Bro, do you even Account Planning?

Why independents should take their account planning seriously. Here’s Abhinandan Sridhar’s take on it.

Chapter 1: What’s the scene in Mumbai?

Very soon Mumbai will be known just as much for its crop of independent agencies as for its vada pav tapris.

The list of reasons for this happening are plenty — decentralisation of verticals (‘unbundling’), burgeoning demand for new media advertising, the glamour of entrepreneurship, low barriers to entry and easy access to labour.

Particularly looking at labour, a quick tour of the scene will tell you that most independent shops are filled with BMM/BMS pass-outs. It is not uncommon to find these yuppies sporting designations with words like ninjas, evangelists, Jedi, etc. as prefixes to their technical occupations. (Now I don’t know when this trend kicked off, but I’d wager this to be a show of passable creativity that’s got something to do with the Merchants of Cool)

On the other hand, you will see earnest late-twentysomething MBAs who have meandered through their sales stints, finally becoming custodians of India’s most respected brands.

Working together, these two workforces are quickly becoming the face of contemporary Indian advertising, fuelling its long workdays with deadlines, brainstorms, meetings and endless lists of Internet clickbaitery.

Chapter 2: The Brainstorm

In these agencies, groupthink is still the best way to produce ideas. Get everyone in a room, circulate the brief, discuss objectives, and wait for an idea to pop.

While the procedure sounds easy enough, a lot of it depends on every participant thinking ‘out-loud’. This ironically is the problem, because as soon as the first person has an idea, the discussion veers in that direction and disproportionately influences the rest of the brainstorm.

A Brainstorm is a part of the idea generation process. It isn’t the process itself. But unreal timelines give creative teams literally just a few hours to crack a campaign. This leaves them with no option.

‘Chop chop.’

The in-it-to-win-it brainstorms have to conclude with at least two potential campaign ideas. These will then be sent to the biz-dev team in stray sheets and idea napkins to be made into a sparking deck with 10 slides of ideas and 30 explaining the thought process.

Why though? These 30 slides can be explained in just two words — gut feel.

After all, here are two ideas that have been developed through inputs by the groupthink participants. Inputs that start with phrases like, ‘I feel…’ and ‘I think…’.

Generally these inputs are stabs in the dark. They reflect a stray experience/experiences of the person speaking. While they can be taken into consideration, basing these inputs as backbone for a campaign is a bad idea.

(Some of the greatest minds in our industry also go by gut-feel, but they can afford to do so because of the a. colourful lives they’ve led and b. the account planners they employ.)

Chapter 3: Bro, do you even Account Planning?

I have come to realise that having planners to work for you is definitely a big agency perk. The folks at independent agencies have always been suckers for the DIY culture, encouraging employees to become Jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none.

The implication is for all to see. Let’s look at digital campaigns for instance. Everyday on Twitter, there are sweepstakes and mindless contests hogging up the trends chart. Where is the insight here? Are people really talking to the brand because of the creative? Are the right people talking to the brand? Can you term this engagement? I think not.

People don’t identify with such campaigns. They aren’t moved by it. They’re not even annoyed by it. In fact, they ignore it. They just let it pass into oblivion, because it will never be worth their time.

This is exactly why we need a person who is constantly thinking about the audience. A person, who will quickly condemn a mindless campaign with a scathing question: Bro, do you even account planning?

Chapter 4: Tried & tested is why I suggested.

In most cases, great planning is about understanding what the brand truly stands for.

Take WK Portland’s fantastic Find Your Greatness campaign for Nike, which was inspired by the company’s founder Bill Bowerman’s philosophy:

“If you have a body, you are an athlete.”

Keep that phrase in mind and watch the campaign commercial. You’ll know it’s right out of the brand’s beliefs. The strategy guys at WK understand that brands that create new culture sell more.

Another fabulous campaign that made a huge impact on its audience was Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. Dove commissioned a research that identified that only 4% of women consider themselves beautiful. They coupled that with the fact that cosmetics had always been advertised with women who absolutely did not appear to need them, and out came the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, a series of ads featuring women bereft of any makeup or computer editing.

Chapter 5: Got drift?

‘Two super-corporations could afford the best minds in the business, and so these campaigns came about’ is as valid an argument as any. But planning needn’t be an occupation for a gifted few.

All it takes is a few days of background reading and some slight tweaking to your idea generation process.

To begin, read Pollitt, King and Steele. It’s three books and a cumulative reading time of 15 — 20 hours. What you will take away is the method to the madness. Steele in particular is great with his examples.

Steele features the Got Milk campaign and it’s insight: “The only time I even think about milk is when I run out of it.”

You’ll discover more strategy books along the way, but they’re not necessary reading. In fact, super-planner Richard Huntington (Saatchi & Saatchi London) advises planners to ‘read weird shit’. You should probably take it.

Now for the tweaking part, the Lean Startup model is as good as any. Your research doesn’t need to cover a sample of thousands. Use the ‘minimum viable product’ method. Prior to a brainstorm, do some background study on the consumer by speak with friends and family who you feel is a potential audience. Document what they say and look for patterns. Present your efforts in the brainstorm and ask creatives to build on them.

You know, I’m pretty sure the tips I’ve listed here help, and I hope your campaigns are studded with nuggets of human insight. But I want to end with a disclaimer Jon Steele uses when he talks about research.

“Now I’m always suspicious of statistics, especially averages, because if you think about it, the “average American” has one breast and one testicle.”

Keep those words in mind, or next thing you know, you’ll find your copywriter saying, ‘Bro, do you even gut-feel?

The Author

Abhinandan Sridhar is ill-equipped to do little else but gorge on advertisements all day. But if he does do little else, he spends it on running and his youth marketing company, Jrny Media.

You can find his daily ramblings here — @jrnybot

Originally published at on November 27, 2014.

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