Aug 25 2007

From the Folks Who Brought You Account Planning…

Published by at 4:18 pm under Idea Driven Marketing

Did you ever get so agitated from reading an article that you wanted to throw the computer out the window? Don’t worry. I am not yet a candidate for anger management therapy. I am just tired of reading about yet another "sexed up" (do you recall the other recent usage of that very Anglo term?) service being touted by those wonderful ad folks from across the pond. You know, the Brits, who promoted "account planning" a couple of decades ago as the great panacea of advertising.

Now we have another British import, a firm called Naked, storming the US with its successor to account planning. What’s this new "discipline" called: communications planning. "Sounds pretty mundane to me. What’s so special about it? I thought most marketing/ad/PR agencies have been doing communications planning forever." 

That hasn’t stopped Naked from winning a truckload of new business by convincing ever trendy marketing VPs that the only road to consumer insight/marketing Nirvana is through Naked’s no-doubt "proprietary" communications planning process. (BTW, I have nothing against Naked. In fact, my hat’s off to them for their success so far, and their ability to brand communications planning as seemingly the next big thing in the advertising industry.)

Oh…I get it. Communications planning is a combination of account planning ("we’re the proxy for the consumer") and media planning, which is furiously trying to redefine itself in an increasingly digital media and marketing world. And, according to Naked, their communications planning service can’t be replicated by other agencies because unlike those "traditional" firms, they don’t handle the execution (not yet, at least), and thus can be completely neutral in their recommendations. (The Ad Age article quoted an anonymous competitor who characterized Naked’s neutrality claim as "disingenuous." Probably a bit of understatement there.)

Indeed, the Brits at Naked have more going for them than their accents (always a strong selling point with US marketing directors). They have spun communications planning for all its worth, and just landed a major fish for their efforts: J&J. But, the question must be asked again. What is so special (and different) about communications planning?

From what I can determine, not much. Naked is just doing a brilliant job of repackaging consumer and media research (they are not the only marketing research people who have used innovative new techniques to get in the heads of consumers), media planning, and marketing strategy. The result is an expensive marketing and media plan which now must be implemented by another agency or multiple marketing and communications partners.

So what’s really going on here? Seems to me it’s just the latest "flavor of the moment" UK agency with a unique name, generating a lot of buzz (and some business, too) around services already offered by plenty of other agencies, but perhaps not marketed as cleverly. What we’re witnessing here is the age old phenomenon of marketing/advertising. Our industry loves being at the bleeding edge of the newest and trendiest , which is why account planning took root here in the early 80s at that trendiest of creative shops Chiat/Day in that very cool enclave Venice Beach. We in this business are particularly adept at selling the newest and the next of anything (not for nothing have we been called "snake oil salesmen"). Communications planning is just the latest in the historical continuum of our profession.

What amazes me, however, is how quickly and enthusiastically marketers jump on these trend bandwagons, lest they be viewed as behind the curve among their corporate peers. This grasping for marketing answers and direction is probably understandable given the massive changes now taking place in the media and marketing sectors worldwide. Marketers are looking for answers ("should I really cut my broadcast budget and use the funds to sponsor blogs and build widgets"?) and illumination in a global business environment that is shifting like San Francisco’s infill land in a major earthquake. Any port in a storm feels like home. Naked and its communications planning brand message clearly resonate as the hot new port of call for a growing list of  marketers…at least for the next few months or so. They are a new kind of agency, they are cool, they are clever and scary smart, and did I mention their crisp British accents?!

Every agency head in America (and England) probably read that Ad Age article about Naked and wondered, "What do they have that we don’t?" (To start, a great publicist!) "Why are they winning so much new business, and from blue chip clients like J&J?" "Should we form a communications planning practice?"

Here is my suggestion: Instead of wondering how to compete with or adopt the latest marketing agency "discipline," why not restate the fundamentals to your clients and prospects. These include, smart research that goes beyond a couple of focus groups, a quant survey and Google; media strategy and planning that fully leverages that research and explores every channel and media available, not just the tried and true outlets; integrated marketing planning that is truly comprehensive and does not only feature what your firm happens to specialize in (surprise, "we’re an ad agency so our strategy is heavy on TV"); intelligent, high impact creativity that never panders to target consumers or customers or stoops to conventional wisdom; and measurement protocols that generate actionable data and information that you then actually use to make the entire process, and the campaign, better and more effective.

The most important fundamental that agencies should always emphasize is the thing that attracted many of us to marketing in the first place: our ability to consistently come up with big, memorable, original IDEAS. Ultimately, it is your intuition, your insights, your ability to synthesize everything from culture to analytical data, that make the difference in your being able to devise campaigns and programs that really sell and succeed for clients. Those ideas should come from you, not some outside communications planning agency (or are they a "firm"?), claiming neutrality and no conflict of interest. (Yeah right!)

I guess I have to come clean and admit it for all the world to see: I am a marketing strategist. I am not an account planner, nor a communications planner, nor a digital guru, nor a whatever. Let me repeat: I am a marketing strategist. And proud of it.

If you are a marketing strategist, too, celebrate it, promote it and run with it. Don’t think you need to come up with some trendy new title just to stay hip in the trade press. Today, more than ever, clients need great marketing strategists on their team.

And, as they say, if it walks and quacks like an Aflac duck, it’s got to be that duck. Remember, he was a pretty successful duck.

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