Does account planning need a reboot?

At the 4A's Stratfest, the planning community fretted about the brave actions needed to regain influence with agencies and brands, writes J. Walter Thompson's global planning director.

The days of glamor in advertising are long gone, but clearly not forgotten. Miles Young's recent reminiscences are redolent with descriptions of liquid lunches and a go-go spirit as foreign to me as the smoke-filled offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. What's familiar in Young's missive as an advertising éminence grise is the panicked feeling that this business is on its heels. The proceedings at last week's the 4A's Strategy Festival confirmed that unease has indeed replaced the "swagger" Young recalls from the early days of his career.

Ostensibly a celebration of big, bold and brave strategic thinking, this year's Stratfest showcased inspiring case studies from an impressive cast of industry leaders and recognized some brilliant and deserving work with Jay Chiat awards. But the conference mostly felt like an opportunity to fret about the big, bold and brave things the planning community must do to regain its influence within agencies and with brands.

Young calls for a "complete relaunch of account planning," and that sentiment echoed beneath much of the Stratfest program. It was all but stated openly within a crowdsourced brainstorm exercise devoted to existential themes such as the need to "reassert strategy's reputation," confront the "threat from management and brand consultancies," and "simplify the complex."

As if to underscore the need for greater simplicity, R/GA's Chloe Gottlieb declared that now is the best time for great work but quickly buried that hopeful observation beneath a dizzying list of capabilities—strategy, connections planning, creative, technology and creative technology among them—required to deliver on that promise.

The conference achieved peak handwringing on day two when Ken Muench from Yum! Brands shared survey data exposing the professional dissatisfaction and restlessness of agency planners. A veteran planner gone client-side, Muench noted that 77% of planners felt they could be more effective if they worked in-house at a brand. Then he explained why: While agency planners scramble to massage ad copy in between endless meetings, his strategy teams busy themselves with juicy whitespace briefs on the future of mobile payments or reimagining fast food for Gen Z.

Now more than ever before, our industry needs to demonstrate the value of strategic insight and fight for influence upstream, where decisions that impact business as well as advertising are made. Planners aspire to work on transformative briefs that deliver real value but spend too much time laboring as mere "ad tweakers." Perhaps that's why the 4A's closed Stratfest with an interview with business phenom Gary Vaynerchuk.

In his endearingly profane remarks, the entrepreneur-turned-adman evinced little regard for hidebound agency planning but showed that agencies still offer opportunities to tackle those higher order challenges. If nothing else, Vaynerchuk's ambition to leverage his agency's strategic capabilities to build moribund brands into billion-dollar blockbusters offered an inspirational glimpse of what could be possible if planning reclaims its swagger.

--James Friedman is global planning director at J. Walter Thompson New York

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