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"Planning’s importance is linked to its ability to help clients navigate the VUCA world"

In our new series – Planner’s Perspective – we at Adgully are speaking to some of the brand planning heads who are today playing a key role in agencies. Planning is not rocket science. The advantage of a planner is that he/she brings in special skills and a different approach to thinking by using research and going more in depth with people’s behaviour starting from psychology, sociology, mythology, data and culture. The planner with the help of all this study is able to create better insights and understanding of the consumers, which is very inspiring for the creative teams to come out with successful brand campaigns. The function of planning is highly knowledge-driven and one has to keep a watch on what’s happening in the outside world very closely. As someone said, you don’t get to learn planning in business schools, but it is the hunger for knowledge, curiosity, power of observation and experience that drives to be a sound planner. 

In conversation with Adgully, Gulshan Singh, National Planning Director, FCB Interface, speaks about the increasing complexity of business which is also creating unprecedented opportunities for planners and for advertising. Singh also shares insights on how planners are helping clients creative partners navigate the VUCA world. 

Over the last two decades or more Account Planning has become a separate function. How important is the role of a planner in today’s world, where planning has become more complex as we have moved to a dynamic medium like digital?

At the heart of FCB’s “Never Finished” philosophy is the belief that great brands are continuously evolving, pushing, growing – and as planners we must do the same.

Sure, the business is dealing with increasing complexity, but that complexity is also creating unprecedented opportunities for planners, and for advertising. We’re often finding that the intersection between the dynamism of the digital medium and core human motivations is the most fertile ground for finding powerful insights.

And it’s not just the emergence and coming dominance of digital that’s causing this evolution – it’s the increasingly VUCA world that we’re living in. Planning’s importance is linked to its ability to help clients and creative partners navigate this VUCA world. The essence of planning remains the same – cracking the brief and helping crack the creative output. But everything around it is evolving. Or, to borrow from Simon Synek, planning’s “Why” remains constant, but the “How” and “What” are in a state of flux. 

What is the role of research in planning? In today’s world where there is plenty of data floating and is available, how are planners leveraging the same to cull out great insights?

Research has been and remains a valuable tool, there really is no substitute to getting a deeper understanding of the consumer. The explosion of the amount of data available has raised its own set of challenges – from fundamental ones like sifting through the ‘noise’, to technical ones like ensuring source reliability. Leveraging this plethora of sources involves multiple steps – from upping skill-sets to ‘reading’ data better to interrogating multiple information sources, while keeping the focus on the very human reasons that lie at the heart of a great insight. The Whopper Detour and the Punishing Signal are seemingly poles apart, but at their heart lies the same rigour that leads to winning insights. 

As a planner, one looks forward to a very tight and focussed brief. So, what kind of expectations do you set with your clients when you are briefed for a new campaign so that there is clarity right at the beginning?

There are multiple forces at play here – one, the desire to have a single-minded brief (and hence creative), but also the opportunities offered up by multiple media platforms to target a larger set of consumers, increasingly demanding consumers, products that offer multiple ‘wows’ (for example, automotive and cellphones, to name a few). We work closely with the client teams to arrive at a brief that helps address the reality of the business, markets and consumers we are addressing. 

One of the most exciting work a planner enjoys is the new business pitch. So, what’s your process and approach for the new business on the planning front? How do you bring in the differentiation and add value to the client’s business?

Pitches aren’t just exciting, they’re also a vital part of an agency’s growth plan. There is the ‘regular’ pitch process, where we spend a lot of time and effort to define the exact problem and crafting the best creative solution. A lot of our differentiation and value addition comes from leveraging our strengths as a network. We’re seeing clients respond positively to FCB’s global proprietary tools – especially Brand Bedrock, which is an innovative take on defining the brand, and People & Patterns, our revolutionary method of looking at consumer journeys. 

If you are a planner, you need to keep your eyes and ears to the ground. So, how often one has to do market visits to get to know the real pulse of the market and your audience? As the planner is responsible to bring in fresh knowledge about the target audience into the creation and ideation process?

There is no substitute to truly understanding your consumers, or spending time with them. Whether it is formal research or market visits, every member of the planning team is regularly out in the field, seeing how the consumers live, what their days are like, understanding their dreams, beliefs, aspirations. And not just planning – our account management and creative teams are equally invested in understanding consumers. We believe and act on this at an organisational level. The last few months have been an exception, but we’ve continued to conduct consumer research virtually. 

Planners are a scarce commodity. How do you unearth good planning talent and groom them? What does it take to be a successful planner?

I look for the 3Cs – Competence, Compatibility and Curiosity. There must be certain level of competence and work ethic. Compatibility and being able to work with different sets of people is vital to make a good organisational fit. Most importantly though, planners must be curious to help them be innovative problem solvers. Grooming talent often becomes a matter of knowing when to lead actively and when to be more of a guide.

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