Paper 16 Planning at BMP:  David Cowan Planning Director

First published in Admap collection April 1981- previously unpublished 

And so we come to the end of the IPA collection of Planning Papers in 1981. With a response from David Cowan which is unyielding. He is the planning director of what was then one of the most successful and fastest growing creative agencies. And he claims that it is account planning which assures the focus on what makes BMP distinctive – intellect and creativity.  It is a short (3 pages) and interesting paper because as far as I know no other agency applied account planning to the level that BMP did. But arguably very few agencies have known the level of success that Boase Massimi Pollitt had in its heyday.  So at the time this paper was written more and more agencies were putting in planning departments but none to the rigour that BMP argued was the only way to use account planning. So here is the high priest of BMP planning telling the world how it should be done properly. And there is nothing conciliatory about his approach. First here’s the paper so you can read it for yourselves.Planning at BMP David Cowan

As many planners as account handlers

OK first piece of heresy – there should be as many planners as account handlers. What? No really and Cowan explains why.  Because all the decisions are taken in meetings. so if your people are spending all their time in meetings taking decisions, they will be profoundly uninformed decisions. And if they do the spade work so they know what the advertising needs to do. They won’t be in the meetings to influence the decisions. So have lots of planners.  A research department can’t do the job either because they are too thinly stretched across too many accounts. And they aren’t in the key meetings so the decisions get made without them.

Cowan then goes onto the issue of pretesting – every ad at Boase Massimil Pollitt was being pretested as they described it before it was placed in the media.  And the way he describes how pretesting takes place makes it obvious that what the planner is doing is less testing or researching and idea as continuing to develop it with real people. ‘to explore seemingly subtle nuances of meaning .. the difference between evoking a strong customer response or between the advertising working or not.’  In other words the advertising needs to be developed with real people, customers of the brand. This is what gives BMPs’s work an edge. When other agencies merely measure what people think of their ads.  This does require the account planner to have advertising skills. and to be continually honing them by running hundreds of the kinds of research groups for which BMP became famous.

He concludes by talking about relevant and distinctive.  Planning ensures by pretesting the work that it is relevant. When other agencies only researched their work to make sure it passed a benchmark or to check that there was nothing wrong with it.  However BMP wanted their work to be distinctive – to stand out from other advertising which was so overresearched that it became generic. An agency like Collett Dickinson Pearce would develop advertising that was distinctive.  But refused to research it because they claimed that research would blunt its distinctiveness.  As a result they produced some amazing advertising but sometimes at the cost of relevance. BMP wants to be distinctive AND relevant.

Agencies run by more than suits

Cowan’s last point is the balance of agency management between the various roles. At Pritchard Wood where he started his career, apart from the creative director all the board directors were account men. Barons who managed their clients. By contrast, only half of BMP’s board at the time were account handlers. There was a much better balancing of skills. The baronial era was over.   It is interesting to reflect on why this pure view of account planning wasn’t tried more often. Probably because BMP was a startup which had planning baked in. But downstream many startups in the 1980s and 90s had a planner whose name went over the door.  But they never pretested all the ads. Nor did they aim for a one on one ration between planners and account man. I suspect it was pragmatism. Planners could provide a solution without needing hordes of the. So they were deployed in moderation.

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