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Campaign Conversations 2020: The changing role and significance of strategic planners in these times

By Shyam Sunder, Brand Marketing & Communications Consultant.

In evolved markets like India, planning as a function in advertising agencies came into being as early as in the mid-90s. I was introduced to the concept when I joined one of the most forward-thinking independent agencies in India at that time, Fountainhead Communications, which positioned itself as the ‘challenger agency for challenger brands’. We helped our client Cavinkare and its brands take on Unilever in their biggest categories and take away significant market share. The role of the planners in building brands was significant. To see these ‘knowledge warriors’ digging deep into reading and analysing retail audit data, researching customers extensively and bringing the ‘voice of the customer’ with powerful insights and ideas to the creative and putting together some winning presentations, was an incredible learning experience for me.

When I moved to the marketing side of the table, in Dubai, I was fortunate to work with some great agencies where the planning and creative worked quite seamlessly to deliver some pathbreaking work and results. My background, experience and belief in the need for a good strategy to translate into good creative, perhaps, helped me forge some lasting relationships with the planners in the region. Three such friends of mine are featured below in yet another great Conversation for Campaign where my doubts about the role of planning and concerns on brands relying on tactics and tech over strategy and purpose were laid to rest:

  • Tahaab Rais(an inspiration, who needs no introduction really), Regional Head of Strategy and Truth Central, FP7 McCann MENAT
  • Saurabh Dahiya(someone special who, along with the Impact BBDO team, created magic for us at Centrepoint), Head of Strategy & Planning, VMLY&R
  • Wael AlYousef, Strategy Director, Memac Ogilvy Dubai 

Can you elaborate the role and the significance of account planning as a function and its evolution in the region. Do cite examples of the early adopters and sectors who see maximum value in this service. 

Tahaab: “Strategy” is the best job in the field of creativity. And I’m allowed to be a bit biased, right? Unfortunately, the role of strategists is frequently misunderstood and disvalued. We are not brief-writers, nor do we only package presentations. And that’s because in the past and in recent history, not enough from our kin, in the region, have actively contributed to innovating for clients or to the actual creative product, nor elevated the real value of strategy to clients and agency folks alike. Again, it’s not just beautifully worded briefs or beautifully designed and delivered keynotes.

I’m happy to see clients in the region today starting to value strategy a little more and that’s because of a lot of younger hybrid talent (in strategy) across the region who are bringing more actionable and innovative thinking to their clients’ business problems. We’re seeing an evolution in strategists quitting being theoretical and philosophical strategists and instead being involved in the output. It’s a start, but a lot more needs to be done.

The trouble is that because there’s not enough understanding of what strategy entails, there’s not enough time scoped for the real value of strategists and hence there aren’t enough quality strategists. Most clients I’ve met across MENA value strategy; they enjoy conversations with strategists and respect the role of strategy. So, there’s an opportunity in there.

The most important thing to look at is the financial structure in most agencies. There’s a critical need for strategy leaders to sit the business and the finance team down and take them through the strategic process – right from the get-go all the way to the execution and the evaluation – and help them understand the time that is needed and the value brought in. This will help ensure time is scoped accurately and comprehensively enough and clients pay for the time they want and demand from strategy. And, secondly, it’s about looking at strategists as an agency’s potential offshoot into consultancy-like solutions (hence, organic growth and new business growth). This presents another opportunity to increase that value. We’ve done that with FP7 McCann NXT.

Saurabh: At our core, strategists are the question architects for brands. The ability to well articulate a problem, ask why and why not, will never go out of fashion. In this decade alone, we have tasted success with clients who have realised the importance of taking a more problem-biased approach than ever before – to successfully build brand and basket. Then, in my humble opinion, I would believe the strategic discipline has ramped up on commerce over continuing to sharpen their smarts on culture, connections and communication.

Wael: Account planning, or strategic planning as we used to call it, has gone from a specialist craft to one that requires range. I remember when I was first working at Memac Ogilvy in 2013, the planning director at the time explained to me that the key function of a planner was to write a single-minded brief with a strong insight and proposition to inspire the creatives to develop a big idea. Knowing how to write a good brief was 80 per cent of the job, he said. The creatives would then develop a creative platform and adapt it to the different channels. Seven years ago, planners were also rare in the region, with two to three people needed per big agency at best.

Today though that 80 per cent looks more like a 20 per cent or a 10 per cent. The role of an account planner has evolved to adapt to clients’ changing needs. It isn’t only about the brief, but also counselling clients to grow their business using a large variety of solutions. As such, account planners today need to broaden their skillset if they are to thrive. As such, their significance grew considerably, and a good planner or strategist, as we call them now, understands and advises on a variety of work streams from macro-level brand positioning to bite-sized social assets.

With the ‘pure-play digital’ generation of marketers moving into business and many of them prioritising tech and tactics over strategy and purpose to drive growth, do you see the slow death of strategy and its role in building brands in this digital economy. Is the ‘big picture’ relevant anymore?

Saurabh: The digital age has made data ubiquitous. If you look closely, what matters is not the data but the points of view, problem bias, provocations and plan of action you bring to the data – 4Ps for marketing in a digital age. How we build and position our brands with a unique point of view, across moments, in an attention-deficient age, makes thinking small the big idea. I feel strategy partners to brands who are willing to stay true to the fundamentals, adapt to a new economy, pivot their game will thrive as the industry welcomes back the age of the generalists.

Wael: I believe strategic and long-term thinking is actually more important today than it was in the past. It is how strategic thinking is expressed that has changed. The dogma that is brand positioning with a static and supposedly timeless definition of what a brand stands for is being challenged; instead, brands are being more fluid and centring themselves around consumer needs rather than defined categories or industries. They do so by understanding the value they add to their customers and expanding that offering in a way that makes sense to both parties.

A few examples come to mind to illustrate this. The most notable one is probably Amazon – a brand that started selling books has now become synonymous with all forms of online consumerism. When Amazon went public, Bezos wasn’t promoting its latest tech or its tactical advantage in the book category; instead he spoke of long-term growth and re-investing profits to stay ahead. This approach was disruptive for Wall Street but gave Amazon lots of room to grow. Today, whether it is through Prime, AWS or even Amazon Basics, the brand many refer to as tactical has proven that it was highly strategic and long-term focused.

The same can be said of the region when looking at a brand like Careem. While it started as a me-too car-hailing app, what makes them a benchmark today is how well the brand expanded into all kinds of pick-up and drop-off services. That to me is the crux of the brand’s strategic growth.

Tahaab: There’s a lot of chatter about the demise of communications agencies and their different disciplines (such as digital being taken in-house by marketers or worked on directly by marketers with specialist suppliers such as the social media platforms or tech companies). But no one talks about the demise of strategy and creativity. On an industry level, in this region, a recent report by Nielsen showed that 47 per cent of sales contribution comes from the ‘creativity’ and ‘emotion’ of the marketing. So, while #SocialMediaChallenges or data-driven targeting or social content might be relevant and cool and achieve short-term, short-sighted metrics, we need to remind brands about their value as brands when they earn a meaningful role in people’s lives.

To me, a meaningful role is much more powerful as a strategy vs. purpose. The purpose has often (wrongfully) been construed to be about “let’s change the world”. A meaningful role (rightfully) gears us to think how we can help people, every day, in their lives through what we do as a brand. This means not just an active role of the brand but also an active role of the product.

So, the big picture isn’t about how a brand is purposeful, is going to simply challenge the status quo and is going to change the world (and, oh, by the way, it will sell its products). That story belongs in award-show case studies. The big picture is about how a brand is going to make me live a better life every day through its products, its services and its experiences across its ecosystem when I choose to interact with it. Living up to the brand’s meaningful role in everything a brand does helps do just that. Research has proven that the more people find a brand meaningful, the more they buy from it. This means that we, as strategists, are needed more as well by those brands.

How have the skills of an account planner changed in the last five years? How does a career typically evolve? You can take your own example, to start with. 

Wael: Just like brands can’t rely on a static positioning any more, planners can’t rest on their laurels. The skills of a planner had to evolve beyond the realm of advertising and communications in the last five years. I believe it is important to have the basics right, like knowing how to be single-minded, truly insightful and culturally resonant.

However, this isn’t enough any more. Planners today need to understand the digital landscape and how communities behave in physical as well as virtual spaces. They need to be flexible thinkers who understand models but aren’t bound by them. They need to have a degree of pragmatism to know when performance and tactics are more important than story-telling and when they aren’t.

Tahaab: Re-learning and re-educating oneself is crucial. This entails an investment (of both money and time) in keeping up with the constantly evolving world and people – by constantly absorbing knowledge and data through varied information resources, studying new tools, reading researches, activating trendspotting and social-psychology experiments, and looking outside the industry.

In such an environment, strategists must assume a role akin to the master conductor in an orchestra. On brands, strategists must aim to sync the people, the client and the agency’s own teams. For the agency, strategists must sync her or his own department, the different disciplines and partner agencies. The first leadership goal is for strategists to make sure everyone is in tune. The second leadership goal is to make sure everyone (agency and clients) are trained on it and embrace it.

Here are some anecdotes from my personal experiences in the field that also include tips on how one can evolve their skills as a strategist and a consultant in their agency and outside:

  • Be the master conductor in your agency: Not a brief writer or a presentation developer. An agency’s strategic methodology should become its operating process. It’s not enough having a beautifully crafted agency purpose for media articles or seminar talks. It’s about converting that purpose into an operating system where everyone works with it and contributes to it.
  • Be the master conductor in developing your clients’ capabilities: As businesses get more sophisticated in how they deal with multiple agencies and multiple partners, client engagement models need to evolve –not just to solve a client’s problem but to show the client how to do it themselves. This knowledge and skills transfer, fundamental capability development, bringing in and embedding new approaches and new ways of thinking and working, will be the invaluable role that I believe strategists should and will play.
  • Be the master conductor in bringing solutions and inspiration from other industries: Looking within our industry makes us myopic and limited. But the truth is, somebody somewhere has already solved our problem. To do better, we have to look beyond; there are beautiful alternatives out there, just waiting for our context. There’s so much to learn from superheroes, from children’s storybooks, from Disney, from nature through biomimicry, from religion, from the music industry, from Hollywood, from creative hackers in South Asia, from sports, and from many more industries outside of our own. There’s so much to learn from them about not just creativity but also processes and people management. So, in 2020, I’d definitely hope to see more cross-industry-inspiration.
  • Be the master conductor in marrying data with creativity: “Data kills creativity”. “Creativity without data is ineffective”. We’ve all heard that. Why do both have to get pitted against each other? Why can’t they get along? In a new data economy, as people are open to sharing their data for something meaningful in return, there will be innumerable opportunities for strategists to dig into data, but humanise data through a confluence of meaning and analysis. I’m really excited to see more dates, more marriages and more babies between creativity and data, enabled by strategists. This means getting closer to our clients’ data and our partners’ data and finding the right opportunities for the brands to prosper.

Saurabh: Strategists adore chaos because they love to produce order. So, any skills, tools, frameworks or training (or the lack of it) that make you lean into the hottest part of the fire and shape better narratives, work. I would also add that the importance of native-intelligence and ability to get comfortable in difficult situations is an added advantage.

I don’t believe there is a pattern for evolution in this discipline. I think the more diverse the experience, the richer the outcome. For instance, I dropped out of medicine, dabbled in design and moved to account management before I got spotted to become the strategist (although I prefer the less marketable ‘consigliere’ designation), and am now focused on nurturing the next question architects.

What has the current pandemic taught you from a strategic marketing perspective? Has the crisis accelerated the need for short-term gains rather than long-term growth for strategists? 

Saurabh: Incidentally, ‘crisis’ means both danger and opportunity in Chinese. And the two most important things that we continue to learn are what really constitutes value and what the organisation’s or brand’s ability is to pivot? Long-term or short, the challenged future requires non-stop innovation (while simultaneously requiring safety, security and sustainability). What will enable or impede this is trust.

I believe good brands build companies; great brands build culture. What are you a part of?

Wael: There’s an interesting McKinsey article called The Great Acceleration. The article stated that the pandemic acted as an accelerator that pushed the world to jump 10 years forward in a mere 90 days. I think that’s very true; the pandemic has accelerated every brand’s digital transformation, created new sources of revenue and completely disrupted others.

That being said, this acceleration first favoured brands that were already set for long-term and future growth. When everything went on lockdown, organisations that needed to react were already late to the party and faced many operational challenges. On the other hand, brands that were already planning for the future found that consumers simply caught up with them.

This was the case for almost every consumer category in the region. FMCGs that were present on e-commerce platforms were able to service people at home, and restaurants working with aggregators managed to do the same. I think you get the picture.

Tahaab: We have to empathise with our clients too. They have short-term goals and targets that they need to achieve to ensure their job security and their growth as individuals. So, we should help them achieve those goals and targets. By doing so and earning their trust, in parallel, we need to also work with them and nudge them along towards the endless immensity of the sea; how do we keep your brand keeping on earning a meaningful role in people’s lives in the long-term through new products and experiences, through partnerships, through untapped avenues and through new channels.