Taking stock of planning15 years on – David Cowan

David Cowan BMP head of planning

This one’s a corker. Honestly. I get these papers out of the box, dust them down and put them on the scanner and reread them while I am scanning. So I never sure exactly what is coming up. This paper is really important. You have to read it. The author David Cowan was speaking at the head of planning at BMP 15 years after that agency opened as the first with a planning department from day 1. So David is well qualified to comment on how planning has evolved at that agency which has had such an influence on account planning.  There’s more. David was one of the first two planners EVER at an agency called Pritchard Wood where he was recruited as a graduate trainee by Stanley Pollitt into an experiment called the Market Planning Department. By the time this paper was written David has been a planner at J Walter Thompson the other great planning agency from the inception of its own planning department. And then when Boase Massimi Pollitt had enough clients and billings to hire him he moved to be Head of Planning a role he would have been doing for 10 years. So David knows what planning is and how to do it.    As if all of that weren’t enough it’s a really good paper. As I am about to explain.  Please read the paper – reading a commentary or review isn’t at all the same things. David’s thinks and expresses himself so much sharply than I do.  You’re in for a treat.  This paper as far as I know has never been put in the public domain like this. You owe it to yourself to read it if you’re a planner or strategist.

So here’s the paper:  Philosophies or Functions David Cowan Nov 1983 Have a read. Now let’s get started.

A bit of ground clearing at the start. I hope you made it through. David is a detail man – that’s why he is so particular about getting facts and numbers right.

The central points are that planners have to articulate the consumer voice in a particular way  and focus on outcomes (rather than inputs)

What is great about this paper is that it sets out what is distinctive about account planning – when clients, account handlers, creatives and in particular market researchers all quite legitimately can claim that they DO make decisions with the consumer in mind. So what is the point of being the planner with so much competition?

Planning is not a system – no really says David Cowan

Cowan makes the seminal point that planning is not a philosophy – dogmatism does not belong in planning. That’s the problem with the DAGMAR system (which I can never hear without thinking of Dagobar and the first Star Wars system!) Or the Unique Selling Proposition.  The planner has to set the objective for the marketing communications activity with an open mind, work out how the advertising will work IN EACH CASE and will collect the evidence which supports or refutes the hypothesis. This approach leads to a much broader remit for advertising without which a particular planning philosophy might be great for selling soap powder but not ISAs.

What differentiates planners from everyone else is that planning is empirical and consumer based – where the creative is intuitive. The account man is managing the overall relationship of the agency with the client.  Even the client has an agenda which is not entirely consumer driven.

Cowan spends a fair part of the paper despatching market research. Which is of course, consumer based.  His two examples are individual and one could argue that the argument is ad hominem – ie not all research is like this – though I agree with Cowan that an awful lot of it is.  And market research is trying to be systematic whereas the planning approach is problem solving following a trail to eliminate – in one example given barriers to purchase.  Perhaps Cowan is demonising research but a lot of research does try to answer everybody’s questions rather than barreling down to answer the specific issues that are preventing people from buying more or responding to advertising.  It is clear that the BMP approach is to use the planner as an advertising specialist. All of the questions relate to how the advertising solves issues which will encourage people to buy more and consume more. The planner isn’t just interested in ads. But the planner is not distracted by general marketing issues.  Even though most planners are more than capable of making a substantial contribution to these.

He then goes on to talk about the particular mindset of how the planner looks at the customer. Partly this echoes the Delaney Wright paper we looked at last week where the planner doesn’t represent the consumer so much as to investigate the consumer.  But he distinguishes between the strategy, the creative idea, and the particular execution.  In development research, you have to make a distinction.  Because you can kill an ad when the execution is a problem and a tweak would have fixed it. Or another execution would have worked. You can have a great creative idea but it won’t be commercially effective because the strategy is wrong.  The BMP approach was brilliant in training planners to make these distinctions and to craft effective advertising rapidly and sensitively. (Though there was still a lot of mercy killing and the creatives understandably, were pretty sore about it.)

Planners should focus on outcomes not inputs

The last part of the paper is about the role of the planner in affecting outcomes. And here Cowan draws back to talk about the culture of the agency. If the creatives have done a lovely piece of work and the  account director can sell the work the planner needs protection if they warn that the ad will not have the outcome they expect. The client may buy the work but it won’t do the job. If the agency culture isn’t supportive of planning the planner gets pushed out into the cold for being a spoilsport’.

And here Cowan focusses on a BMP distinctive that there were as many planners as account people. The justication is that if the planner actually has the same workload as the account manager then you need as many. If you shift that ratio then planning becomes a scarce resource and the agency team route around planners because they can’t wait or actively scheme to exclude them because their contribution may change the pace of development.  So Cowan concludes pleading for senior management to back planners up and give them real power. And to remain committted to the function which is less a particular job but actually an entirely different way for the agency to work as a team.  A remarkable paper I think you will agree. Even if it is a little hard to imagine how the current ratios of planners to suits and the number of accounts planners work on these days relates to the time Cowan was writing when clients paid for that level of intense focus inside the agency on their business.  How does this relate to planning today? Well I would vote for the singleminded focus on communications. Yes and also the focus on the customer. If you don’t know what real people ard doing with communications and I really don’t mean what they are clicking on. Then actually you don’t know anything. And the agency that does find ways of understanding customers will always have an advantage over those who don’t make time at all. Or those who do it in a regimented manner which gives little or no insight.


David Cowan at homecover of the bookYou may have glimpsed that I am bringing other information to bear. Do I know David Cowan personally? Well, I have met him on several occasions and interviewed him for the book 98% Pure Potato. So if you want a deep dive into David’s thinking which so much set the scene in the 1970s at Boase Massimi Pollitt then this book really ought to be your first port of call even if I am biassed in that I wrote it with Tracey Follows.  This is a picture of him I took at his house on Dartmoor when I talked to him. He is still using planning thinking to pick shares and growing companies.  Here’s the Amazon Link for buying your copy of 98% Pure Potato.


Dunno which paper I am going to pick out of the box next. I have worked through the APG 1983 conference papers so will have to see what comes out next. If they’re half as good as what I have already taken and scanned in I have nothing to worry about. I’m not worried!

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