98% Pure Potato – the back story of the book

story behind 98% Pure Potato bookI wanted to put a page on the website about the back story of our book 98% Pure Potato. There’s a Facebook page. There’s the Unbound website which includes the Pitch film which Tracey and I made to crowdfund the book. And the Shed on the site which contains a blog of posts we made during the funding process. But I don’t think we have told the story of how the book came to be so that is what I am going to do.

I had had Stephen King’s phone number for a year before he died. And when his death was announced I was furious with myself for not having made the time to contact him to talk about this role he started and called account planning. And that gave me the idea of talking to the first ever planners. Both of the founders Stephen King and Stanley Pollitt were no longer with us. So that was the next best thing. It took until the summer of 2012 when I had the time to consider starting the project. And I wasn’t sure it would be a book. I had been interviewing authors for the www.planningaboveandbeyond.com website in In their own words. so I knew how easy it would be to do. The tricky part was finding them. I started by talking to Judie Lannon who I would regularly bump into at market research events. She is the editor of Market Leader but I knew Stephen King recruited her to run JWT’s creative research department in the same year that he set up planning. So I asked Judie to tell me the names of all the first planners she could think of. And I scribbled them down as she talked. Then I asked if she had their email addresses. Which she mostly didn’t.  So then began a piece of detective work to track them down. Often they were in contact with each other but no one in and around advertising now knew where they were. Linkedin was another help.

Tracking down the interviewees for 98% Pure Potato

The J Walter Thompson strand was only half the job. The other was Boase Massimi Pollitt. I knew Paul Feldwick so in the same way asked him for names and email addresses and started the detective work. Tracey got involved because I went to a meeting with her and she told me she was moving from VCCP to JWT as chief strategy officer. A golden opportunity to collaborate with someone who would be right at the heart of J Walter Thompson. She came and did the first interview with me of Paul Feldwick. And interviewed several others with me but before long she was so busy with the new job that it was down to me to keep plugging on. About two months after that she told me she was about to become chair of the Account Planning Group.  Tracey’s role has been absolutely essential since I don’t often work as a freelancer inside ad agencies. So she provided the perspective of a head of department, what was relevant for planners today. The other reason why Tracey is so important to the project was politics. Frankly I was convinced that once the word got out, that a committee would be formed to do it properly. And then nothing would happen. In the mean time I used my interviewing skills as a researcher and my experience as a planner who had been doing the job since the late 1980s. I had actually been a planner longer than those who trained me to be a planner had been working as a planners themselves! To find and interview these people as fast as possible.

So through the autumn of 2012 and into 2013 the interviewing continued. Until we had 10 interviews from the first J Walter Thompson planners, and 1o from the first Boase Massimit Pollitt planners.  All audio recorded and most of it on HD video as well. We took an interesting diversion to talk to planners who had worked at Collett Dickinson Pearce. One of the issues in the book is whether they are a lost school of planning since CDP’s creative work is among the best in British advertising history and it turned out they had a strong grasp of  advertising strategy.  We found we had two kinds of planners across what was basically a qualitative research study of 1 hour interviews.  Those who had stayed within their agency tradition. And those who had moved around. Who had quite a different view of the agency’s planning capability. Some of them were very rude about both agencies. And the perspective we got from the true keepers of the flame and the detractors was absolutely fascinating. However unpopular the detractors might be you couldn’t ignore their experience.

98% Pure PotatoIt was very useful having Tracey at J Walter Thompson since she could get all of these interviews transcribed into hundreds of pages . But there was a problem.  The view of planning at that point was based on the published articles of Stephen King – and he had written lots. There were a few articles by Stanley Pollitt. But there had been little critical evaluation of their thinking. There was a standoff between the two agencies. There was still bad blood after a paper Stephen had given contrasting grand advertising strategists on the one hand and ad tweakers on the other which had offended the BMP planners who didn’t like being dismissed as ad tweakers although King had never actually said that.  But with Tracey on the JWT leadership team there were going to be limits about what we would be able to say.

Getting 98% Pure Potato funded

We got down to writing.  Which essentially meant that I did the first draft and Tracey when she had a spare moment offered expert and very pointed commentary to improve what I was writing.  The first draft was completed by the end of 2013. But the next two drafts were used to shape the book while we were trying to find a publisher. Unbound is a leading crowdfunding publisher which seemed a very plannery way to get the book out there.  Unbound organised a terrific promotional film which you can see on the Unbound website. On Nov 30th we started the crowdfunding. It took 6 months until the beginning of May 2015 to raise the money.  JWT made a major contribution to the book which really helped us along. And for months we just kept on plugging the idea of the book. The Account Planning Group and the Historic Advertising Trust also supported us.  Once funded we were given until the end of July to finalise the manuscript. This process had taken so long that I started to interview more people researchers, clients, creatives, agency managers. By this time every one was willing to talk to us because we had found people nobody else knew how to track down. Tracey left  J Walter Thompson that summer to go freelance. And had time to draft the chapter on where planning goes next. By this time we felt free to say what might otherwise have been too politically sensitive. And I think the book is all the better for it. We handed the manuscript in a day late. And John Bartle bless him said he would write the foreword for us.

The title was a bit of genius on Tracey’s part. Most books have dull titles because you have to say in the title what the book is about. Not if you have already got it funded! 98% Pure Potato was taken from one of the the Smash commercials as a joke which conveyed the humour which characterised British advertising.   And Smash was one of the first accounts that planners worked on. Leslie Butterfield one of our interviewees provided the photo which became our cover.  We realised that many recently published advertising books were loosely based around Mad Men and this resulted in an early  cover design that was completely inappropriate.  British advertising had effectively challenged and replaced that whole style of advertising. Even Bill Bernbach was a figure from the 1950s. But British advertising in the 1960s had become a world power. Partly because of creativity. But account planning starting in the late 1960s had made a huge contribution. And the title and cover photo says that.

Getting 98% Pure Potato into print

Tracey and John 98% Pure Potato authors photographer Bronac McNeillThe next stage took ages. I fondly thought that if you crowdfunded a book that it would be much quicker to produce but it took virtually an entire year to get the book edited proofed and in print.  We had thought the book would be out before Tracey finished her stint as chair of the APG but she stopped at the end of 2015 and still there was no date for publication. We had to push back the May launch date to June and then to July when it turned out the printer couldn’t do the job in time.  But a couple of copies arrived in time for Tracey to take to the Cannes Advertising festival  where she was serving on the Cannes Advertising Jury.  And at the start of july the book hit the bookshops. We launched it at the IPA on July 7th 4 years after starting the project.

Where are we now? Chasing reviews. Those who have read the book have been very excited about it – it isn’t a text book, nor was it intended to be a history book though there is a lot of history in it.  It moved the origins of account planning from papers which are seldom read to a living tradition of practitioners who are clever, funny, creative, persuasive and perfect to learn from.  This was a story which could have been lost for ever. Two of those we interviewed Doug Richardson and Jim Williams died before the book came out.  It is also sensitive moving from a deferential history to a living tradition where people have criticism as well as praise for what account planning has achieved. But that transition needed to happen. Some interviewees thought that planning was a failure The ads are as bad as ever they said. But others were amazed at how they had travelled all over the world training planners and seeing the function evolve as it moved across cultures.  The 50th anniversary is in 2018. I hope the book tells the story and preserves the story of these very special people who first did the job day to day.  And that is the back story behind 98% Pure Potato! And if you haven’t ordered it yet do it NOW!



Designed by Matthew Pattman