Great Agencies: How Does Account Planning “Fit” in Smaller and Midsize Agencies?

Account planning as a marketing planning discipline arrived in the USA over 35 years ago, but still has not been widely adopted amongst small and midsized agencies. If you haven’t figured out where it fits into your agency structure, who should do it, how to sell it, and how to find planners—don’t worry. We may be going out on a limb here, but from our vantage point, we know of only a few stateside agencies that are doing account planning well.

Sure, there are exceptions: US agencies like Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Wieden + Kennedy and Fallon have ingrained account planning into their agency processes. Their people work with the expectation that everyone is a strategic thinker and an idea producer, and their clients understand that they’re buying a team structure that encourages a deeper level of strategy than most ad agencies promise. But in addition to structuring their businesses to embrace account planning, these and some other great agencies throughout history display certain qualities that pave the way for virtually any type of sea change in these organizations.

So what do these three great agencies share?

  • They think BIG.
  • They use their naiveté to their advantage.
  • They have an “ideas democracy.”

Let’s dissect these elements to see what valuable lessons you can take away to apply at your own agency.

BIG Thinking

Crispin Porter + Bogusky refuses to accept a new piece of business unless the client allows full access to all their business operations. This means that if the agency comes up with a great idea for operations—say, a new way for the call center folks to answer the phone—they require their idea to be considered by management. By making this a term of their contract, they’ve expanded their permissions as an agency and expanded typical agency-client parameters from the beginning. It’s a deal-breaker if the client doesn’t allow full access.

Imagine how empowered their people feel in brainstorming meetings, never having to hear the words “that’s not our area—the client will never buy that.” Maybe the client won’t buy it, but the stage is set and the expectation is that the agency will bring new ideas of all manner into the relationship.

Imagine the clients’ surprise when the agency brings ten new ideas in areas outside of advertising and marketing to the table. The advantages for clients? They’ve just expanded their workforce by the number of people the agency assigns to the account. Instead of adding just to their advertising and marketing team, they’ve added to their operations staff, PR team, events group, and research and development arm. What a bargain for all! The agency feels empowered by free-range thinking, and the client nets a think-tank whose job it is to produce ideas. That is a win-win for everyone.


Being naïve can be a wonderful thing when you use it to generate idealistic thoughts that lead to new ideas. For instance, Carmichael Lynch teams are encouraged to play the “yes, and” game. Rather than responding to untested ideas with “we can’t do that because…”, folks are encouraged to build upon those ideas. “Yes, and” can net some powerful thought directions. Behind every ludicrous idea is, in fact, a seed of an amazingly simple, powerful concept just waiting to be developed.

Another advantage of naiveté is the old “do it first, ask permission later” rule. We need to step back and remind ourselves that we’re in advertising. We’re not saving lives; what we do is not brain surgery; and our work isn’t going to cure cancer. We’re sales people: schlocky slingers of products and services. Our jobs are important, and on the best days we can claim to contribute to the global economy, but the plain truth is that practically nothing we do is going to jeopardize lives. So, our rule of thumb is to have a good time and use our power wisely to contribute as much intellectual stimulation and creativity to the media landscape as we can.

Now, having said that: experiment. Go out on a limb. Don’t pretend to know it all: what consumers want, what they need, what’s best for the product. We experiment and test to find these answers. And experimentation involves—demands—a certain amount of naiveté to try new things and see where they go.

An “Ideas Democracy”

We have heard a lot about the ideas democracy for what seems like forever. The essence is just this: Good ideas can come from anywhere. But is it really practiced in your agency? Maybe you have a suggestion box, or the president sits in the lunchroom and touts his open door policy… but do you really do all you can to not only accept ideas when they come, but draw them out across your agency?

The best way to ensure that happens is to set expectations with every new employee that walks in the door, that before they go home each and every night, they should be able to show, as one brilliant mentor of mine calls it, “work product.” Work product includes journals, photographs, video/audio, whitepapers, opinion statements, blogs, etc.—you get the idea.  Encourage employees to be active observers of the world around them and to pay attention to not just what’s relevant to current client business, but other industries as well.

We believe that good planners pay attention to everything around them because it all influences culture, and the best advertising works hand-in-hand with cultural trends. Recording ideas keeps your brain in shape. It allows you to practice making connections between things, and this is an absolutely necessary skill in concepting and brainstorming.

The very best companies are a collective of diverse personalities who share an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and an unsettling feeling that there’s more to know. These are true knowledge cultures.

Is your agency one of them?