Pioneers in planning – and in meeting customers face-to-face

John Griffiths explains the concept behind 98% Pure Potato a book about the beginnings of account planning

In a new book which is still being crowdfunded, John Griffiths and Tracey Follows have gone back to interview the pioneers of account planning, an elite of clever strategists who used research to make advertising that produced a customer response.

Today, every type of communications agency around the world employs strategists but the original movement can be traced back to two individuals Stanley Pollitt and Stephen King and London in the middle of the swinging sixties. As account planning has grown in influence, it has along the way developed thinking about brands and brand value, marketing evaluation. And of course research. We have spoken to the pioneers of the qualitative research industry in the UK.

The focus group has become such a familiar part of the marketing, product development and even political process it is hard to imagine what a radical idea it was to take a concept from psychotherapy and adapt it to develop advertising and grocery products. And to persuade marketing people to pay for it. All the more radical since motivational research after Vance Packard’s bestselling expose The Hidden Persuaders had been regarded with grave suspicion and consumer groups were vigilant for any signs that ad agencies were making subliminal advertising. So when I asked Judie Lannon recruited by Stephen King in 1968 to start a qualitative research department in J Walter Thompson she looked at me, shuddered expressively and said ‘There was no way we would ever have called it the motivational research department’. Six months later, Stephen King launched the planning department. And Judie found herself running weekly focus groups for the planners.

A little over a mile away Stanley Pollitt had started up a new agency called Boase Massimi Pollitt. At his last agency Pritchard Wood, he had been experimenting with what he called a market planning department. A young researcher called Creenagh Lodge, who worked there, came up with the idea of transferring rough sketches for TV commercial ideas and adding them as a series of still images to videotape along with a voice over recorded on a portable tape recorder. The rough ad was played to a single respondent in a depth interview who was encouraged to talk about their impressions of the idea. Stanley Pollitt took his market planning department with him to his new agency. And also the idea of showing people rough commercials. It took far too long to show a series of individuals the ads so instead they showed them to 8 people at a time that had to be real customers who used the product and had never been researched before. They even employed their own field team to find these people. The planners ran the groups and the client was expected to pay for them and was never allowed to come to only one group in case it biased their perspective. The planners were   mostly men to begin with – you needed muscles to carry a video recorder plus an art bag on and off the train. Or out of your Ferrari – as one planner told us – speeding to his groups at 140mph!

BMP had to remake a commercial from scratch for their only client Cadburys at the time. It could have finished off the agency. So they set themselves a simple rule: that they would never allow an ad to be made which had not been shown to at least 2 focus groups. And they would take it back into research for a second, third or fourth time. Until the ad was right. And that is how BMP became known as the agency that qualitatively researched its work. Running up to 3000 groups a year – a medium sized research agency in its own right. We spoke to Roddy Glenn who led the research function – there were 3 full-time researchers employed besides the planners running groups.

Across in J Walter Thompson no self-respecting planner would research their own groups – how could that be seen to be objective? But using Judie Lannon’s department and other research agencies they researched products and critically looked to see how the advertising agency was creating long-term brand value. Boase Massimi Pollitt was a start-up. J Walter Thompson looked and behaved like the market leader and provided its clients with the evidence that advertising with them created a long-term and sustained brand value.

What we have learned from these early planners is not only how research literate they were – several went on to found research agencies of their own, but how numerically literate all of them were whether they were doing their own groups or not. To counter some of the mechanical methodologies coming over from the USA at the time, they had to be capable of explaining how a particular advertisement was working. That meant showing the impact in sales data. IPA effectiveness awards emerged naturally from this environment as planners showed clients how their spend had translated into sales and brand value. Researchers today are used to talking about the qual-quant divide. The distinction in these early days was rather different. Planners used qualitative research because it gave them insights that quantitative research simply couldn’t provide. So quantitative research served as a foundation. But qualitative research became the superstructure. They all used it. And the demand for qualitative research became huge.

When Wendy Gordon started the Research Business, Mary Goodyear wrote a paper for the national research conference accusing her of “industrialising qualitative research”! What had been a cottage industry moved into the mainstream. Within a generation, politicians were using focus groups to gauge public opinion. Many years later, Roddy Glenn was a volunteer researcher for the election that swept Tony Blair to power!

98% Pure Potato isn’t a book about research but it is full of references to how research ought to be run and how research can transform the fortunes of a business. James Best, one of our interviewees who is now the chairman of the Code of Advertising Practice commented that groups allowed clients to meet their customers and listen to them often for the very first time. Research had never let them to do this before. And this new understanding galvanised marketing departments. To develop products and to make advertising that was far more consumer-centric – talking on the level with customers instead of talking down to them. The heart of account planning thinking is the idea that the only advertising worth making is that which gets a reaction from customers – which probably won’t be a purchase, but empathy with the brand or a belief in product efficacy. The only way to make advertising that can do this is to go and talk to your customers. Today’s digital analysts watching millions of ‘conversations’ via webscraping and webclicks are far more removed from the world of how people really live than planners and researchers a generation ago. We can research faster and cheaper but despite mobile tracking, research communities and a real time research we are operating from a distance – a distance that most don’t really perceive. These pioneer planners were expert in understanding customers – they personally interviewed thousands of people a year face-to-face. Then went back and talked to the creative teams about what to do differently and better. But they also thought deeply about how advertising worked so they watched how people consumed communications. The value of the book is reminding us that advertising is not easy to do well. And that intellect and creativity are required in equal measure. Along with empathy the ability to understand the customer perspectives and to be able to effectively communicate that to the rest of the marketing and agency team.

John Griffiths is co-author to 98% Pure Potato. He works in communications and marketing as a strategist, researchers, facilitator trainer.