Researchers and Planners Unite

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Sadly, I won’t be able to attend — but having participated in the first Planning-ness a couple of years ago, I can confidently recommend it to brand strategists, communications planners, design thinkers — really, anyone whose role it is to think deeply about the intersection of brands, people, and communications.

The coming event reminded me of an article I penned many years ago when I was first exposed to account planning.

I was heading up marketing research at Jack In the Box and, when the company hired TBWA Chiat/Day, a couple of account planners came with the deal.  While the agency’s campaign introducing the now-infamous CEO Jack character was a resounding success, my relationship with the planners wasn’t — not at first.

I remember them questioning the accuracy of my data — and me countering with doubts about the robustness of their research methodologies. In many ways I think we got caught up in trying to prove who was smarter instead of focusing on how we could work together and leverage our respective strengths and perspectives.

Thankfully we finally worked out the kinks and I ended up writing an article for a market research trade journal about how we overcame our differences. I decided to dust the article off and share it here, because in my current role I have the opportunity to observe a lot of client:agency relationships and clearly some work better than others. In many cases there’s still a great divide between researchers and planners and so I hope this article will be helpful.

Here is the article as I originally wrote it:

Ad agency folks — you can’t live with ‘em and you can’t live with out ‘em.

Have you found yourself muttering this phrase under your breath on more than one occasion? We, as market researchers, find it difficult to work with advertising agency people — we’re analytical, they’re creative; we’re concerned with reality, they deal in perception; we think we have the right answers, so do they.

While it may seem that researchers and ad people are oriented as far apart as 1 and 10 on a 10-point scale, we are called to work together on a regular basis and so we must find a way to peacefully coexist. In fact, coexisting is not enough — mutually productive relationships are the only way our two groups can maximize our contribution to our clients. I’d like to tell you about how the marketing research department at Jack In the Box and our agency’s planners are doing just that.

Consider the change we’ve undergone. Last year at this time, our company had just signed on one of the hottest ad agencies in the business, top management was enamored with the agency’s new perspective, and sales were starting to climb only a few weeks into the new ad campaign. There was only one glitch — the marketing research department was in a non-stop battle with the account planners from the agency. It had gotten so bad that meetings were held to hash out the issues. Finger-pointing was on everyone’s meeting agenda.

Fast-forward to the present. The two groups are working hand-in-hand on many projects, making joint recommendations, bouncing ideas off each other, and most importantly, truly enjoying the opportunity to work together.

What has changed? Actually, a lot — but I think the most important changes are the many attitude adjustments that we marketing researchers made. Here are just three of them:

We had to recognize the agency reps as business partners, not adversaries.

That meant involving them in all aspects of our work — research design, priority planning, budget management. I even included one agency planner on the screening team for a research position that I had to fill. Viewing them as partners not only set the stage for open communication, it conveyed a level of trust that they were eager to reciprocate.

We had to remember that both parties have the best interests of the company in mind.

Our department exists for the sole purpose of benefiting the company. So do they. Once we bought into this basic principle, it was easier for us to deal with the times when it seemed like they were just out to make the marketing research department look bad. We stopped expecting them to agree with us, and started expecting them to do what they felt would benefit the company.

We had to admit that there was a lot we could learn from them.

They could stretch our thinking to a more conceptual level, they could show us how to make more compelling presentations, they could teach us how to manage corporate politics. All we had to do was be open to learning from them. Our candor in asking for help was met with respect and responsiveness. It also opened the door to us teaching them a thing or two.

Changing our attitudes was the most important step we took in establishing a productive, enjoyable working relationship with our agency. Even as I write this article, I am working with an agency planner on a joint recommendation for a strategic research project. We have formulated the research objectives, searched for a supplier and spent many hours developing the plan for selling this idea to top management — and we’ve done all of this together. Not because we were forced to, but because we wanted to.

Don’t get me wrong. We still disagree on a lot of issues. But at least now, we can agree to disagree. And now and then, we even make jokes about each other’s discipline . . . how many agency execs does it take to change a light bulb???

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