A role in three acts
At a day-to-day level, advertising is quite a messy business. Let me illustrate.
A business (our client) might need something to change (perception, no of people knowing their brand, no of people buying their brand, frequency of purchases… whatever). Unfortunately, the business itself is not sentient and cannot communicate. There are people running the business; many of them. And among them, they have different priorities in that business. More often than not, the marketing department won’t have the clarity to know exactly which needle needs to move for their business, what is the problem to be solved. (Or if they know, for some weird reason, they won’t always share that knowledge with the agency. Sometimes it is quite surreal – the initial interactions turning into a game of bluff. I have been part of projects where we guessed at the objective with sketchy data and research based on laughable sample size, because an agency can afford to do only so much for a free speculative project, a pitch. and often the client just ran with our suggestion. Free pitches are making our clients duller, I think.)
A planner comes in handy here. With an ego-friendly spray of common sense and big-picture perspective from outside about business strategy, he/she can guide the client into articulating what exactly their business needs. Getting this right is half the job done. If the objective is defined sharply enough, the insight to leverage becomes apparent pretty quickly.
The second act of disinfection comes when interacting with the creative and account management team. People tend to ‘take in’ what is most convenient for them to ‘take in’ – preformed notions, favourite styles, historic baggage, relational considerations… So any creative brief has the potential to be read in as many ways by people as there are words in that brief. (and hence, I try to keep the brief short and linear.) It is then the planner’s job to shepherd the many thoughts and ideas that are bubbling in the room towards a strategically sound route. This is a skill that requires the most effort and experience to master. I am still not as good at it than most of my seniors. One of my ex-bosses had a sage advice once for us junior planners at DDB – ‘make others believe that it is their idea‘, others being either clients or team members. An idea and a strategy can only work if the team believes in it and understands it. And a planner is not doing a good job if he is not ensuring that these two things are happening; shared understanding and hence belief in the strategy.
The third act in this cycle, is the presentation. This is the part that planners are known for most. You can gauge an agency’s quality and its leadership’s intelligence by gauging how much importance do they give to presentation as part of a planner’s job. Some terrible agencies hire planners solely for making good presentations, and consequently suck. Some among us planners are responsible for this too. This is the part that is most visibly owned by us. But a presentation can only be as good and effective if the first two ‘acts’ of taking the brief from client, and briefing the creatives was also owned by the planner. Retro fit often enough, and you will become redundant.
The purpose of the presentation is not to dazzle and create an impression of false expertise. I believe (and this belief has worked for me so far with more than 20 pitch wins so far, more than 50% strike rate.) the purpose of the presentation is to illuminate the business problem with a perspective that clarifies the key strategic choices clearly and linearly, leading to an inalienable creative route.
In all three acts, the consistent value that a planner brings to the advertising business is a clarity of thought – of purpose and effect.