Opinion

25 March 2024

Account Planning and Strategy: 50 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll 

As JWT's landmark Planning Guide turns 50 years old, author Paul Feldwick recalls what it was like at the birth of planning, and how it compares to strategy today

Can it really be fifty years since I started in advertising?

In The Anatomy of Humbug I tried to describe, for younger readers, what it looked like that October morning in 1974:

‘….much more Life on Mars than Mad Men: the men swaggering and loud in big hair, big ties, big lapels, the women mostly ensconced behind IBM Golfball typewriters whose deafening clatter filled the air long with plenty of cigarette smoke and bad language.’ 

But enough of the local colour. You strategists of today are serious folk and want to know what we ‘account planners’ actually got up to when we weren’t having our four-hour lunches, or carrying on in the air conditioning cupboard. So, what can I tell you?

I didn’t join Boase Massimi Pollitt as a planner — I didn’t have A-level maths. But after I’d spent six months as the world’s worst account management trainee, Stanley Pollitt called me into his office and, brushing ash from his waistcoat, mumbled something about ‘giving planning a go’ before they got rid of me. I was given a pile of handwritten monthly figures from Unigate Dairies, and asked to find out why sales spiked twice a year. They thought it might be bank holidays… I looked at each product line individually for clues, but they all peaked at the same places. Then I broke the monthly figures down into weeks and drew graphs on squared paper with a pencil. The peaks disappeared. Was I going mad? No, whoever had filled in the original forms had put in some five-week months.

I pointed this out, we all moved on, and I never looked back. I had learnt some important lessons — 1. My basic numeracy was adequate to the task, 2. Always look closely at the data, and, 3. Never take anything on trust.

We had quite a lot of data to play with — Nielsens, AGB panels, JICTAR ratings, Usage and Attitude Studies, and more — all came as hard copies (how else?) and the diligent planners kept them in orderly files on their top shelves. Others simply let them mound up into tottering dusty heaps, but still seemed to manage. Making sense of them required a desk calculator, a lot of graph paper, and lots of time, but luckily we didn’t have social media, emails, or PowerPoint to distract us, and we had John Player Specials to calm our nerves.

We liked quantitative data, but at BMP the planner’s job really revolved around qualitative research. Two or three nights a week we’d get in our Alfa Suds or Renault 5s and slog through traffic to Buckhurst Hill, or flog up the M1 to Sheffield where, in a knick-knack laden front room we’d engage eight Real People in a ‘group discussion’ about beer or shampoo or cook-in sauce. Often, we’d have animatics to show them, which involved bringing along an extremely hefty Philips VCR player and a monitor. Sometimes the group would fall about laughing and ask to see the ad again. But when they looked blankly mystified it was hard to stay enthusiastic about the creative department’s latest work of genius.

When things went badly, the planners were always listened to and believed, but the creative teams didn’t always want to know. The exception was John Webster who seemed genuinely able to take bad news on board, as long as you could give him a clue about how to move on. In this way, a number of BMP’s most famous campaigns, like the Honey Monster or the Hofmeister Bear, evolved from ugly ducklings into shining swans.

Apart from BMP, only one other agency had Account Planning at the start. That was JWT, and they were very different from us. We were a smallish hot shop, and they were the biggest agency in London. I realise now that they had a formidable set of incredibly clever and experienced people, of whom Stephen King was only one, and they were more articulate and philosophical about planning than we cared to be. We had no equivalent of their 1974 Planning Guide, which seems to me today an extraordinarily wise and prescient document — fifty years on, there’s not a lot that needs to be changed or added, though much of it seems to have been forgotten. (I wonder if I would have appreciated it as much if I’d seen it then, in all the arrogance of youth? Probably not.)

I later got to know Stephen King and liked and admired him very much. Stanley Pollitt, sadly, died in 1979 at the age of 48. I’m told the two men were never close, but kept a respectful distance: at BMP we allowed JWT credit for inventing the name ‘Account Planning’, but believed we had invented the real thing. That part is not really true, though there were differences in approach. When Stephen drew his famous distinction between ‘grand strategists and ad tweakers’ it may have been a sly dig at us, his choice of words showing where his sympathies lay. But while I have nothing against strategy, grand or otherwise, I have always thought ad tweaking undervalued. It is, after all, only the ad that the public ever gets to see, so getting that right matters as much as anything. And re-reading the Planning Guide, I don’t think Stephen would have disagreed with that.

I can’t really comment on what planners, or strategists, get up to today, as I’m not close enough to it (even though my son Oli does it quite successfully). I suspect qualitative research is not used quite as well as it might be; I fear that, paradoxically, data is sometimes less accessible than it used to be 50 years ago, especially if you want to look at trends over time. And I’m not sure people are having as much fun, though I’d like to be wrong about that. But for all the changes we’ve seen, in media, technology, workplace culture, and many other things, I believe the basic principles and task of developing advertising that works remain largely the same as they were. And therefore that JWT 1974 guide to planning has stood the test of time just as well as, oh, let’s say The Rolling Stones singing It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It).

Paul Feldwick is the author of two books on advertising creativity, The Anatomy of Humbug, and Why Does the Pedlar Sing?

He is also the only person to have two entries in our list of the nine books that every advertising creative should read.

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