Ashwini Gangal

The New Age Planner

The usual data analyser and brief writer is a transformed man now. Today his opinions are valuable not just for marketers but also for the creative folk.

The New Age Planner
Abhijit Das and Keegan Pinto are a team at Bates India. Together, they work on the Ashok Leyland account and are the brains behind the launch campaign (Har Bojh Lage Halka) for its LCV, Dost. They aren't the usual art-copy combination. Abhijit Das is a planner (AV-P planning), and Keegan Pinto is a creative director. This creative-planner combo is a growing phenomenon in Indian agencies.

The days when the creative team took the campaign brief from the planner and went to a separate room to work on it is now passé. Today's planners and creatives crack a campaign together.

'Managing the client's business problem is a zone still owned by account management, and creative is extremely execution-driven. Between the two, there's a 'travel area' called 'the idea' and this is the space that new age planners are working in,' explains Partha Sinha, managing partner, BBH India and a senior planner himself.

Dheeraj Sinha, regional planning director, Bates, comments, 'The 'planner' is no longer a bad word in the creative fraternity. Today, creative guys enjoy bouncing ideas with planners and working with them.'

Santosh Padhi, chief creative officer (CCO) and co-founder, TapRoot India, seconds Sinha's opinion. 'The creative guy may not have enough time to allot to the various things he needs to do to make the product look good; this is where the planner comes in handy,' he says.


The New Age Planner

Late Prof Subroto Sengupta

Though he wasn't a designated planning person, Prof Subroto Sengupta belonged to the 'pre account planning' era. However, he was deemed one of the most strategic minded people in advertising of his generation, and is believed to be part of the reason the discipline came to India formally some years later.

Kolkata-based Sengupta was a lauded professor at IIM. He was one of the founder-directors of Clarion Advertising (now Bates). He was a combination of practitioner and theoretician. In an era where advertising was mostly about pretty faces, he was known to have brought 'thinking' into the advertising process. A deep thinker, Sengupta was famed for laying focus on the 'why' of things. He was known for being meticulous about the basics of formulating strategy and product USP.

Suraja Kishore, national planning director, Publicis Ambience, recalls his days at Lowe. He feels campaigns like Jaago Re (Tata Tea) and Sir Ji (Idea) wouldn't have been possible without the planner's contribution.

In the last few years, the planning function has evolved from a niche role to one that is integral to the creative process. For this to happen, the age-old planner has also undergone several levels of transformation.

Not a knowledge keeper anymore

As a discipline, planning was initiated in the UK by two agencies - Boase Massimi Pollitt (BMP) and James Walter Thompson (JWT). The two agencies had different views on planning.

BMP's Stanley Pollitt focused on the creative side of things where gut feeling trumped hard facts. JWT under Stephen King believed in scientific rigour more than gut instinct. In India, the discipline came in 1977 with HTA (now JWT) naming Sattar Khan as a planner.

Today's planner is not just a researcher who analyses hard data, decodes the client's instructions, and produces a brief for the creative team. He dons many hats, is well-versed with media theory, the digital eco-system, behavioural economics, speaks a tongue that's intelligible not just to marketers but also to the creative folk, and works ever so closely with creative. In other words, he has given up the role of a 'knowledge-keeper' and now lends invaluable creative opinions.


1980s - Mirror the client

Planners were believed to be 'intelligent account management' professionals, and, more often than not, hailed from the haloed B schools. They mirrored clients in agencies, or were even called the 'marketers in the agency' as their role was a data-rich, quasi-marketing one. They analysed sales data, spouted marketing jargon fluently and were pretty much the voice of the consumer in the agency.

1990s - The Interpreter

In the late '80s and early '90s, the planners made sense of the markets and converted the chaos out there into a comprehensive communication brief. They studied excel sheets, read research reports and collected consumer facts to derive a brief - the sacrosanct piece of paper that gave birth to the final creative or script; this was when the planner became the interpreter. This was also when the planner became both, the intelligent face of the agency, as well as its strategic arm.

Planning soon became a 'Brahmanical society' in agency culture as these professionals did the so-called thinking, while account management did the thankless legwork, crudely known as 'chasing art works' in agency parlance. During this period, the planner was also called 'pitch trouble-shooter' - the executive who made great pitch presentations and won new businesses for the agency.

2000 - 2008 - The Anthropologist

In the previous decade, it was still a luxury to have a planner on board and only the big, important accounts had one. However, clients slowly started demanding planners on their brand as they wanted a specialist who would not be involved with day-to-day servicing operations. They wanted someone who could devote all his time to brand strategy and insight.

During this period, planners started focusing on semiotics, and began taking a more anthropological view of things. The planner began coming up for air, out of his focus group discussion-driven world, to take a more intuitive and cultural perspective.

Sinha of Bates says the planner is no longer just a logical thinker: 'He or she is a combination of a logical, as well as a lateral thinker. He is more involved in the creative process than he ever was.'

Ashish Khazanchi, vice-chairman and NCD, Publicis Ambience, thinks that 'the planner is an opinion leader along with the lead creative on what the campaign ought to be - he has become an active contributor to the final campaign.'

He contends that the planner today inspires a certain awe. 'The mystique that used to be a creative guy's attribute is now owned by the planning function. The creatives have lost this sense of mystery as the creative process is now almost entirely de-coded,' believes Khazanchi.

Vectors of specialisation

The function has grown and sprouted variants. Arvind Sharma, CEO and chairman, Leo Burnett, says that even as the media environment has grown complex, brands are becoming huge. 'Clients realise that it's not just about TV ads. In such a scenario, planning had to become more specialised and develop many arms so as to match up to these different media channels.'

This is why planners come in several types: ideas planner, engagement planner, market planner, communications planner, digital planner and contact planner.

* The market planner looks at hard data and numbers, and helps clients decide on the launch of new sub-brands or the inclusion of a new target group. He is responsible for cracking hard core market insights.

* The communications planner looks at the space that a brand operates in and decides how it could own that space. To crack insights is thus his main focus.

* Digital planners are comfortable with a modern consumer's digital behaviour.

* A contact planner is a CRM and activation expert; he basically decides where and how the brand must begin to talk to the consumer.

All four, clarifies Sharma of Leo Burnett, are in effect about understanding human behaviour.

However, the popular ones among the lot are the ideas planner and the engagement planner.

An 'ideas planner' studies the mores of society and tries to understand new symbols and rituals, interrogates the company's history, and is aware of behavioural economics (which undercuts the assumptions based on rational human choices to reveal how we really are). This planner is born from the premise that all big ideas are eventually strategic ideas, and that ideas don't live in execution.

Sinha of BBH India elaborates on this role, 'Today many ideas need to have a 'social' element to them. 'Social element' in this context means something that people can inherently own or interact with in an idea. The ideas planner will not only help germinate, but also orchestrate ideas within the organisation. He is adept at the articulation of an idea and the digital space.'


The New Age Planner

Dr Sattar Khan

Dr Sattar Khan, who stepped into planning from a servicing background, was the first designated planner in India. He took over the planning function at HTA in 1977.

Khan obtained a Ph.D on 'Consumer Megatrends and Their Inter-Relationship with the Advertising Strategies for Consumer Products in Urban India', which was the first Ph.D conferred by Mumbai University for an advertising-related subject. By the end of 1989, Dr Khan left India and went to Hong Kong. It was here that he became the first head of planning for JWT (APAC) outside Japan. In 1999, Dr Khan moved to McCann Erickson where he grew to become the executive vice-president, head of multinational clients, Asia.

The engagement planner comes from the zone of interaction between brand and audience. They study the brand's ecosystem, consumer behaviour in terms of social interaction and media habits. For instance, the engagement planner could observe that today, consumers are over-connected with one another and talk a lot more than they used to and use this observation to the brand's advantage.

Santosh Desai, MD and CEO, Future Brands, feels that the account planner has started to integrate the notion of media into planning - thus giving birth to the engagement planner. He says, 'The creative or ideas planner is something that still has scope to evolve into a full-fledged role.'

Too close for comfort

While many view this creative-planner association positively, others can see a coming conflict. Interestingly, planners are also accused of rendering the 'suits' obsolete. Planners are now the official 'brief conveyors', and the bridge between the client and creative team - something that was originally the servicing executive's job.

According to KV Sridhar (Pops), NCD, Leo Burnett, the planner's role has changed from crunching numbers to understanding human beings and finding insights for ad campaigns. The approach has changed from being quantitative to being qualitative in such a way that it overlaps the role of a CD.

'Today's creative professionals are savvy and understand markets and needn't await the planner's brief. The creative guy is becoming a good planner. Both these functions are getting blurred, and the planner's job is seen as invasive,' believes Pops. 'If the planner tries to get too involved with the creative process he will end up making boring ads. A good insight is not a good creative.'

Khazanchi agrees that good creative people tend to be instinctive planners but sees no harm in this partnership. 'With a planner partnering the creative process, the creative guy's instinct has become more 'correct' as the planner validates his gut level hunches and gives the campaign a solid foundation,' he explains. Though, similar issues had come up when the art-copy partnership first emerged.

What's the future?


The New Age Planner

Dharen Chadha

Dharen Chadha came into planning from a marketing background. He was a 'client' before he hopped over to work in planning under Sattar Khan. Chadha worked at Voltas in the early '80s. As a marketer, he spent most of his time in the FMCG space. After joining planning under Khan at HTA, Chadha stayed there for 10 years across Bengaluru, Mumbai and Kolkata branches. Later he moved to JWT Hong Kong for two years, before stepping into an APAC role. Post APAC, Chadha was named global planning director at JWT. He came back to India in 1997 and started his own brand strategy consultancy firm, Momentum Consulting. It ran for 10 years. Three years ago, he folded it up at the age of 50.

Ajay Kakkar, CMO, Financial Services, Aditya Birla Group, points out that clients expect the planner to partner the creative process, help with campaigns and brand planning. In the future, these expectations will only rise. 'The client will start expecting account planners to help with not just brand strategy, but business strategy, new product lines, new services, distribution and more,' he says.

Desai poses potential scenarios:

One: The planner will move upstream into managing the brand, that is, he will be responsible for brand valuations and take ownership for the brand in its entirety. This will happen when agencies themselves start investing in brand creation. The planner, then, will move into a business-building role along with the agency.

Two: In this scenario the planner will evolve into a creator and shed his garb of an intermediary. With the virtual world expanding, the notion of converting ideas into reality will no longer need an interpreter in the form of a creative person. The planner can easily be the final creator and executor of an idea.

Sattar Khan, India's first formal planner, has a word of caution, 'In many agencies, the planner has become a 'salesman' for the creative output, especially in new business pitches. What ends up happening is that the planner starts providing a rationale for why the creative logic is right. And, this is not what the intention of planning was.'

It's true that the creative-planner duo works as a team and as this partnership solidifies we may also see them seeking jobs as partners, just as art-copy partners do.

(Based on additional interviews with Ajai Jhala, Anand Halve, Jitender Dabas, Madhukar Sabnavis, Pradeep Shrivastava, Saji Abraham, Rohit Srivastava, Sandip Mahapatra and Suman Srivastava.)

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