Account Planning is done when an account planner (sometimes called a brand planner or strategic planner) for an advertising agency collaborates between the client, the creative department and media in the interest of creating the best possible outcome for the client.
The creative department's function is developing compelling brands and messages that will resonate within the minds of the client's target market.
The media people buy the advertising, and therefore negotiate fees and maintain budget.
The account planner is the gateway to the client's problems and needs which the other two departments rely on in the interest of client-to-message/budget solidarity, as well as client satisfaction! Basically the account planner can spend their entire day telling creative and media, "no, that's not what the client wants." Daunting can be a good word for it.
However, the core competency of an account planner is not just a mediation between the needs of the client and the art of creative or the shrewdness of media. In fact, account planners are required to have a thorough understanding of market research such as surveys, market trends, focus groups, qualitative/quantitative analysis, etc. This is in fact why the account planner is the best person to be working directly with the client because they will be able to guide a client's decision-making with years of intensive experience in understanding the motivations, prejudices, problems and desires of specific markets the client will wish to target.
How to Be/Hire an Effective Account Planner
I love account planners, and the reason is three words: They keep clients.
Think of creative as battle hardened warrior that wants to kill everyone in his path. They will go anywhere, and kill anything because they love it. Now think of media as a diplomat that wishes to compromise with every local chief in the client's behalf, in the interest of striking long-term beneficial relationships.
Now, the warrior (creative) is a useful resource, however, they must be guided properly to the right battlefields at the right time to be effective. The same goes for the diplomat (media). There is nothing worse than a creative department working days on a billboard ad for a client, only to find the work didn't include a stupid elephant because that was the client's daughter's one wish. Can't make this stuff up.
Truly, a creative will paint the entire world with their ideas, and so they must be kept on track and within the given task to be effective.
So, the account planner must ensure they inform creative the needs of the client, as well as the needs of the target market in order to make the ad/brand/promotional concept truly be effective. This not only takes strong observational, diplomatic, pragmatic and strategic skills, but also an ability to balance needs/ego to keep the client happy while maximizing creative's ability to produce something compelling.
The great thing about account planners is they can come from all walks of life. I've seen former professional athletes conduct account planning due to their familiarity with professional athletes, and their relationship with fans.
I've even seen a homeless heroin-addicted felon brought in to tackle account planning...
for a creative department conducting marketing for a philanthropic organization looking to minimize heroin addiction in Camden County, NJ. The bottom line is books are no substitute for experience, and so the best account planners are pragmatic individuals with great communication skills who have lived the market research, not just read or observed it. Also, there is no substitute for market passion.
"One who loves it, same one knows all of it."
I just made that up, but you can take it. Good luck in your account planning.
Don't compete — DOMINATE.
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