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Confessions of an Account Planner: Vol 1.

Electric Glue’s Nick Kendall kicks off the first in the #Gluing it Back Together series with a confession...

I have worked 38 years in advertising, 33 years as a planner, 28 years at BBH and the last three years as founder of Electric Glue - a different kind of media agency.

I have worked on Levi’s as a young, Converse wearing junior planner. I have worked on big ‘stock market sensitive’ global accounts. I have been a junior sorting out the stimulus for groups late at night. I have lead a brilliant global planning community (also late at night!) I mastered pre-testing and econometric models and sometimes mastered a difficult creative or client tantrum.

I have learned many, many things about what it takes to do great advertising over those years, both tangible and intangible.

But I have a confession – the confession of an account planner, let’s call it.

Over all that time, all those roles and all those experiences, I don’t think I have ever really got to grips with 'media'.

Sitting now from the media side of our business, I realise I have spent my thirty years ‘looking through the glass, darkly’.

Which is strange - very, very strange.

After all, I know media is 90% of the client’s precious budget. So if I am serious about effectiveness, and I am, obviously it is a key part of the equation.

Also I have always ‘intellectually’ recognised media’s importance in powering the ideas I have been involved in.

More tangibly, I have sat opposite (either literally or metaphorically) my wonderful partner in ‘strategy crime’ – Kevin Brown – for most of our time at BBH.

But despite this, I repeat, with some shame, I now realise “I have never really got to grips with media”.

My Grip has loosened, not tightened

In fact, I think my grip loosened if anything, over that time.

Now there are lots of things I could blame for that lack of clarity.

First, it is clear to us all that most of the forces in our own industry have helped dislocate creative thinking from media thinking, creative ideas from media ideas, creative effect from media effect.

For me personally, that’s mainly due to my trajectory into global planning, which inevitably pulled me away from both audience and consumer as a start point, and engagement as an end point.

In fact, I remember our first pieces of Keep Walking copy were literally sent in the post – to be deployed I know not how!!

Later in my global planning career, we learned to at least do some workshops - trying to help countries think how best to deploy creative ideas. And later still, we became brave enough to ask to see actual plans!!!! (Though after deployment rather than before - I remember our surprise to see our global launch of ‘Dirt is Good’ in France appearing at 2am in the morning!)

So, my grip got better. But on global I have learned mostly about the idiocy of shutting doors etc after the media horse has ‘bolted.’

The Forces Against Me

Of course, other reasons have also compounded the split.

The structural separation of creative agencies and media agencies being the most obvious.

I watched with sadness as media got bored with the arrogance of creative and rallied, quite rightly, against their diminished and restricted role in developing solutions for clients (last 15 minutes in the pitch role, literally and metaphorically.) Rightly, they chose to stand strong on their own two feet.

But then I have watched with equal sadness as media arrogance replaced creative arrogance and ideas became relegated to the tyranny of ‘the media plan says no’.

Also, along those years there have been other fundamental dislocations, not just in our business models but most fundamentally in our mental models - e.g. the separation of brand and activation, the separation of long and short, the confusion between effectiveness and efficiency.

All have too often become, ‘either/or’ vs ‘and’.

And of course, finally, the complete separation of the ‘digital’ world from the rest of our old world (both creative and media) has heaped fuel to the fire of total fragmentation of our world, our advise and our ideas.

Jeremy Bullmore once warned, in the foreword to the 50th anniversary of the D&AD book, that the rise of specialism (a good, good thing) was inevitably creating the rise of the fragmentation of ‘advertising’ itself (a bad, bad thing).

And surely that is the single biggest challenge facing us all in the 21st marketing century - the challenge of smart re-integration. I do not meet a client that does not complain and stress about the difficulties of trying to hold together too many agencies with too many agendas and too many POVs.

So who is to blame? Me, of course!

So, there are many, many trends beyond my control I could ‘blame’ for my lack of ‘media grip’.

I could also start blaming media itself of course - the complexity of language, the obfuscation of measurement, the opacity of buying, its lack of concern for the creative idea. Many people do. I could easily join in.

But I will not.

Rather, like any good confession, I would prefer to think about my own guilt and blame my lack of grip on my own unconscious bias.

An unconscious bias to think of media at the end vs the beginning, as plumbing rather than a central part of idea development, as not worth my true time and effort to inspire and support, to think of it only as cost vs investment. In short, to think of it as someone else’s gig, not mine! To think of it as separate from what I do for my living.

Which, again, reflecting honestly with myself, is truly weird. Because some of the best work in my book – the print campaign for Boddingtons early in my career – came from doing the exact opposite.

It was Kevin Brown, my partner now and my partner then, who suggested to the team that cigarette advertisers were disappearing from the media landscape, leaving magazine outside back covers free to act as ‘posters in print’ and ‘did we think that would be interesting?’

‘Well, yes please’.

At a stroke, he shifted the creative teams ‘optics’ to thinking Silk Cut vs John Smiths! The ‘Cream of Manchester’ flowed soon after. A glorious brand idea was born out of media thinking. Media idea created creative idea as much, maybe more even, than the strategy.

It might seem strange to compare Boddingtons to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. But, if the account planner briefed the painter to create something ‘to inspire men to the great glory of God’ it was the media guy who suggested use ‘the ceiling’; suggested, in effect, that the way to inspire people was to invite them to literally raise their eyes to the heavens. The engagement created the effect, media thinking created the canvas on which to paint.

So I learned the power of media to power ideas very early in my career as I say.

But still I would confess ‘I think I never really got to grips with it’.

What can I do about it now?

Why has this lack of grip, this unconscious bias, come to trouble me after 30 odd years? More importantly, what am I going to do about it now?

Three years ago, in starting Electric Glue with Kevin Brown and with Simon Orpin, I stepped out of my brand strategy comfort zone and into the land and topography, the maps and tools, the mindset and shoes of the media world.

As a result, I am having to ‘get to grips’ with media in a way I have never quite had to before.

And I am finding it fascinating!

It is a steep learning curve.

How does a ‘brand property’ man think ‘branded media property’?

How does a ‘brand idea’ man help inspire a ‘media idea’?

How does a ‘brand personality’ man translate that into ‘engagement behaviour’?

How does a ‘creative strategy’ help make media strategy?

Most of all how does a mind that’s used to seeing itself as the centre of the process recognise that it is not? It is simply not.

In short, how does an old brand dog learn new tricks?

So rather than writing another piece complaining about and blaming media ‘not getting brands’ or ‘not caring about ideas‘, I am going to write about how I can help make us better (and hopefully our clients happier).

How can I personally help solve the media/creative divide?

This is what I want to write about and share going forward. Not looking back but looking forward. Not pontificating about what I have learned per se, but trying to work out how I can take everything I have learned to learn new things again.

So, if that interests you please let me know. If you have ideas about how to make us work smarter and better together please pass them on to me. If you like or don’t like what I say, please comment.

I intend to write a piece once a month, touching on the areas I mention above and about how I am learning finally ‘to get to grips with media’.

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