98% Potato: The Origins of Account Planning – an interview with John Griffiths
98% Potato: The Origins of Account Planning – an interview with John Griffiths
Just before Christmas I had the opportunity to catch up with John Griffiths and discuss his new book, co-written with Tracey Follows, and some themes around account planning. It doesn’t take much to set both of us off on a passionate discussion about planning and insight, so we covered a lot of ground. I hope you will enjoy the highlights I’ve written up below. I hope John won’t mind that I’ve distilled much of our 90+ minutes of conversation into much less than half of the words actually spoken.
First a quick bio on the two authors
John is perhaps best known as an integrated account planner who leverages advertising and the brand well within a broad channel mix. John is also an accomplished Qual Researcher. I’ve had the opportunity to work with him and discuss planning and insight with him previously over the last decade. He also inspired me to start my own blog, back in 2007. John also provides training, this has included course sessions for the IDM and digital marketing MBA for the IE Business School. He has won multiple awards and is also well known for his account planning blog; planning above and beyond.
Tracey is a thought leader and experienced leader of account planning departments. The former Chief Strategy Officer of JWT and Executive Planning Director of VCCP; she is the current chair of the Account Planning Group in the UK. Like myself, Tracey has both agency and client-side experience, as well as quantitative research expertise.
A synopsis of their new book
98% Potato: The Origins of Account Planning
Account planners are the part of advertising agencies tasked with getting inside people’s heads. From the late 1960s they brought the consumer into the process of developing advertising.
Based on face-to-face interviews with 20 of the industry’s pioneers, 98% Pure Potato pieces together the real story of advertising account planning. It traces the rise of the planning discipline, and the work of the people who first forged this path: Stephen King at JWT, and Stanley Pollitt at BMP are legendary figures in the creation of advertising account planning, but they were not alone.
They helped create some of the UK’s most famous brands and brand icons; from the Andrex Puppy, to the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster, and who could forget the Smash Martians?
The book analyses the true beginnings of the discipline as told to the authors by 20 of the first ever planners, and contrasts what planning was and how it was done with the challenges and opportunities faced today.
Interviewees include Jane Newman, John Madell and Jim Williams who were the very first planners ever hired at BMP. Jane is also the person responsible for exporting planning to the United States. Ev Jenkins, described by many of those interviewed as the best planner they had worked with, helps us understand the very beginnings of the iconic Persil, Oxo and Andrex advertising campaigns at JWT.
A little known fact is that there were lots of very senior women at the vanguard of planning: Christine Gray and Lee Godden were two of them, and their stories reveal exactly what it was like as a women operating in the intellectual realm of agencies.
The book provides a unique, untold history of the men and women that pioneered the industry, and a guide for those working, or hoping to work, in advertising planning today.
The book is being crowd funded and due for launch in 2015. Please support the publication by ordering your copy through Unbound: HERE. There are several pledge options available.
Having read the summaries John has kindly shared on some of the interviews, I recommend it to everyone interested in account planning and marketing insight. There is a lot of digital content too, in the form of videos of the original interviews. So please do show support and order a copy.
The Interview with John Griffiths
Thanks for the interview today, maybe our discussion will inspire me to complete some more writing after this. I recently visited Mark Earls and he reminded me not to be too British about asking planning people to get behind the new book, as we planners are often too polite and gentle about it!
As the book is about the invention of planning itself and the first planners, rather than the usual published fare on planning craft skills, it’s genuinely a new idea. There hasn’t been a book before that helps planners understand our origins and about planning itself. So the book is a new idea that’s very useful for the current generation of planners.
The Origins Of The Book
The genesis of the book had two beginnings. In 2004 I had just started recording a series called ‘In their own words’, where I interviewed other planners, creating audio files. I managed to get hold of an email address for Stephen King, the original founder of account planning. And I thought, wouldn’t that be the greatest, if I could interview him too. But I didn’t contact him immediately. And then he died. And I remember thinking I am never going to let that situation happen again, where I don’t seize the opportunity. Then the second origin of the book was when I was at an event for The Marketing Society and I met David Cowan and he handed me a business card with the business name FORENSICS, which is such a plannery take on what planners do. I’d just read Stanley Pollitt’s account on how he started account planning, we hired Peter Jones and then David Cowan.
John describes these first planners using the James Bond numerical tags, 001 and 002. The first planners at BMP. David is a Maths and Theoretical Physics graduate and was the second planning hire at BMP. He went on to become their Head of Account Planning at BMP for 13 years. It was then I thought that I really do want to do this, to interview the people who were the start points for account planning; while the opportunity was still there to do so. Then in 2013 I was introduced to the names of some of the very first planners and when I got in touch with each one, they would help identify other planners from the origin period who worked at either J Walter Thompson or Boase Massimi Pollitt; the two agencies that originated account planning around the same time. It was like a piece of detective work piecing the original list of names together and tracking them down. I ended up with 10 people that I wanted to do a one hour interview with each. So the real start of the idea was then when these people agreed to be interviewed and I decided to make the content into a book, with the videos also available online for people who pre-order a copy.
This then developed into 20 interviews, with 10 planners from the earliest stage of planning within each of these two agencies. By early 2013 I had the interviews and a rough first draft ready for development and editing into a book. I was meeting with Tracey Follows she kindly offered to help work on the book. This was immensely helpful, working as a co-writer, and helping to legitimise the book, through her experience as CSO at J Walter Thompson and her work as chair of the APG; ensuring the book is practical and relevant to planners working today. Planners work better as a collaborative team and I’ve found this to be the case with Tracey; we have all the interviews in the can, with typed transcriptions and are busy writing the final version of the book now, ready for publication in 2015.
As well as introducing us to the first planners and their world, the book also covers issues, such as how planners moved across cultures; such as introducing account planning to the USA. How you train planners around the world and how you recruit planners; how you get planners formed into a department. These are topics that no other planning book has explored before.
Reaching the world in a different way than today
I asked John about the difference in the media world the planners worked within at the time account planning started. As while the development of planning itself was bold and innovative. The media environment that agencies and their clients worked within back in 1968, when planning started, was much more limited and traditional compared to today. A layer of media planning complexity simply didn’t exist in the way we plan and engage with audiences today. But brands had an unparalleled opportunity to influence the mass audience as never before; as TV became the dominant media channel in the home.
Planning is a virus
Given the small numbers of planners, planners have been disproportionately successful. Planning is a virus that mutates and produces different versions of itself.
Planning fuelled the growth of qualitative research which became a mainstream research tool. Detractors called it the industrialising of qual, which had been niche and very academic before this. Account Planning has spread across Insight Departments, fueling the growth and application of quantitative tracking in marketing. Planners invented brand strategy and positioning language and eventually stand-alone agencies. Marketing departments have jostled to rename their brand managers and insight teams as planners. Agency networks have used planning as a focal point to differentiate and reinvent their positioning and way of working; to give at least an illusion of a point of competitive difference.
There are almost no books about planning. Most of the books written by planners have been about things other than planning. This is the first book by planners for planners in over 8 years. Which is why I hope planners will support it!
John felt there was much more value in interviewing the pioneers of planning than recent exponents, however good they are. The commercial pressures to demonstrate success and to get the agencies and clients to sanction what they say would probably hamper current planning stars from speaking frankly. Those from the very beginning don’t have an axe to grind. They are retired and can say what they want and they do!
John and I discussed the subject of planning being a virus for a while. The last two decades have seen planners split into different disciplines, such as advertising, digital, direct marketing, experiential, shopper marketing or PR. There has also been a number of new names for the account planner role as it splits into concentrating more and more on less and less of the original planning role; strategist is popular, as is creative strategist, brand planner and comms planner. But this ability to infest and claim ever smaller parts of the marketing puzzle shows how voracious the planning virus is. It has become indispensable, even though it was faced with clients and agency heads who struggled to see how the work of a planner was to be paid for.
John then mentioned that the first ever book written by a planner, using the rigour associated with planners, concerned how to train a winning race horse. BMP were big fans of horse racing and Peter Jones manually compiled racing results and published a yearly manual on race horse performance before the data was computerised.
Craft & Rigour: My Planning Topic Hot Buttons
At this point I had the opportunity to discuss points of particular interest to me, these concerned phrases that are particular hot buttons of mine. John had mentioned ‘planning craft’ and ‘planning rigour’ in our interview. These phrases are repeatedly mentioned by planners and in account planning books; but quite often they aren’t well defined or characterised. I was keen to get John’s take on what these sometimes nebulous planning phrases meant to him.
John on Planning Craft Skills & Rigour:
I think the core of what planning has become is a process. There is an assembly line of work within marketing agencies that is much more structured than it used to be. It often starts now with being the voice of the consumer within the agency, as well as writing the creative brief. Then, depending on your school of planning, you might also comment on the creative work in development or test it in research.
Pre-testing of creative work is still a point of contention, not all agencies do this. But planners were the foundation point of evaluating both the brand strategy and the proposed creative ideas. They brought the ideas to the consumer, inventing qualitative pre-testing of concepts and ads in the process.
The planner, working with researchers, ensured independence between the agency developing the idea and evaluating its appeal and impact on the target audience. The planner also helped to craft and sell in the strategy, proposition and creative idea to the client.
So the role of planner involves different skills, often like the geek running up and down the assembly line as multiple campaigns are in development and work reaches different stages that require or are permitted planning involvement.
The strategic role has become embedded in the agency process through planners, without planners necessarily having to create anything themselves. The account handler goes and gets clients, takes them to lunch and bills them the invoice – that’s doing something. The creative team come up with the campaign idea and the studio and production team make the idea happen. But perhaps the account planner doesn’t really create anything. So they make documents, they build arguments, inspire ideas and thoughts; and prod and poke the rest of the team into delivering better work. So I think planners are often about ensuring the process creates something different and better; by observing, inspiring and improving the material produced by others along the production line.
Planning craft and rigour are often labels for research skills, being able to access the voice of the consumer, being brand literate and socially informed; being plugged into the wider media environment and perspective. Making the work replicable and comparable, ensuring there is an approval process and that the performance of the work is both verifiable and quantifiable, are all part of the demonstration that planning has process and rigour. They are justifications that, as a planner, I do the job properly.
The Assembly Line Dilemma: Measuring Hours vs. Measuring Effective Ideas
One of the main drivers of the assembly line approach within agencies was the introduction of time sheets and billable hours. Previously agencies were paid for their thinking and ideas that effect sales with agreed project budgets or retainers. Now they are usually paid for producing hours of work. This of course risks the point of needing to spend more and more hours measuring ever fewer hours on the work itself, in order to administer and report gains in time efficiency; rather than gains in business effect.
Before planning existed there were quantitative research studies; but these were often trend based and weak on diagnostics and didn’t explain why advertising worked – so often they failed to answer the “Why?” questions raised by shifts in the trends reported. Diagnostic quantitative campaign evaluation came along much later. But with the arrival of account planning, there was more rigorous qual applied in campaign development. The early planners from both J Walter Thompson and Boase Massimi Pollitt used qual research alongside quant research; as an insight tool and as a measurement tool.
One of the main reasons planning started was to find out why and how advertising campaigns worked and to use consumer insight to persuade clients to both run more challenging creative work and also to show that it had been effective. The decline of the use of qualitative research in recent years has meant that agencies are increasingly presenting and justifying work using quant data only.
This part of my discussion with John is very relevant to my own work, which focuses on planning and evaluation; specifically for media channel effect and creative campaign performance. It’s my day job, so I very much enjoyed learning from John what it was like back in 1968 and the first decade or so afterwards, when the methods I have available for evaluation and planning today simply weren’t available.
In the 1960’s and ’70’s, quant campaign evaluations lacked diagnostics and the voice of the consumer explaining what the results they indicated really meant, the result was Scientism and this wasn’t proper science at all. It was just hiding behind numbers and graphs that often only showed a rise or a decline in trends. This was blunt and lacked the ability to truly inform progress. There was a need to explain what was happening, why, and to provide informed guidance on how to improve performance further.
The first planners knew all about blunt or non-diagnostic quant data and they used qualitative data because it helped them to develop and sell better work. The development of pretesting of campaign ideas, led by the original account planners, introduced a diagnostic and comparative method to qualitative campaign evaluation. It used a replicable approach, evaluated by people who were usually trained in statistics.
This form of original planning rigour was not rigorous in the sense of statistical sample size. Scientism was the use of statistics from quantitative research studies to generally inform the marketing client and agency about the market place, the consumer and their behaviour; but often in a blunt way (e.g. 90% of people eat potato). But the numbers alone don’t always tell the story of difference and change among influential minorities, or help to forecast the power of advertising to change the current market situation rapidly. Agencies were troubled by the rise of Scientism in the 1950’s and 1960’s – when polls and studies could be used in fairly arbitrary ways to build arguments for or against marketing and its effectiveness. Even with the arrival of computers and more analytics. Quant research only started to really help explain advertising effect and aid campaign development once the way advertising worked had been understood through qual research and the appropriate diagnostics and comparative tools were developed and refined; but that’s a story that leaps ahead to the 1990’s and 2000’s.
Sticking slavishly just to numbers and dashboards doesn’t get us to new places
The founding planners developed qualitative research to understand advertising, identify the effect of creating difference, and to spot the opportunity or new trend before it happened. Essentially meaning they identified what was possible and important, but not necessarily present in statistically significant numbers within an audience. Planning and insight isn’t just about measuring stuff; as the important stuff isn’t always obvious or dominant within the data.
The point of a planner is someone who challenges and disrupts the thinking, or usual pattern of approach; allowing ideas to break into new and different places. This requires time. So mental rigour and analytical rigour – what you think and being able to ask why people think that think or behave that way (things quant numbers can’t do, or do easily) are a vital part of planning.
Time and collaborative discussion allows planners to create insight, ideas and craft persuasive arguments to gain client support to do something different and engaging with their marketing budget. And this approach started before there was evidence of how advertising works, in a purely statistical quantitative way. Before computer based research existed and was able to prove influence and effect in large numbers. The early planners had to conduct qual, carrying heavy, so called transportable, recording equipment from venue to venue; be it a focus group in a hall, or to a cinema, in order to capture the audience response.
Gender equality among early account planners was aided by advances in technology
Interestingly, one of the reasons mentioned by the first planners as to why there were initially few female account planners among their number was to do with the physical strength perceived to be required by the job; in order to transport and set up the equipment used in the pre-testing process. So the arrival of truly portable audio and video recording technology arguably opened the door to more women in planning in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. But John’s book does include interviews with some of the very first female account planners too.
Planning in another culture
Account planners are often very different types of people, rather than clones with specific characteristics. But the account planning discipline originated in London the late 1960’s and was initially a peculiarly British invention within advertising agencies. In the book one of the themes explored is the transplanting of account planning to America; where a very strong and different culture continues today. So part of the early development story of planning was also it’s ability to adapt and grow in different environments.
Planners need to invest in what’s going to make the biggest difference, rather than invest more time in building a more complex and time measured process. Planners need to focus on helping the team solve the problem and recognise when they have.
In writing the above version of our discussion, I’ve intentionally left out many funny or insightful anecdotes that appear within the interviews in the book. As well as the day to day reality, revealing what it was like to work at JWT or BMP during the 1960’s and 1970’s. So I hope you will enjoy these stories for yourself by ordering a copy of the book for yourself: HERE.
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Tags: 98% Potato, 98% Pure Potato, Account Planning, BMP, Brand Strategy, DDB, John Griffiths, JWT, Kevin Sugrue, Origin of Account Planning, Planning, Planning Books, Strategy, Tracey Follows