I have forgotten most of what I formally studied. Thankfully, or the written word would have held me to ransom all my life. The significance of the written word, or theory, cannot be disputed in the field of, let’s say, medicine or finance. No one wants her dad’s bypass to be in the hands of a quack surgeon with suspect academic credentials. You might freak if you suddenly get to know that the person who handles your investments is a charlatan. Theory has a role in all applied science fields. However, for some time now, I have held the belief that in our business, practice creates new theory. Theory in turn, has rarely managed to create new practice. Efficient practice – yes. Incremental practice – yes. But NEW practice – rarely.
Theory teaches rules, and rules are important to know, for how else do you engage and persuade those for whom rules are currency for life. But in doing that, we sometimes forget that the role of theory should stop there. Anchored vessels have rarely sailed – let alone to new lands.
For instance, one theory about people and ideas is – ‘petty minds discuss people; average minds discuss things; and great minds discuss ideas’. I agreed with this theory for long; and then I realised that the finest sociologists and psychologists love discussing people, and so do some fantastic creative minds. In our work life, the intersections between people, things, and ideas is where magic resides. So that one theory lost its shine for me. The ‘consciously-unlearned’ became my heroes. Those who stay easy and let life happen to them, and yet observe every small ‘what’ and ‘why’, and then file those away in obscure mental drawers for almost accidental later use. Which lands me nicely into the zone of my topic.
In my life as a planner, I have been sermoned, and in turn, I have sometimes been guilty of sermonising the young on how to become a good planner. So what traits separate good planners from the rest? I can only share what I have been through, and the ‘lessons’ I have learnt. Through examples of work that very likely you may have seen. Through three journeys that I feel I have traveled. You may ignore, or follow at your own peril :-)
Curiosity, and the journey outwards
Years ago, I was told that a planner must be extremely curious. ‘We pursue knowledge the way a pig pursues truffles’ is an evocative, even if culturally-alien metaphor that David Ogilvy used to make the point. So when I was starting out, I would agreeably nod, while I silently wondered – okay, the world is full of so many things; and I was adequately curious about the things that all young are naturally curious about. So what should I, as a tyro planner, be especially curious about? Unless you are incredibly wise or plain lucky, and I was neither, you need a mentor to tell you the ‘what’.
Simplistically, there are two ‘whats’ in my opinion. The first ‘what’ is about people and what they care about, starting with themselves, their friends and family, their appearances, their tattoos, their future, their pets…you get the drift. The second ‘what’ is about people and things, and the way they feel for, think about, and use things, the way they use their toothbrushes and toothpastes, their iPhones, their evening time, or their favourite shirt or malt, or their old photographs. The relationship between people and things is a subject of intense and unrelenting scrutiny in the world of brands (yes, in this world people CAN have relationships with things, you know).
Curiosity about people, the way they are and what they care about, and the relationship between people and things, is the beginning of a planner’s journey. Mine wasn’t too bad, because my early planning journey is filled with accidents. I learn everything a little late in life, if at all. But that’s me. You may choose not to.
Being titled a planner does not earn you the right to be in a conversation with minds that create, and minds that matter. You have to be able to say things that they find interesting and new for them to notice your presence and value your perspective.
This curiosity about people, and their relationships with things is for me a journey outwards. This is the first leg of a planner’s travels. For most planners in India, this starts with formal research.
So how does this outward journey, and what you bring to the table through it, help you? For starters, it gets you a rightful seat at the table. Being titled a planner does not earn you the right to be in a conversation with minds that create, and minds that matter. You have to be able to say things that they find interesting and new for them to notice your presence and value your perspective. I may have said a few interesting things for my first creative partners in Bangalore to tolerate an Ogilvy newbie like me more than a decade ago, and then to ask for me when the campaign featuring Aamir for Titan was created. And then, I may have said a few interesting things about people and wafers, based on two years of product development work in partnership with ITC, for the creative teams to work closely with me. The result was the somewhat mental but remarkably successful launch campaign for Bingo.
At this stage of my journey, I did not know what specifically I would say that leads to an idea, but because I got sought out for conversations, I realised I am valued and wanted. More than that, I started getting a sense of how nice ideas get created. If I had not developed this sense, no matter how vague, it would have been impossible for me to embark on the next journey.
This is where magic began, and I truly fell in love with the business of ideas. The journey inwards, in which you begin to dip into the reservoir of memories – incidents, anecdotes, feelings, events, mishaps, tragedies, and celebrations – and marry the results of your contemplations with the outside learnings of formal research. I could now somehow pull out relevant stuff from life to feed advertising stories, because I knew now how that may be used. Here are a few instances when I got lucky to have such stuff lead to some of the better known ad campaigns of the last decade. Of course with great partners around me.
This one is about a Mallu childhood friend’s mom and her idlis. People from other parts of India don’t often know that idlis are not counted and not served in pairs in South Indian homes. Having breakfast at their home, I would get fascinated by plates full of idlis served. And this, among other things, was instrumental in making me feel at home in my friend’s house. Years later, when I was working on an Asian Paints corporate campaign, this nugget popped up from the recesses of my memory bank. And out came the line – 'Aisa ghar jismein rotiyaan kabhi gin ke nahin banti'. This line ultimately led to the brief, ‘Inviting homes’, and also found its way into the work.
I grew up in Deolali Camp – a small, quaint army town four hours away from Mumbai. The town had two main sweetshops. The one where this story comes from, still makes the best jalebis I have ever tasted. But it is a sweetshop with a quirk – the ‘halwai’ would make jalebis only in the morning, and once they got over, they got over. And that would often happen by 9 am. Now, the only day he would oblige the locals with an evening round of jalebis was on the 1st of every month. The reason? That is the day India Security Press, the mint in Nasik, pays salaries. And a large number of locals who worked in the mint, would want to take some sweets home on payday. For many strategic reasons that would be boring to read here, ‘payday’ became the campaign idea in the iconic ‘Kuch meetha ho jaaye’ series of ads for Cadbury Dairy Milk. And I happened to remember an old Kishore Kumar number that would ritualistically play at 7.30 am on Radio Ceylon on the first of every month while I would be grudgingly getting ready for school: “Khush hai zamaana aaj pehli tareeq hai…”. I played that as a brief for the creative team. Little did I imagine that they would convert that itself into a campaign that eventually did wonders for Cadbury.
Poochne mein kya jaata hai
It was 9 pm, and just as I was winding up after a long day in my dark cabin, in walked my account management colleagues on Tata Sky with a peculiar problem. Tata Sky for long had been the top-rated DTH service provider – both by existing and potential subscribers, far above Airtel and Dish. And its packages too were competitively priced. Yet, it’s share of acquisitions was substantially lower than Airtel’s. They had dug deeper and unearthed a fascinating problem that strangely a Tata company was facing – people walking into a store assumed that Tata Sky would be very expensive and out of reach, and simply didn’t asked for it. With better margins from other brands, the retailer was happy to close the deal in favour of them. The inherent irony – that Tata Sky was in the reach of the value-seeking customers, and those customers felt Tata Sky would be out of reach – reminded me of a beautiful girl back in college. With an aura of regality around her she was at once desirable and intimidating. Few had the courage to ask her out, and she of course kept hoping that someone would. And then, as it so often happens, an eminently forgettable dude got to date her. On that, he would tell me a few years later: “I took a chance. Bhai, poochne mein kya jaata hai?” The uncanny parallel between this beautiful girl’s dilemma and the issue facing the Tata Sky brand made us use ‘Poochne mein kya jaata hai’ as the brief’, which eventually became the campaign idea that bore some amazing work. Tata Sky’s share of new customer acquisition changed dramatically.
Kya chal raha hai?
Another example of a ‘takiya-kalam’ (catchphrase/idiom) is recent. Fogg had stormed to market leadership within three years of its launch on the back of a category busting innovation labeled as ‘no-gas’. Within the next one year, parasite brands proliferated. Axe, Engage and Park Avenue too upped their game. Fogg, at 17 per cent share of the market, and priced higher than Axe and the rest, was significantly ahead. As the clear leader of a young, under-penetrated category, Fogg’s biggest opportunity lay in making the category’s promise enticing to non-users. There was one problem though – the benefits of category-building initiatives, unless extremely well-branded, typically go to the perceived leaders of the category. Fogg had a dominant share of market, but a minuscule share of mind. Non-users still perceived the Axes and the Engages as market leaders. It became imperative to create a perception of popularity and leadership for Fogg before it embarked on any market expansion strategy. Our campaign from our baby company, The Womb, ‘Kya chal raha hai…Fogg chal raha hai’ has become the new cultural signpost. A campaign that has not only catapulted the brand to top-of-mind status among deos, but incredibly, also increased its market share from 17 to 22 per cent. It has seeped into culture to the extent that ‘Fogg chal raha hai’ has become the nation’s cheeky new response to the question we all ask so casually so often in our lives.
‘Jis ghar mein rotiyaan gin ke nahin banti’, ‘Pehli tareeq’, ‘Poochne mein kya jaata hai’, and ‘Kya chal raha hai…Fogg chal raha hai’ are all examples of picking little things from my walks inward – thru the reservoir of memories, associations, and experiences gathered through a life lived and observed. Formal research had little role to play in any of the campaigns, though it did help define their tasks. However, I can’t emphasise enough that the reason I could journey inwards and come up with these thoughts is that I had understood, however vaguely, how ideas happened.
I was lucky to have spent time with some of the finest creative minds and to see how they work, how they connected personal experiences to briefs, and how nothing is considered stupid or blasphemous in a chat.
The journey sideways
The third and final leg of this planner’s travels – the journey sideways – has been the most challenging and complex. This is where your thoughts and feelings collide with those of others in the team. Where you learn to negate nothing, where every little utterance is worth thinking about, whether it comes from a client, or from a team member. Often, the seeds of big ideas lie at the intersections of such intellectual collisions. Of course, you can only spot them if you are observant and selfless enough.
Some of the biggest ideas in the world, irrespective of time, place and industry, have been the result of accidents. And the role of planning, in our business, is to help create an environment in which such accidents happen a little more often.
They say that there are as many definitions of planning as there are planners. Here is mine. I believe that some of the biggest ideas in the world, irrespective of time, place and industry, have been the result of accidents. And the role of planning, in our business, is to help create an environment in which such accidents happen a little more often. These accidents are nothing but clashes of thoughts, feelings, knowledge, and perspectives of everyone involved. I have always been lucky to have some fertile minds around me. Nikhil Rao, a ballsy executive at Cadbury, I and the creative team on Five Star were brothers-in-arms when we cracked ‘Temporary amnesia’ in the basement of the old and iconic Cadbury office. The thought gave new meaning to the brand’s proposition: ‘Taste that you can get lost in’. ‘Temporary amnesia’ was the thought from where much of the admired ‘Ramesh-Suresh’ work came, and made Five Star among the top youth brands of the country.
The same client, Nikhil Rao, also extracted out of us ‘Shubh aarambh’, the ragingly successful campaign for CDM. Beyond its business success, ‘Shubh aarambh' also helped change the jaded grammar of CDM storytelling, as auspicious beginnings was very different from celebrations, the erstwhile platform from where ‘Pappu pass ho gaya’, ‘Miss Palampur’, and ‘Pay-day’ had come.
The team and I relished the conversations that led to the platform, and the famous ‘bus-stop’ spot for Cadbury. My last example is of the one closest to my heart, as it changed the trajectory and momentum of a heritage brand – never an easy thing to achieve.
Narayan Sundarraman took over beverage marketing at Cadbury at a time when Bournvita, a low-science, high-appeal brand, was drowning under the jargon that rational brands like Complan and Horlicks had created. Narayan goaded us to go back to Bournvita’s soul, and find a pulsing nerve of modern mothers that could help rejuvenate the brand. A thousand conversations with him, and within our team led us to a sweet spot where a malt beverage brand could really make a difference – not in the winning and breasting-the-tape moment which was the obsession of every other brand, but during the preparations. An inspiring, participative mum and a glass of Bournvita became the bedrock of ‘Tayyari jeet ki’, a campaign that reversed Bournvita’s fortunes and put it on a growth path.
‘Temporary amnesia’ for Five Star, ‘Shubh aarambh’ for Cadbury Dairy Milk, and ‘Tayyari jeet ki’ for Bournvita are just some examples of my journeys sideways – into the minds of hungry and knowledgeable clients, and of my gold-standard team members. I may have led the strategy on each, but the collisions of thoughts is what created the magic.
Nothing good is easy though. The journey sideways is one that only the large-hearted can embark on. This journey can take you to some amazing rewards, but, not if ego is a traveling companion.
Collaboration as a corporate necessity often fails, while collaboration that comes from chemistry rarely does.
The word ‘collaboration’ is often used casually, and if I may say, superficially in large companies. If you have a bunch of buzzing minds in a room, mutual trust and respect, are two values that often make the difference. If you are not ready to gracefully lose an argument, or share the rewards, you are likely to struggle to build empathy. Collaboration as a corporate necessity often fails, while collaboration that comes from chemistry rarely does. No wonder why matrixes are the biggest curses in management structures. They breed insecurities, and insecurities and collaboration never go hand in hand. Conflicts arise more out of insecurities than out of genuine differences of opinion. And as more and more minds are being brought together pretty mindlessly to solve brand problems, such conflicts will only increase. Conflict resolution skill is the exhausting, but necessary new quality that senior planners need to have. And this skill develops only through your journeys sideways.
It is natural that these journeys happen sequentially. The very young are fascinated with the world outside. Introspection and contemplation is a trait not easily found in the young, and managing collisions of thought is the preserve of experienced. Advertising mirrors life. But once you have journeyed on all three, the journeys outwards, inwards, and sideways no longer remain sequential. On a single project, you may need to traverse all three, or you may pick and choose which one works better for which client or creative, and above all, for you.
The only difference, to my mind, between a good planner and a good creative person is that while the creative person conjures magical stories out of her experiences, perceptions, and feelings, planners end up creating big brand platforms. Or product ideas.
Planners who can journey only outwards resemble researchers. No matter how good they become at picking something from the outside world, they will remain researchers until they can interpret and create something new. Those who can journey inwards often are like ‘creative’ people. The only difference, to my mind, between a good planner and a good creative person is that while the creative person conjures magical stories out of her experiences, perceptions, and feelings, planners end up creating big brand platforms. Or product ideas. And finally there are those who also learn to journey sideways – who can carry people and their views and ideas along. Such planners end up becoming leaders.
This is a worldview that I have formed basis my own life and experiences. Maybe you agree with it, maybe you don’t. So what? We are a sum of what we see, live, do, and feel. Even my views may change with time. As they say, remain fluid, and you flow like clear water; or solidify, and you become a rock. Maybe a rich and famous rock. But a rock nevertheless. And eventually, a relic.
(The author is founding partner, The Womb, and former national planning head, Ogilvy & Mather.)