Opinion: Good account planners need to be discovered

Madhukar Sabnavis, country head, discovery and planning, and regional director, thought leadership, O&M India

Opinion: Good account planners need to be discovered

It troubles me when a client says, to slow down life, he will look for a planning position in an advertising agency. Or a client servicing person believes that because he can connect the dots between product, brand and consumer, he is equipped to be a planner. This is a misplaced view of planning and what planning is all about.  The planner is not the brand strategist. Nor is the planner the thinker in the agency.  To my mind, client servicing is the champion of the brand and its business; the creative is the custodian of the idea; and the planner is responsible to bring fresh knowledge about the ‘target audience’ into the creation process.  The knowledge could be about the ‘target’ as a consumer or a buyer or shopper or a person or a viewer or reader or surfer or listener to advertising messaging. The more in depth the knowledge of the target- the richer the process becomes, the better the brand problem can be defined and the larger the canvas becomes for the team partners to generate solutions and ideas from. The planner is not the know all about the consumer nor the gate keeper for the consumer (everyone in the process including the marketer is consumer focused)- it’s just that he spends his time and efforts to delve deeper into that part of solving the brand problem.

Planning is not rocket science. A planner is not a superior being.  However, a planner does bring special skills and a different mindset- a mindset excited by fields like psychology, sociology, mythology, popular culture etc- fields that focus on understanding consumers as people. Research- primary or secondary- is a means towards acquiring this knowledge. Yet, this understanding should always be done in the context of the business and brand problem, else it could end up being academic. It’s the balance a good planner must strike- How wide a canvas to explore and when to converge. Good planners are able to distill tomes of people knowledge- explored through science- into crisp triggers and definitions for solutions- and that is an art!

This is where Account Planning as taught in business and communication schools is at divergence with what a true account planner needs to do on a day to day basis. Brand strategy development is ‘passed off’ as account planning.  The ‘target audience’ understanding is just a subset of brand planning (or account planning) as defined in schools. However, it is this knowledge that should be the focus of planning. Teaching of skills related to people understanding is still rather limited. And courses that explore these subjects in detail (like sociology, psychology etc) are, mostly, not tailored with advertising or communication in mind! Hence, availability of ‘readymade’ true account planners is rather limited.

So, planners evolve on the job and get identified. One gets into advertising and discovers he has an inclination and is excited by people and becomes a planner. It could be as a fresher or as a client servicing person. There is a benefit in starting in client servicing (in advertising or elsewhere). It helps a person get both a business and a client orientation. The first is important to ensure planning knowledge always sits well with business objectives and stimulates solutions. The second ensures sensitivity to client- in the way both knowledge and work is presented and sold to clients. The combination ensures planning work does not become academic and disconnected from business reality. For a fresher, learning under a ‘guru’ could provide the foundation to fly on his own later. In a nascent discipline as planning is in India today, the gurus are few- unlike creative and business management which have rich legacies.

I have been historically hesitant to recommend a fresher to start in planning. As a discipline in infancy, there is a need for stature and experience helps. The experience could be in research, brand consulting or client servicing (or trained by a guru!) It provides credibility to the planner’s point of view and provides the skills to distill people knowledge.

As we evolve, there is a need to work closer with academic institutions to design courses that are better geared to teach ‘planning’ in the truest sense and identify young talent early. Till then, good planners will remain a scarce commodity.

Something worth thinking about.

Contact at madhukar.sabnavis@ogilvy.com

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4 April, 2014