Bridging The Gap With Account Planning

Don Draper romanticized the world of advertising. He made the world believe that advertising is all about the handsomely suited men in penthouses cleverly dishing out an award-winning copy for massive clients. However, the real world of advertising is completely different. Leading account planner Jon Steel unveils the real world in his Truth, Lies, and Advertising (1998), and shows that without the genius of the account planner, there would be a clear disconnect between the consumer, the client, the rest of the advertising team and their clever ad campaigns.

The Most Important Link – The Account Planner

The account planner, though it seems otherwise holds the most important position in an advertising agency. The planner is the one who links the client and the creative, does the research, analyses the feedback, and ensures that the client’s interests are paid attention to. He is the one who knows the consumer and works hard to connect the ever-elusive consumer to the client’s brand, products, and services, ensuring that the client gets exactly what they pay for.

An account planner is intrinsic to ensuring that the agency produces next-level advertising that focuses on really reaching out to consumers’ needs. It is his responsibility to get information on the customer’s needs – by conducting customer interviews, or gathering market and sales data – to solve the client’s problems.

It is also his responsibility to ensure that the creative team gets the necessary information and works in line with what the client wants and the information given. An account planner makes ideas happen rather than just make the decisions for the agency.

When Steel was working on a project for Isuzu’s Rodeo model, he hosted various focus groups at dealerships to get a clear idea of the customer base for individual models. Based on the information he relayed, the creative team came up with a commercial of a father and a son visiting a toy store and finding a Rodeo packaged like a toy car. The tagline for the commercial was, “The Rodeo. Grow up. Not old.”

The success of the campaign was not only about the creative team’s work but also more about the in-depth research the account planner put in to get the information for the creative team.

It is for this reason that account planners should not work with more than three clients at a time. To ensure that the project is successful and that lasting relationships are built with the clients, planners should avoid overwhelming work pressure. Not cutting corners with existing clients, after all, will help in building an impressive portfolio and make profits for the agency.

 Truth, Lies and Advertising by Jon Steel Book Review and Summary
Truth, Lies and Advertising

The Account Planners Research

How does an ad agency ensure a perfect liaison between the client’s needs and the creative team’s output? The answer is a resounding, “Listen well, and ask the obvious questions.”

An account planner needs to talk to customers, ask even the most obvious questions, and most importantly listen well to what they have to say.  For example, when the author asked a focus group how much milk did they drink every day, most of the participants of the group answered, “Very little.” They did not factor in the amount of milk they added to their cereal and coffee daily.

Similarly, in a blind survey for a new formula conducted by Coca-Cola, most testers preferred the new product to the original taste. However, when based on this survey, the new version was launched, it failed. This was because the public emotionally resonated with the original Coca-Cola. 

Thus, the opinion of focus groups can have a major impact on business, and the account planner has to keep in mind the fact that while conducting customer interviews, it is better to interview them within the comforts of their homes, rather than in an impersonal, shiny conference room, a strategy that worked well for Sega. Sega conducted interviews of kids playing games in their own homes and asked them questions immediately after.

Another important factor that planners need to keep in mind, is to have a comfortable interviewing style, where focus groups are encouraged to participate rather than interrogated.

The Creative Team’s Guide

The account planner’s next responsibilities are to gather the research information and hand it over to the creative team. This research information is presented as a creative brief, which is a structured report of the overall strategy of the creative campaign.

The creative brief, whether presented in a written form or orally conveyed, should include the following information.

  • The business problems that the campaign should solve for the client. For example, why didn’t the product work earlier?
  • The desired effects of the campaign and the objectives. For example, is the aim to attract new customers, to encourage old ones or enter a new market altogether. The priority of these objectives should also be clearly laid out.
  • Specify the target audience. Is the campaign targeting women of a specific demographic? Mothers of infants?
  • Concrete information about the target customers. How does the product or the service feature or change the lives of the target audience?

While these points make up the chunk of the report, the proposition lies at its core. The proposition is the core message, written in one single sentence, that the creative team will convey in their final advert. The proposition of the creative brief communicates the specialties of the product in an entertaining fashion to the team, which then relays that information in their ads.

For example, when the Cuervo focus group was asked to think of a guest arriving with a Cuervo bottle in hand, the participants started laughing. This reaction told the account planner that Cuervo means party, a vital piece of information, that he included in the creative brief, with a proposition sentence, “A party waiting to happen.”

Merging Client Expectation With Campaign Concept

The creative team adds flair to the creative brief given by the planner. When Steel was working on the Sega account, he noticed that children preferred the Sega console to Nintendo’s. he compared the experience of using the console to getting chosen in a baseball Major League in his creative brief. He called it ‘The show’.

While the author took two weeks to get his idea, the creative team to a mere 30 seconds to come up with the tagline, “Welcome to the next level,” translating baseball jargon into gamer-speak!

Once the creative team develops the campaign, the planner has to test it and make improvements by checking consumer response data and incorporating client feedback.

When Steel was working on the Foster Farms account, the core message of the campaign was that the Californian company’s chicken was more expensive yet it was natural, local, and fresh, and not frozen and imported.

The creative team developed an ad where they showed chicken puppets driving to California, to pass themselves off as Foster Farms high-quality chickens. The car was cluttered with beer cans and cigarettes. The client, not approving the beer and cigarettes, scrapped the idea, asking for two new concepts. The creative came up with what the client wanted but also changed the beer and cigarettes to junk food in the original idea.

However, during consumer testing, the author found that the focus group was more excited about the chicken puppets. The results of the testing convinced the President of Foster Farms to go with the chicken puppets idea. While the account planner didn’t really give the client what he had asked for, he gave the client a solution that eventually won him over.

The Account Planning Process – Start To Finish

Jon Steel emphasizes the importance of following the account planning process. His experience in one of the most famous campaigns, “Got Milk” of all times, for the California Fluid Milk Processors Advisory Board (CFMPAB), is a great example.

The client wanted to increase the consumption of milk. Steel started researching the reasons for the decreasing milk consumption levels. In his research to understand how milk features in the lives of the target customers, he found that the decrease was due to the fact that people found milk fatty, childish and boring. He also found that people do drink consume milk, mostly combined with other things.

He then conducted a focus group, where he paid the participants to forego milk for a week. In the resultant discussion, he found the participants describing how they actually liked milk and missed having it with cookies or a sandwich. His creative brief then included the strategy to remind people to stock up on mild, to avoid feeling deprived when they wanted to augment their food with milk. He had understood that creating a desire for certain foods will, in turn, create a desire for milk.

The creative team used this brief to portray milk as the essential companion to other foods. Thus the ‘Got milk?’  tagline was developed. The CFMPAB liked the idea. Additionally, since the author’s research showed that milk is most often consumed at home, the campaign was first tested on TV and next on billboards near grocery stores. They also ran print ads in magazines with a bitten chocolate chip cookie with “Got Milk?” written underneath.

Focus group data showed that the campaign increased the consumption of milk in California by raising awareness about milk, and in 1993 when the campaign ran, the consumption of milk outpaced the consumption in every other state. The campaign also achieved similar success when the campaign ran nationally in 1995.


The role of the account planner in advertising is intrinsic to bridging the gap between the client, the creative, and the consumer. The planner is at the crux and has the most important responsibility to conduct meaningful research that can be used to create great ad campaigns.