Account Planning: Prophet, Prostitute or Pragmatist – Bert de Vos chairman of Masius

The Thoughts of Chairman Bert: Account Planner Prophet, Prostitute or Pragmatist?

chairman maoAnd now for something completely different. This paper was given to the Account Planning Group in September 1983 by Bert de Vos Chairman of Masius. And what an extraordinary document it is. This is a polemic against account planning as the new kid on the block. Given to a roomful of planners.  Bert has got issues with planning. And a bit of background may be necessary to explain his bile.  I was just starting in the advertising business at the time and Masius was a byword for lack of creativity. It was a strong media agency but had a reputation for doing whatever a (US) client demanded. So when someone wanted to put a piece of creative down they called it a Masius ad. de Vos was facing a roomful of people who didn’t rate his agency.  The second giveaway is on the title to the paper. Not only is he chairman of an ad agency but he is a former chair of the Market Research Society.  He’s a career researcher too who regards planners as jumped up interlopers lacking the craft skills necessary to use research to develop advertising. the paper  title which alludes to Chairman Mao and the pejoratives as he uses them of prophet prostitute or pragmatist is the final clue that this is the opportunity de Vos has been looking for to lay down a few home truths in front of the planners of the day.  Its not every day you get to hear a dinosaur roar.  This is one in full flow.

So here’s the paper for you to read: Thoughts of Chairman Bert de Vos Planner Prophet Prostitute Pragmatist

You can learn a lot from your critics.  De Vos may be a fossil but he makes some valid points.

Planning at this stage has spread from J Walter Thompson and Boase Massimi Pollitt into lots of other advertising agencies large and small. There aren’t enough planners to go round.  So competence is an issue and so is training.  But that doesn’t hold back de Vos who classifies planners as 3 types -1) those trained on the job. This of course includes the planners from the founding agencies J Walter  Thompson and Boase Massimi Pollitt. Apparently a few have moved across from BMP tp Masius and de Vos doesn’t rate their contribution. Doesn’t work in an agency of Masius size. What de Vos isn’t prepared to concede is that Masius own culture might be to blame for trained planners not to excel there but he moves on. 2) the atheists turned Jesuits who are charlatans because lacking any training they hide behind mystique and have no contribution to make. This would of course have antagonised everyone else in the room who hadn’t been trained as a planner.  3) are the atheists – and this is where De Vos puts himself and his research department  because they have moved on from the folly and piety of account planning to delivering what planning is designed to deliver without the nonsense that goes with it.

Atheism that sees beyond the pieties of self-regarding planning

DMB&BThere follows a page or so of mockery about the jargon of planning and how inward looking and self referential it all is.  Concluding that a planner “is a politicised and clever kind of researcher relaunched at a premium price”.   The cleverness of planners irks him – planners are too clever for their own good. Cunning would be more useful.  But all this means is that planners are forced to spend their intellectual energies justifying their role instead of improving the advertising. (actually in 98% Pure Potato Adam Lury the founder of HHCL makes a similar point!) . Planner’s cleverness and overinflated salaries come before a fall.  Margins are being squeezed  and planners will be the first to go.

Planners as Prophets or should that be Provocateurs?

Then de Vos works through the 3 roles he sees account planning fulfilling. Prophets (who are without honour in their own countries) There is no point being right if no one likes you or will work with you. So he warns against visionaries concluding that even being a provocateur isn’t a clever thing to be in the bearpit of an advertising agency. Getting the right answer is better done by a team not a smart alec intellectual.

dinosaur roaringPlanners as prostitutes cosying up to the creatives

He moves onto prostitution. By the way the language of the paper consistently assumes that planners are men. But de Vos is happy to offend just about everyone. Here he turns his guns on the Boase Massimi Polliitt school of planning with what he regards as an incestuous relationship between planners and creatives, the planners buttering up and protecting creatives. Again this isn’t what it was like at Boase Massimi Pollitt at all. But de Vos is clearly irked by the access that planners have to work alongside creatives and not wait obediently in their research department to be summoned. But again de Vos has a point. If all the planners are doing is hanging out with creative and providing rationalisations for creative work that isn’t very good then the relationship between the two is parasitic and corrupt.

Planners as pragmatists – what any experienced ad person does anyway

We move onto the 3rd category that of pragmatists which he approves – but regards the pragmatism of experience to be professionalism which all experienced advertising professionals should have. When he articulates the skill set that planners need to have he speaks as if no individual can possibly possess all of these. Which is why ‘planning’ needs to be team based not delivered by an individual.  What he misses is that planners come in many shapes and sizes and their job is to complement and extend the competence of the rest of the team. But clearly he is not convinced by this job description – it is too big a job title so planners are fakes. Caught between the devil of overclaim and the deep blue sea of generalism planners are doomed to fail.  Again I would agree with de Vos that planners ought to be pragmatic but fail to understand why they are unable to do this. Or that if they are a little too blue sky they can be pulled back to earth by the rest of the team.

darcy died 2002But it’s a useful checklist – which is a reminder that the planner has to get on with others in the team. Its not just addressing a marketing issue or representing the consumer point of view.

So whatever happened to Masius the agency which had planning according to de Vos but actually it was fielding a research department as a proxy? Well it did eventually put in a planning department. Led by Sally Ford Hutchinson. The department actually did pretty well – I remember it won several APG creative planning awards in its time.  But the dinosaur underneath had not really changed its spots and ran out of time and clients. The network was bought by Publicis and closed down in 2002 though to be fair that was 20 years on.


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