Last week, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) held its annual account planning conference in San Diego. Account planners, for the uninitiated few, are a rare breed within the walls of most traditional ad agencies, and many interactive ones as well. Their role is to understand the consumer and be able to articulate what in particular motivates a particular person to buy a certain brand. It's an extremely tricky business, in that it requires an even mix of empathy and salesmanship.
Account planning hit the scene in a big way in the '90s, thanks to a book called "Truth, Lies and Advertising," which really laid out the profession. Its roots are in England, but it's clearly taken a foothold here in the U.S.
By and large, account planning work has been a bit mystical. Planners seek critical insights into human behavior, favoring the tools and tactics of psychologists, ethnographers, even authors and poets. They're ultimately students of human behavior and seek real contact with consumers as often as possible. Planners host focus groups, but they also follow people around the mall as they shop, watch busy dads (attempt to) make dinner, and watch moms drop kids off at soccer practice in the minivan. They want to see, hear, talk to, and touch consumers.
So what on earth was Google doing at their annual gathering?
Search as a Leading Indicator
A good planner can make a world of difference in an advertising campaign. The creative team could potentially do a million different things to sell a product. The planner's job is to help them find the right thing. If nothing else, planners demonstrate their value by telling the team to not do something that won't work because it doesn't align with what the consumer wants.
Google's pitch to this audience, evidently, was that search patterns can be leading indicators of a consumer's intentions. As such, it's data that telegraphs a person's intentions. Additionally, a series of search terms might reveal a hidden connection between two seemingly unrelated topics.
Let's look at each of those two contentions. The first is clearly true. Imagine if you knew absolutely nothing about Apple's iPhone and simply wanted to see the search volume for this random branded search term. Google's trend data show there were absolutely no searches for "iPhone" until early 2007. Searches dropped like a rock after that, but shot back up during the summer.
The conclusion you'd make is there were two distinct events (the launch and the release) that drove interest in that particular brand. That's worthwhile, but not necessarily helpful. Doing a trend search is a good way to see where your brand is in relation to your competitors, but -- again -- planning is concerned with understanding why something may be rising or falling.
This is actually where the second point comes into play. If someone (really, a number of someones who are statistically significant) is searching for the same series of keywords, it may reveal something about a person's desires for a product. Consider if a number of people, during the same search session, searched for both "cruises" and "dress clothes." These two data points are actually revealing of how people think about cruises: they imagine dining with Captain Stubing and want to show up in a brand new suit. They imagine cruises as a special time during which they need to look their best.
That's the kind of insight that could frame a campaign; it's a small peek into a person's character. It may be something they're not consciously aware of, but it's clearly part of their buying decision.
Next-Generation Planning Will Be Data-Driven
Clearly, the next hero of the ad industry will be a nerd. He or she will come to the agency with a burning desire to understand consumers and what motivates them to buy something. But they won't rely solely on social scientists' tools. Instead, they'll have the ability to find patterns inside datasets that reveal behaviors that emerged when consumers are allowed to roam free in a commercial space.
The challenge is both getting access to that data and blending it together into something meaningful. There are tons of places that will tell you the most popular keywords, but none will tell you the order in which they were searched, and by whom.
Plus, if you have keyword data as well as focus group findings, you must integrate both into something that's somewhat meaningful. That, ultimately, will be the role the planner will move into. The planner of the next agency wave will certainly exist to understand the consumer, but he'll also have a view into media campaigns and site traffic.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
March 19, 2014