Ashwini Gangal

50 Years of Account Planning: Researchers to 'brief writers' to the CMO's 'brand glue'...

This year, strategic planning turns 50 - a global milestone that has us holding our microscope above the local bearers of this discipline. What do brand marketers expect from account planners in 2018?

Founded as a discipline within advertising in 1968 in the UK by Stanley Pollitt of Boase Massimi Pollitt (BMP) and Stephen King of James Walter Thompson (JWT), and named by JWT's Tony Stead, 'account planning' (also known as brand planning or strategic planning) turns 50 this year. Historically, the BMP school of planning was more gut-driven while the 'JWT type' of planning was rooted in scientific rigour and data.

In India, pioneers of the planning discipline were thinkers like Subroto Sengupta (founder-director of Clarion Advertising, which later became Bates), Sattar Khan (first designated planner in India, who took over the planning function at Hindustan Thompson Associates -now JWT- in 1977) and consumer insight miners like Dharen Chadha (FMCG marketer turned planner hired by Sattar Khan). The discipline has since thrived.

And the planning gene has mutated several times over the decades: Planners have gone from being B-school bred data crunchers in the 1980s to focus group-obsessed researchers and the official interpreters and writers of creative briefs in the 1990s, to the intuitive cultural anthropologists in the early 2000s. Then, the planner sprouted the proverbial ponytail around a decade ago as his/her input to the creative process increased radically; there was even talk about how the creative-planner team has replaced the traditional art-copy team.

But today, the playing field has transformed. Digital is mainstream, media is fragmented, data is granular, intelligence is artificial, target groups are atomised, consumers are believed to be chronic ADHD patients, and insights are best found somewhere between millions of carpal tunnel plagued thumbs and device screens. Moreover, insights today come from anywhere, given the kind of specialised, independent creative talent available. It's a very different reality as compared to the simple, print-and-TV-led times that prevailed when planning grew and developed into an agency vertical.

In the tech-powered digital age, one in which content and advertising have different definitions, what is the equity that members of this Brahmanical society within the agency system bring to the table?

Does It Even Need Fixing?

Sudip Gohil, former chief strategy officer and managing partner at Publicis India, now a KPMG hand, asked in his recent essay on our site - 'Is the planner still the smartest person in the room?' While the planners I spoke to during the course of writing this article fumed and scoffed at Gohil's insinuations, fact is the planner must reinvent. What exactly might that mean?

Insisting that planners need to move from being servants of the creative product to being leaders of the new agenda for brands and businesses, S Subramanyeswar, chief strategy officer, Lowe Lintas, opines, "There's nothing wrong with planning... If there is a problem, it is with some planners who have cast in stone the definition of planning. They will find it hard... Traditional planners who are masters of filling the spaces between things, connecting the dots through deductive logic, will find it hard to play in the new consumer republic. They may not like change but they are going to like irrelevance even less. Old models have created stifling brand bureaucracy and have now become confusing, contradictory or defunct."

Why so? Subbu, as he is known, explains, "The simple reality is that every brand will be a media brand in the future, requiring everyone to consider how they produce, distribute and manage their content ecosystems. Informing, educating and entertaining audiences will happen through channels that are controlled by the brands themselves, rather than channels they pay to advertise on. Civilisation has entered the age of marketing, where everyone and everything communicates with a marketing filter, mimicking brands. Brands need to be super human, delivering extraordinary performance and control. And planners who shape these brands too will have to be super shape shifters delivering extraordinary performance."

Navonil Chatterjee, joint president and chief strategy officer at Rediffusion, says, "God is still in His heaven and there's still more right than wrong with planning. The 30 second TVC may have become a three minute piece of video content or an Instagram post, but the brand still needs to communicate. The planner's role is helping brands decide what to communicate, to whom, how, and why. The age of content has increased the number of choices lying before the planner, making the job more difficult."

The Planner, The Comedian and The Marketer

Purists, and several planners out there, calls such theories fanciful, but there are many who believe pure play brand planning is getting polluted and de-specialised, or, as the more generous version of that might go, democratised. This, given the number of independent minds out there in the creative and content space, that recycle daily life insights - specifically about the great Indian middle class that feeds consumerism in our country - into their material. Sure, the objective of that material is to entertain, not sell products, but it's only a matter of time before brand heads tap into this fresh, young pool of consumer insight generators; all marketers need to do is apply these insights to purchase behaviour. We're not saying this hypothesis is necessarily true, but frankly, we at afaqs! have quoted more comedians than planners in the past six months.

Bleak as it may be, Karthi Marshan, chief marketing officer, Kotak Mahindra Group, sees merit in this theory. "There is certainly a kernel of truth in this thought. Even more than stand-up comics, film makers in Bollywood have the pulse of the Indian consumer down pat, far better than most brand practitioners do today. Juhi Chaturvedi and Aanand L Rai should be on speed dial for any self-respecting marketer today," he says. A former ad-woman, Chaturvedi has written movie scripts for Vicky Donor, Piku and October. Rai has directed Tanu Weds Manu and Raanjhanaa.

"The bulk of digital media inventory is used or measured on performance. In this context, the conventional planner seems to have little to contribute. A new kind of planner, who has the ability to tease consumer insights out of digital behaviour is now urgently required. Further, these advertisements tend to be poor on insight, rich only in quantitative data, or worse, rich only in deals and offers. In sum, I have yet to see strategic planning skills brought to bear in the digital context in any meaningful way," adds Marshan, going on to implore strategic planners to revive the old and deep marriage between planning and research.

For Vivek Sharma, chief marketing officer, Pidilite Industries, the more insight-seekers there are the merrier. "Anyone with eyes, ears and a keen sense of observation can have insights into people and their behaviour, be it a stand-up comedian, creative person, marketing person, sales professional or even a political person. The magic of brand planning lies in the ability to bring these observations and 'people insights' to play on products, services, categories and brands, and then translate them into actionable behavioural insights. I think brand planning is getting strengthened by the likes of stand-up comedians, as it brings in fresher ways of looking at things. The insights from movies have cross-pollinated advertising for ages and now, the same can be done by comedy and original content," he says.

Sure it's a stretch, but can comedians become a threat to planners? Fields Jitender Dabas, chief strategy officer, McCann Worldgroup India, "Even before the current crop of stand-up comics I used to find Raju Srivastava's performance dripping with insightful observations about middle class India. All that material should be a planner's fodder for inspiration. To me, a planner should be able to assimilate and analyse that into his/her output," adding, "The need for strategists always existed, across organisations, including in kings' courts - remember Chanakya? You will find such people spread across history but not all of them were working to help create advertising campaigns or brand strategies."

The Marketer's Brand Glue

Procter & Gamble's chief brand officer Marc Pritchard keeps reiterating that the time for the marketer to take back control of his/her brand is here. Which, in the context of strategic planning, begs the question: What do brand marketers expect from their strategic planners today? For some, the account planner is the 'conscience keeper' or 'sheet anchor' on the team, someone who can point North, especially when there are so many different voices around a brand, each scrambling to meet its own objective. As a former Nestlé executive puts it, "This is especially true now when no campaign can be launched without a minimum of four agencies working on it together - PR, on-ground, digital and advertising." To others, the planner's input becomes invaluable when a global brand has to be made relevant in our market.

Upendra Namburi, former chief innovation and marketing officer, Bharti AXA General Insurance, says, "We need a greater digital-first mindset with the planning community. It's not about performance marketing or banner ads. It needs to be grounds-up digital thinking for the brand. Competition is rather blurred these days. It's quite often inter-category rivalry and not just competition between similar products. The planner can play a role in keeping tabs on communication and trends across categories to determine possible opportunities for the brand."

To Namburi, the onus to synthesise and draw value from the myriad insights tossed up by independent talent and agencies is on the business leaders. "The role of a strategic planner hasn't changed but the complexity and outcomes surely have. Often, brand communication and brand experience across channels is undertaken in conjunction with multiple agencies and teams," he says, adding, "The strategic planner is seeking business for the advertising agency, and that's where the challenge lies - the uni-dimensional view of a planner working to secure business for the advertising agency is possibly untenable. The mandate needs to stretch beyond. Donning a consulting hat is equally important."

Citing category-forecasting as one of the core functions of a planner today, Kamal K Mishra, associate vice president and head of marketing, Greenply Industries, is clear that all psychology and no marketing can only take a brand this far. "We need psychological insight with the background of 'science of marketing' to be able to build a brand steadily over time. It's not about one entertaining campaign or one striking image. Such things help, but when people think that half of company is doing brand planning, then, really, nobody is doing it. Accepting inputs from different people and making different kinds of ideas fit to form one clear picture is a planner's specialisation," he says.

Up to date planners, in his book, are aware of the need to map out the digital, interactive path to purchase. "They know that there are more touchpoints available which can be tapped. They help a brand to maintain the integration necessary while so many platforms are being used. Planners are also evaluating the likely disruptions that will take place due to new business models and technologies. So they have a role in digital transformation and in helping marketing teams adopt and absorb new ways of doing things," explains Mishra.

The Next 50 Years

Within the agency system, what's next for the planner? More of their kind will be tasked with running agencies and being responsible for not just insights, but, counter-intuitive as it may sound, revenue as well. Planners will have a lot more skin in the agency game, hereon.

What can planners do to up their game in Indian advertising as it stands today? "Planners need to have greater ownership of the agency. Many behave like guests in their own home, waiting for an invitation to be called for meetings and to be part of the process. Planners need to own the process and go the whole hog," urges Dheeraj Sinha, managing director, India and chief strategy officer, South Asia at Leo Burnett.

And what about outside the agency system? Mythili Chandrasekar, senior vice president and national planning director, J. Walter Thompson India, foresees, "Forward thinking planners will find themselves in client organisations, large consulting companies in the digital transformation space that take on sales and growth objectives (not digital-creative), or established media and publishing houses on the cusp of becoming brand publishers (not the engagement-chasing content creators of today). Organisations that understand that the more the industry splinters, the more strategic planning can be central to integration is where the planners will be - next to the client, as gatekeepers to the different types of agencies that service them (research, media, advertising, content, e-commerce, activation, etc)."

Lending a different perspective, Kawal Shoor, former national planning director, Ogilvy India, and present day founding partner, The Womb, says, "Why should an insight lead to only ads? Or to content? Why not to products? Or to services? How many product design companies have first-rate planners who understand latent human needs? Design and identity companies are filled with designers, but not with those who have the insight. Carvaan (a product he partnered with Saregama to create and market) could never have come from a product design company. Consultancies are filled with analysts and number champs but not with those who can creatively synthesise. A good planner can go into so many spaces. The future is wide and bright."

Sattar Khan, India's first official planner, who now runs a strategy consultancy in Singapore, says, "The fundamental task for the account planner hasn't changed over the last 50 years. What has changed is the context in which the planner has to ply the trade. The challenge for the planner today is to do better with less, in a context of more..."

In 1985, when Khan became the national head of planning at HTA, he had to explain what planning was in order to recruit people into the function and start 'planning departments' across the agency's offices. To this end, HTA released a large, copy-heavy ad in national newspapers. The ad was successful and fetched many applications, including one from Dharen Chadha, whom Khan interviewed and hired at HTA to start the planning department in the agency's Bangalore office. The ad was written by Ivan Arthur, HTA's then national head of creative, an awarded copywriter of his time.

50 Years of Account Planning: Researchers to 'brief writers' to the CMO's 'brand glue'...

HTA ad to recruit account planners - 1985
Click on the image to enlarge

A Note From the Editor

If creative folks are modern day Mad Men and Mad Women, what are modern day strategic planners? As the UK-born function turns 50 globally, we train the microscope on this mysterious, often misunderstood, breed of advertising professionals, to find out what it means to be an account planner in the digital era - one starkly different from the simpler times that prevailed when the discipline was born and developed.

I spoke to many experienced planners to better understand what the world looks like from their vantage point. The material I gathered is enough to run a 10-day mini series on our website, but alas, I could only manage to retain a fraction of each one's opinion. To balance things out, I also spoke to several senior brand marketing executives to find out what it is they expect from their agency planners - (I clarified that I wasn't referring to media planners and buyers) - and what the pain points in the client-planner relationship are.

There's chatter about the reinvention of planners. What might that vague phrase mean? That's what our cover story this issue tries to spell out. For one, it means strategists who tagged themselves as 'TVC planners' will need to hit refresh and embrace digital as the new space where their objects of interest - consumers of brands - dwell.

There's also talk about the ocean of consumer insights, particularly about the Indian middle class, that movie makers, comedians, authors, bloggers and independent creative professionals are now interested in unearthing. Now, they're all observing human behaviour and packaging it for the sake of entertainment. But isn't it a matter of time before marketers tap into the works of these parallel insight miners and use their findings - research sounds a bit stilted, I admit! - to sell their wares? Some of the planners I spoke to scoffed at the idea, others said they're happy to collaborate.


(This article was first published in our fortnightly print magazine afaqs!Reporter on September 1, 2018).

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