an account planner’s job, or is compromise never a good thing?” And I’ll address that more fully at the end.
Topic 1. An account planner needs to be useful.
Of course they must, but then again making yourself useful can have its down sides.
I knew a couple of middleweight planners who joined agencies as the sole planner. They had earned their stripes in a solid planning agency and wanted to move up and take on bigger challenges – nothing wrong with that.
But in both cases, they proved so “useful” to the account teams, that they quickly became swamped with work, were run ragged and essentially burned out after six months and then left. Were the agencies at fault for not better protecting valuable assets or simply naïve or inexperienced? Or was each planner at fault for not protecting themselves at the outset with clear account priorities and saying “no” to unreasonable demands on their time? Then again, some of the best lessons learned come from painful experiences and both the agencies and the planners are likely better equipped for the future as a result.
John Webster, the late, great creative director at BMP, where the role of the account planner was first developed in the late 1960s, once told me,
“Working in an ad agency is about ‘anxiety management’”.
And that certainly applies to junior planners anxious to be useful. Most of us have been there: We panted like puppies wanting to be useful. I recall arguing for pre-testing a TV spot because I thought it was the right thing to do, and getting stamped on by a pragmatic account director who, in time-honored fashion, said there was “no time and no budget”.
Should I have stood my ground and perhaps risked being branded as an unwelcome “planner in the works?” As a young sprout, I caved and post-rationalized it as wanting to be a team player. Later in my career as a planning director, the same issue arose and I stood against the entire account team, the creative director and the agency management, and won the argument that led to much better creative work as a result.
One final example from a notorious, much-awarded London agency where, if the stories are to be believed, it was not unusual for a creative director to say to the planners, “I don’t give a f*** about your concerns. It’s a great idea, now make yourselves useful and go and sell it to the client.” In other words, an account planner was useful if they could justify the idea to the client, regardless of whether it was on strategy or not. Ouch!
The point of all this, is of course we all want to be useful. But is there sometimes an uncomfortable contradiction between what we see as useful for the brand and what the account and/or creative teams regard as useful to themselves?