Campaign India Team
Oct 30, 2015

‘Account planning is that opportunity to make the agency go up the value chain’

Ajay Kakkar, Jyoti Bansal, Partha Sinha and Sonal Dabral reflect on ‘Future of Strategy’, with WARC’s David Tiltman

‘Account planning is that opportunity to make the agency go up the value chain’
Winners of the Warc Prize for Asian Strategy 2015 were awarded on 29 October in Mumbai. The event, hosted for the first time in India, also featured a panel discussion about ‘The Future of Strategy in India’.
The panel comprised Jyoti Bansal (managing director, PhD India), Partha Sinha (managing director, Publicis South Asia), Ajay Kakkar (CMO – financial services, Aditya Birla Group) and Sonal Dabral (chairman and CCO, DDB Mudra).
David Tiltman, head of content, WARC moderated the session.
Tiltman trained attention to the fact that about half of the shortlists were of Indian campaigns. He quoted Benoit Weisser from Ogilvy & Mather, who was a juror for the Warc Prize for Asian Strategy. 
Weisser  had said, “What is at the core is that, could be cultural, India or Indians generally compared to the rest of East Asia are more comfortable with being provocative. They’re more comfortable with having a good argument and to be disruptive in that sense. I think that showed in the top papers from India which were really going, ‘We have a point of view. We’re going to disrupt. We’re up for a fight’. And that’s great and impressive for me.”   
The above comment led to the question on why there was strong strategic work coming out from India versus other markets in Asia. 
Dabral reasoned, “I think it has got to do more with the strength of Indian thinking. In comparison to many countries in the West and even many parts of South East Asia, Indians grew with paucity of things. We were never a rich country. We’re coming out now. With a huge population there is always a paucity of things. So imagine a family of six brothers but there’s only one Coca-Cola.  Or six brothers and only one piece of sweet. So right from when you’re growing up, you’re strategic about ‘How do I grab that?’ Even in terms of education… ‘The seats are limited, how do I get in?’ Right from when we are growing up, we’re strategic thinkers as a race.”
Not just a strategic thinking race, but the one which finds multiple ways to approach a problem – that’s what makes India unique in its approach, added Dabral. “Even if you look at our culture and mythologies, we grow up learning to think that there are many dimensions to a problem. It’s not black and white. It’s not a yes and no. To every problem, there are many dimensions.   So a strategic planner working in India who grew up in India would start to see and dissect any given problem in very different dimensions. That helps in getting on to a right solution. These are the things that make us who we are.”
He added, “The other thing that happens in India is that as a creative person you are talking to so many different people, in so many different languages and in so many different regions that it is a very complex place to work in. On one hand it is complex and on one hand it is liberating. A strategic planner’s role on India is to keep reining in the creative person.”
Kakkar pegged the strategic approach to the three factors of market, budget and spirit. He said, “When you show us the data and very impressive data about the growing contribution of India in strategy, I would attribute it to three broad reasons. The first I would say is the complexity of the market. The second is the pressure on budget. And the third I’d say is the new Indian spirit to win. If you put these three together, you’ll come out with the burning desire to make the most of what little you have in a complex situation, which Sonal hinted towards, and come out as a winner. When there is scarcity and complexity, there is a desire to win and strategy seems to be the easiest path to get you across.”   
Bansal concurred with the thought that it is the ability to approach a problem with more than the obvious solutions that sets Indian strategies apart. “It is slightly cultural. As Sonal said, we never look at anything in one dimension. It is always multi-dimensional. We like to look at things in different ways. Sometimes, ways in which nobody has even thought of. That’s one of the key reasons. The other is, in the last few years we have short-circuited lot of traditional route or path to development that other markets have taken.  We’ve gone straight from landline to mobile phones. We’ve gone from having no phones to being the most dense telco country. That’s what has forced us to think more strategically, forced us to be far more focused in how we reach out to the large numbers of consumers who are adapting these changes, sometimes much faster than marketers are. Just to keep pace, both the media and creative agencies are increasing that focus.”
Sinha spoke about finding strategy solutions coming from creatives or even media and what that means for a well rounded strategic approach. “All planners in India have grown up with the thing that there was one planner, eight creative and 17 account management people. That was a rough proportion. So you didn’t have a choice but to be very good otherwise you didn’t have a hope in hell. On a serious note, I feel that it is not a strategic planning discipline but a strategic planning practice which has been very strong. I have met many creative people who are extremely strong strategically. I don’t think it is just a strategic planning discipline but it is a way of thinking. Because many times, we’ve had to work with a lot of scarcity. When you know that you do not have unlimited media money to bombard people with, your only hope is to think through it and arrive at a place which gives you a much bigger impact for your money. The way this market developed, everybody is fairly strategic in their approach, whether it is a creative person or a planner or an account management person. In fact, I miss those days when we worked with media closely in the same room. The amount of strategic thinking which came out of the content side of the business was good.”
Role of the strategist
This led to a discussion about what constitutes the actual role of the strategist.
Partha noted, “If you ask me, I think there will be three kinds of brands going forward – culture-laggard, culture-current and culture-leading. Culture-leading is few and far between. You get only one Redbull and Apple. Let’s talk about culture-laggard and culture-current. Nine out of ten brands across India are culture-laggards. The role of planning is then getting easily defined today, which is bringing culture back into the brand. What is missing is the discourse of brand thinking. Brands should at least try to remain culture-current.”
Bansal provided a media agency’s perspective and how she views clients and their consideration of strategy: “The way clients tend to look at us is in some ways limiting and in some ways very liberating and that really depends on the kind of client you’re working with. To a lot of them it is just about media mix. And a lot of them have not really graduated beyond that and that’s a constant struggle that we face. There’s the whole other end of clients who expect us to be doing a lot of jobs that Partha and his team do and so they expect us to have a lot of those answers which then gets into effectiveness and RoI. The biggest challenge we face is that a lot of clients say strategy and pay lip service to it, ‘Okay. Great. That works for us but what is the TV reach, frequency?’ And then there’s a completely different set of clients who think that strategy is the answer to every marketing problem they have.”
Dabral gave strategic planning its due, citing that it is something far more difficult than arriving at a creative idea that usually leads a campaign. “People say, that to be creative is a very difficult thing to do. But I feel that the most difficult role in any ad agency is a strategic planner’s role – to come up with the right strategy is far more difficult than coming up with a great creative idea. It is only the great strategic thought that leads to the great creative thought.”
He added, “The fact is that it is really difficult role; in India it becomes all the more difficult. We grow up in India with epics that have billions of deities. We’ve got myriad kinds of folk music. We’ve got hundreds and thousands of forms of art – we’ve got nautanki, folk art and Bollywood on the other hand. So what happens is the creative person grown up in India, his mind is a bank of so many different influences that it is damn easy for anyone to write a great song or a poem and it is a great ad. The job of the strategic planner in India is to be able to commit and stand on a single sharp strategy, and then to keep reining in the creatives.”
Being the brand guadians
Kakkar surmised from his experience of being at both agency and client ends, and suggested that advertising agencies need to go beyond just providing campaign solutions to try to be guardians of a brand. He said, "Let me qualify and confess right at the beginning that I have been at both sides of the table. For years this advertising industry has spoken about or was trying to be up the value chain. So if anybody in the advertising side has a chance to deliver this opportunity then I think it is account planning. It brings a certain respect because it tells you there’s a science behind it all. While product is important, the science or strategy is what keeps you on track. I yet believe in agencies who can be brand custodians to a client’s brand and business.”
He questioned, “How many agencies can answer five questions about my business? How many agencies meet you beyond brief? How many agencies want to meet you beyond TV commercials? Account planning, I repeat, is that opportunity to make the agency world go up the value chain by delivering on the expectations and opportunity on the brands.”
What effectiveness means
Tiltman broached the topic of effectiveness and what that means in an environment where creative awards are celebrated with fanfare.
Sinha spoke about how achieving effectiveness should be as much a responsibility of the creatives as it is of the planners. "I’ve seen in lots of agency networks there are effectiveness heads. To be effective you can’t start by saying ‘I’ll be effective’. You have to start by saying ‘I’ll be right’. You have to try to find a better solution. Effectiveness as a starting point would possibly be wrong. Your aim will be to be effective but you have to start by saying therefore I have to find the solution which is right. For effectiveness, I would not necessarily hold a planner responsible. Actually the whole agency and the client should be accountable. If you see effectiveness awards, in many of those the client and agency walk to the stage together. That is possibly the most right approach.”
Dabral concurred: "A piece of communication goes out, does it job, sells the product or changes certain attitudes. That is how it is effective. And everything has got a role to play in it – the way it has been marketed, the budget, the media, the strategy."
Kakkar noted that at the end of the day an effective ad is the one that needs to be celebrated. "What’s our business? Someone we’re all familiar with has reminded us that we’re not in the business of art, we’re in the business of commercial art. Therefore, effectiveness has to be the key barometer of success. In India we have chased, idolised, looked at creative awards with immense respect but in recent years in the Indian context, the Effies have taken over. The Effies are seen as where the clients and the agencies participate together. Advertising that wins is not important, advertising that works is important. And if it works, we’re all in it together but if it doesn’t, we should all accept it together."
Bansal added that achieving effectiveness comes after identifying what the core business problem that needs to be addressed is. "The end result has to be like Ajay said, whether it made business sense for the client to run that creative and spend all that money or not. But what I also see is that you can’t start by saying that effectiveness is what I’m gunning for. We’ve done our most effective work where we’ve said ‘Let’s start with the business problem that we have which we need to solve'." 
With more and more data and platforms at the planner’s diaposal Sinha warned against taking every little behavioral data into consideration: "The biggest issue today is that if you’re chasing every little behavioral change as a source of insight, you will be completely lost. Clarity is possibly one of the rare commodities today. If your question was right as a planner, then you will surely come to a place of clarity. And the place of clarity will lead to the kind of result where you would be far more focused than trying your luck with every possible touch point."
Bansal supported this saying that strategy has always been about bringing focus to what a brand does, and that should not change with the number of touch points the consumer is interacting with.  
Kakkar emphasised on the use of data rather than access to a lot of it: "Data has never been a constraint. It is what you do with data is what makes the difference. All of us start with the same ingredients but one guy is a chef and one guy is a MasterChef. I think the using of the data is more important that’s why the proliferation of channels cause confusion. Planning and media become all the more prominent. You have to think and plan not only from a message and a customer perspective but also from a medium perspective."
Dabral voiced the view that strategies need to revolve around the platform in today's age rather than be all about the idea. He said, "Life was simple earlier; you had TV, you had billboards, you had print. So you came up with an idea and adapted it. Then you suddenly realised now that there are hundreds and hundreds of ways of approaching the target audience. It not about the big idea anymore, it is about the platform thinking."
Single biggest challenge and biggest opportunity
The session drew to a close with the panel listing out what they thought was their biggest challenge and their biggest opportunity. 
Dabral: “Biggest opportunity is the fact that there’s so much available in terms of technology, in terms of what we can do. The opportunity is being able to come up with the right kind of value for different channels. The responsibility is not to get lost in this plethora of channels and media that we have.”
Kakkar: “At the cost of being controversial, the biggest opportunity is for account planning and account planners to get the respect that they deserve. In the Indian context we’re yet in the era where creatives are prima donnas (and not to say that planners are not prima donnas). It is not the product that is important but the thinking behind the product. The fact remains that planners and planning have not got the respect that they deserve. When you have creative awards and you have people going on stage, how many times have you seen the planner and the creative head going hand in hand together?”
Bansal: “The biggest challenge and opportunity is that how do we get the respect that we think our strategic planners really deserve? There’s a lot of good thinking, there’s a lot of understanding of not only the consumer insights but also all the data that is today becoming critical.”
Sinha: “The biggest opportunity today is that finally people have accepted that there is nothing called a given in this business. When we started, strategic thinking was all about filling up seven questions or eight boxes. The best work I’ve done in my life is when I’ve ignored the boxes. Luckily, people have accepted that those boxes will not get you anywhere. The tool-ification of planning is finally something that people are questioning and that is the biggest opportunity. Tool-ification is more of a presentation device than a thinking device. In terms of challenge, all of a sudden what happened was everybody wanted their money’s worth. The biggest challenge today is the idea of restraint. We have to start understanding when we need to exercise restraint and that is a very big challenge, because all the conversations today are so much about RoI that it is all just about return on investment – nobody is talking about return on ideas.”
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