Five decades af­ter the first ac­count plan­ner made an en­trance glob­ally, we train our sights on the lo­cal bear­ers of this dis­ci­pline - and the changes since then.

The Brand Reporter - - FRONT PAGE - ash­wini.gan­gal@afaqs.com

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 JWT’s 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 (the 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.

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.

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-tun­nelplagued 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?


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 for this ar­ti­cle fumed and scoffed at Go­hil’s insin­u­a­tions, fact is that 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, “If there is a prob­lem, it is with some plan­ners who have cast in stone the def­i­ni­tion of plan­ning. 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 be­come con­fus­ing, con­tra­dic­tory or de­funct.”

Why so? Subbu, as he is known, explains, “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 the 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 su­per­hu­man, de­liv­er­ing ex­traor­di­nary per­for­mance and con­trol. Plan­ners 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.”


Purists, and sev­eral plan­ners out there, call 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 is be­cause of a num­ber of in­de­pen­dent minds 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 a ker­nel of truth in this thought. Even more than standup 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 ads 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. 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. 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 crosspol­li­nated ad­ver­tis­ing for ages and now, the same can be done by com­edy and orig­i­nal con­tent,” he says.

It’s a stretch, but can co­me­di­ans be­come a threat to plan­ners? Rub­bish­ing the threat an­gle, Ji­ten­der Dabas, chief strat­egy of­fi­cer, McCann World­group In­dia, fields, “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. To me a plan­ner should be able to an­a­lyse and as­sim­i­late such in­for­ma­tion into his out­put.”


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. So 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 dif­fer­ence 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, 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 ground­sup 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 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 ad agency, and that’s where the chal­lenge lies – the uni­di­men­sional view of a plan­ner work­ing to se­cure busi­ness for the agency is pos­si­bly un­ten­able. The man­date needs to stretch be­yond. Don­ning a con­sult­ing hat is im­por­tant.”

Cit­ing cat­e­gory-fore­cast­ing as one of the core func­tions of a plan­ner, 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. When peo­ple think that half the com­pany is plan­ning, then nobody is do­ing it. Ac­cept­ing in­puts from dif­fer­ent peo­ple and mak­ing dif­fer­ent ideas fit to form a 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 which can be tapped. They help a brand to main­tain the in­te­gra­tion nec­es­sary while so many plat­forms are be­ing used. Plan­ners are also eval­u­at­ing dis­rup­tions that will take place due to new busi­ness mod­els and tech­nolo­gies. They have a role in dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion and help­ing mar­ket­ing teams ab­sorb new ways of do­ing things,” explains Mishra.

In the fu­ture, more plan­ners 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.


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, coun­ter­in­tu­itive 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 the game? “Plan­ners need to have greater own­er­ship of the agency. Many be­have as guests in their own home, wait­ing to be called for meet­ings and to be part of the process. They need to own the process and go the whole hog,” urges Dheeraj Sinha, manag­ing di­rec­tor, In­dia and chief strat­egy of­fi­cer, South Asia, Leo Bur­nett.

What about out­side the agency sys­tem? Mythili Chan­drasekar, se­nior vice pres­i­dent and na­tional plan­ning di­rec­tor, JWT 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 or ac­ti­va­tion).”

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 con­tent? Why not to prod­ucts? Or 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 of an ac­count plan­ner hasn’t changed. What has changed is the con­text in which the plan­ner has to ply the trade. The chal­lenge for the plan­ner is to do bet­ter with less, in a con­text of more.”

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