The chaos theory of account planning: Kelly and Walt speak at VCU Brandcenter - McKinney

The chaos theory of account planning: Kelly and Walt speak at VCU Brandcenter

April 17, 2014

Head of Account Planning Walt Barron and Senior Account Planner Kelly Mertesdorf, both VCU Brandcenter alumni, spoke to students and faculty last week about how planning facilitates the chaotic process of advertising.

Walt introduced it this way: “Strategy is born of the military in which there’s a clear, linear plan of action and acquisition, but planning is a little different. In planning, you’re providing a starting idea and then guiding the chaotic process of creative development.” Yes, planners develop creative briefs with a line that combines many considerations, including singular insights on the challenge, the target audience, a brand message and the culture they live in. But the line is wide and a place for creatives to play in.

When he first graduated from VCU Brandcenter, Walt admitted thinking that he provided an answer to the client’s challenge in the creative brief, and that this answer was exactly what the creatives must work toward. “I came out of school telling creatives what they should do with my answer,” he told the students when they asked him about mistakes he’d made in the past. Kelly, on the other hand, left the Brandcenter unsure of the answers. “I was scared and didn’t want to go it alone, so I called on creatives early in the strategic process,” she said. “At the time, this felt like a mistake. I felt guilty for not having a ‘solve’ for the creatives.” Now, at McKinney, she thinks otherwise.

Planners here think of creative briefs as “starting thoughts.” In fact, the briefs are so far from answers that they may even be full of questions. “The brief is a place for creatives to explore,” explained Kelly. “The strategic thread is still there, it just doesn’t point to an answer.” This means departments don’t work in isolation — that planners are partnering with creatives on the brief and that creatives are partnering with planners during the creative process. And more collaboration can mean more chaos, but that’s a good thing.

“I don’t want to see my strategic language literally interpreted in the work,” said Kelly. “I want to see what it makes the creatives imagine. The creative work should be an iteration or an interpretation of the strategy…even an evolution of the starting thought.”

This chaos theory of account planning is perhaps a new way of talking about something agencies have been doing for years, regardless of how we say we’re doing things. Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam Head of Planning Martin Weigel was interviewed this week on Medium as part of the GapJumpers series called “Where the Puck is Going.” Of the 14 things he says he’s learned since joining W+K, mostly by unlearning, four ring especially true to Kelly and Walt as they relate to account planning.

Being useful is better than being smart. “Yes,” agreed Kelly. “It’s not about me being brilliant; it’s about illuminating something the creatives think is brilliant. You have to be a little vulnerable and that ultimately makes you a better partner.”

Chaos is good. “The creative process is unpredictable,” said Walt, “but what planners do has an impact on it.” Chaos means you begin with an input but cannot determine the output. “If you think about it, that’s what a proper brief and briefing should look like,” says Kelly. “I provide an input, but its manifestation will be something I could have never predicted or dreamed of.”

You’re better off being in a creatively led agency than a planning-led agency. “Clients don’t buy strategies,” said Walt. “They buy creative solutions and ideas.”

Process is the enemy of great. Advertising is naturally chaotic. They key is to know when to filter the chaos. Kelly explained it this way: “The strategic phase is chaotic, but you filter at the briefing. The creative phase is chaotic but you filter before a client review. That’s technically a process, but it allows for (and relies on) chaos.”
McKinney has presented to VCU Brandcenter students once a year since 2011, and, while on campus, the presenters and other McKinneyites meet one-on-one with the students to review their portfolios and discuss potential internships and employment opportunities at McKinney. Then they all go to a happy hour sponsored by the agency, because even though the account-planning process is often chaotic, the agency world it lives in is sometimes predictable.