Campaign India Team
Jul 09, 2013

‘There are a lot of planners out there, but the good ones are hard to find’: Suresh Nair, Grey group

Suresh Nair, EVP and director – global strategic planning, Grey group, based in New York, tells us how the WPP agency is ‘trying to build a planning culture’.

‘There are a lot of planners out there, but the good ones are hard to find’: Suresh Nair, Grey group

On the sidelines of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2013, Campaign India caught up with Suresh Nair to discuss the evolution of the planning function. 

Planning has been low key - in relation to creative - when it comes to Grey. Would you agree? And we’re seeing a few changes in the Indian organisation now on planning, something you must have been involved with closely...

Even in other countries, planning is still considered the support function. Once you go inside the agency you realise how critical a function it is. Smart creatives know the importance of planning. And it’s not one over the other.

One priority I have for all offices is to strengthen the bond between the creative and planning functions. At the Google session (in Cannes this year), we heard that ‘Nobody falls in love with an idea, they fall in love with the realisation of an idea’. Execution matters. And it takes two hands to clap – planning and creative.

Yes, we have new energy in the system now with Dheeraj (Sinha) on board to handle planning in the region. Since Bindu Sethi moved on, the position has been open. With Dheeraj in, it’s been about rebuilding; about breaking things and putting them back together again.

What explains creative overshadowing planning, in several markets?

A lot of it is about personalities. You can’t ignore the softer side of it all, whether the thought comes from the creative or planning side. From the top management down, we are insisting today that planning gets a seat at the table – that planning is involved in the creative process. It’s a two-edged sword. If you want a seat at the table, you better deliver. We are training all our planners to be almost creative - in their approach - to business challenges.

There are a lot of planners out there – not many good ones.

Is it that the role of a planner is not so clear? And taking it from there, the descript of what it takes to be a planner?

Planning is about people. It goes back to - simply - a smart mind. It’s not really about collecting information and saying, ‘This is exactly like that old case 25 years ago’. It’s about whether we have the right people.

What does it take to be a planner?

You have to be intellectually curious, not afraid of data, and most importantly, have the courage of conviction. We’re not curing cancer; we’re not sending someone to the moon. You have to sell internally and to consumers – planners have to stick their necks out. Creatives always did. The strategic idea has to stand scrutiny. There’s no ‘magic’ to it beyond that.

What has been the shift in planning over the years?

There used to be a difference between what one called strategy and planning. Planning used to be restricted to getting ‘insights’. The world doesn’t work like that anymore. We talk about insights coming from anywhere. And sometimes, even execution has an insight behind it.

All this makes our job increasingly interesting. Out job now is about finding a cultural hook that ties into an insight. It involves business needs, brand needs and the larger role a brand will play in the world. A lot of these things always existed in parts. In a world of integrated media, our work culture has to be integrated. The client too realises that it’s hard to come up with ‘the’ idea with just one brain.

If insights and ideas are coming from ‘anywhere’, has the role of the planner been threatened?

I used to hear a lot of ‘We don’t need a planner’ from clients and even internally. What we’re hearing today is ‘Why do we need account management?’ The brand manager also believes s/he can do the process. They don’t want to pay for layers of account management. Agencies like Mother and BBH have reframed the role of account management.

Clients today reach out directly to planners and engage in strategic strategic conversations. Even in a pitch, we ask for more. We have situations where we end up interpreting the brief in our own way, and we find that clients are increasingly willing to engage us in that discussion.

Let’s talk about Killer Jeans in India – the ‘Green Fold’. Where would you place the role of planning in such innovation?

It wasn’t a traditional approach to planning, but there’s a thinking process. It wasn’t just planning - it was strategy. In this case, it was a classic example of marketing getting embedded in the product. A ‘Green Fold’ is fashionable, visible. And it gets the message of water-saver denims across.

If strategy is sharp, it can drive a lot more than just the creative. Take for example the work that we did for Marriott hotels. You can’t imagine a traditional brief working this way. The objective was to get business travellers to think of Marriott first. There was an opportunity to not just be a hotel brand, but much more. We told them that they have to be part of the conversations people have on travel. We told them that they could be a hotel brand, or they could be a travel brand. That’s how ‘Travel Brilliantly’ came about.

The media mix had a minimum of TV. We went ahead and pitched a ‘Travel Brilliantly’ app. We said, ‘If you want to do TV ads, we’ll advertise the app’.

In New York, we did ‘Project Imagination’ for Canon SLR cameras. We decided to step out of the frame of competition and talk bigger benefit – an experiential idea. We decided to put artistry in peoples’ hands. It was not about messaging anymore. Collaborations fell in place. We didn’t talk about it, we helped them do it. We received 100,000 entries in less than a month. At the end of last year, Canon saw a sales shift in double digits. Then, we’re doing a film festival for first time movie makers: ‘Long Live Imagination’. Traditional means of planning cannot lead to such ideas.
Planning is now strategy. It’s about making the narrative; about guiding it rather than dictating it. The last thing we want planners to be is lost academics.

The most successful account leaders were strategists – and without doubt, creatives. In a more complex world, one person can’t do it alone.

We’re cognisant of the changes around us; which is why we are trying to rebrand our department (planning) as a strategy group.

Planning being a specialised function, there must issues on talent, and talent cost... 

It is a specialised function. In many markets, we don’t have planners – we export them. We see Indians moving out to other markets too.

In terms of salaries, yes, planning compensation is on the higher side, relatively speaking. But it has to be viewed in context.

At Grey this year, we’re starting to track expenditure on salaries on planning, account management and creative. What’s coming out is that RoI on the planning dollar is far more than it is on traditional account service. So why would you not invest in it?

What’s the talent pipeline? Fresh hires don’t happen in planning, and those entering servicing with an eye on planning aren’t sure how the transition works, are they?

You need a certain aptitude to be successful in planning. It is very hard to have entry-level planners. Entry level planning talent, or the lack of it, is the biggest problem we have. Young talent is important for another reason – we need young people who know and live digital. It is important to incubate talent in entry level account management too.

When I joined advertising, I didn’t know there was a planning function. I got recruited straight out of MBA as a social research analyst.

Technology companies are also mining data, and insights from them, and offering solutions including targeting. Who is best placed to deal with consumer communication today? Is the specialist route the future?

I do think agencies are better positioned to deal with communication today than anyone else. It’s in our psyche – we are designed to do integration. The AoR terminology has been in use for a while. The AoR model has been under stress for a while too. Agencies themselves split apart departments – brand consulting, creative, CRM, web design and so on, at different times. Now, the Unilevers and P&Gs of the world are asking us to integrate. Managing the whole process is difficult and they are asking us to manage it for them.

At Grey, we are trying to build an integrated agency of the future. With Marriott, we’re going to build the app ourselves – we may outsource some part of it, we may hire people to do it, but we’re going to handle it hands on.

The writing is on the wall: ‘Integrate or perish’. There’s a lot of education, soul searching and innovation going on. You might as well try something and fail fast. Integration redefines every job in the set up. You need a new breed of account servicing people; ditto with planners.

Agencies are adding technologists today. There is no ‘business as usual’. And there is no finish line. Every day, I am forced to think a little differently about what I do. That makes things interesting. I believe in today’s times, planning can become an agency’s secret weapon.

Is collaboration between departments therefore more critical today? And where is that headed?

One of the mistakes agencies make is that they treat functions as departments and not as core teams. They should be finishing each others’ sentences. What is required is radical collaboration. The more successful creatives today are the ones who are more open to listening to ideas.
When an agency announcement comes out, it should be from the team. They should be joined at the hip.

How does global collaboration in planning work, with you at the helm?

My global planning role really is to help identify talent and to drive the creation of a cohesive planning culture for our company. Planning has to be local. My job is to help CEOs recruit people. At Cannes this year, we have all the four regional chief strategy officers. We’re meeting to discuss the way forward to turn the Grey planning brand even stronger. And not planning for planning’s sake.

Campaign India

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