Stephen King’s long career in advertising was based in the London offices of the J. Walter Thompson Company. He and Stanley Pollitt of the Boase Massimi Pollitt company are credited with the invention of the advertising practice of planning. In this interview, he discusses the circumstances that led to its development in London and its eventual adoption in many agencies and their offices around the world.
What exactly is planning?
It’s a way of working out a strategy for advertising and coming up with an idea of how to measure whether it’s successful or not. Planning focuses on who the advertising is aimed at and what it tries to achieve. In other words, a planner asks what sort of response the advertising tries to get from consumers and how to measure whether you’ve got that response or not. Of course, it operates within a whole marketing strategy which will equally involve the nature of the product or service, how it’s distributed, and how many variants of it there may be, and so on.1
I’ve had a lot of people say to me, when I ask about the kind of research their agency does, “We no longer do research. We do planning instead.” What does it mean to give this kind of answer? How has planning transformed the nature of research for the advertising industry?
Advertising agencies used to have research departments. Indeed, enormous amounts of consumer research actually started off in advertising agencies. Governments, I think, were perhaps the biggest users of research, but government research tended to focus on counting people, on head counting of one sort or another.
Census kinds of questions?
Yes, and it was quite late in the day that government research went into what goes on inside those people—inside their heads, what they think.
And not just where they live and how much money they make?
Government research became more psychologically oriented?
Yes, but that was quite late in the day, whereas advertising agencies were ready enough and willing to pick up external research of all sorts, from the census and elsewhere. But there’s a limit to what you can understand about advertising without getting into what’s in people’s minds—why they like things, why they don’t like things, what they might like about your brand, what they don’t like, and so on. A lot of the attitude research started off in advertising agencies. But even when agencies did have research departments, by far the greatest amount of research was done by independent, external research companies such as Gallup, Roper, and Starch.2 Then agencies tended to have research departments because they found external research unsatisfactory for two reasons. One, a lot of it was very, very superficial. Two, it was not specifically directed to one brand and one market.
What was available was just generalized research?
Some of it was generalized research like Gallup, Roper, and Starch. Some of it was specific pieces of research done by outside research companies. And some of it was done inside. Pretty soon, it became clear that it would make sense to do the market research from within an advertising agency.
By the mid-1960s, it became clear that the so-called advertising testing research—things like Schwerin and ASI—were hopelessly mechanistic and really not very useful. They purported to measure whether ad “A” was better than ad “B,” but there were considerable doubts about whether they were measuring that. In any case, even if you knew that, you still wouldn’t know what to do when you were preparing ad “C.”
So gradually, the agencies became much more reliant on small-scale qualitative research, either research with individuals or, increasingly, group discussions.3 In order to design those pieces of research properly and to build them into the planning process and to get the creative people involved, it was easier to run them from within the agency.
We had, for instance, a group discussion room...