Market clutter, more choices for the consumer, eroding brand loyalties, more complex consumer behaviour. Effective brand communication has become tougher and advertising agencies are facing constant pressure to create messages that work. Clients want faster, sharper solutions. For a lot of agencies, account planning is becoming the critical pivot to handle the new challenges.
For example, Mudra did not have a separate account planning division earlier, as it thought that experts in account management were well equipped to meet challenges. More recently, it has evolved an account planning model.
Ashish Mishra, VP and head – strategic planning, was roped in to harness the function. He says that the agency has been taking cues from DDB's model, focusing on co-creation. "In this model, there is an evangelist who is at the hub of the operations. Then, there is a creative planner and a business planner. Early in the process, the business planner has a larger role to play as he shares brand and consumer insights. Then the trio of art, copy and planning executives work together towards developing solutions for the client."
There are 16 people directly involved in the planning function in Mumbai, says Mishra. While the business planner has to have good marketing knowledge, the creative planner has to have a good idea of media effectiveness. Mudra has separate strategic business units for various departments. In case of a conflict among any of them, Mishra says that he, along with other senior people, resolve the issue.
Kawal Shoor, vice president – strategic planning, O&M, agrees with Mishra that account planning plays an important role in the early stages of problem solving. "When we won ITC's Bingo! account, for example, planning helped in centering the idea that the game here was not about relevance and key benefits, but rather to quickly get into the minds of the consumers and also create some sexiness around the brand, if possible through the name."
Santosh Desai, CEO and MD, Future Brands, who introduced planning at McCann Erickson, states, "Over the years, growing client needs and internal agency needs have contributed to the importance of account planning and the need for someone to look into strategy."
According to MG Parameswaran, executive director & CEO, FCB Ulka, "The new challenge for account planning is to understand how the Indian consumer is changing and hence, what the implications are for the client's brands. The challenge is also in segmenting the market accurately and targeting the messages to the consumer better." FCB Ulka follows a matrix format. There is a VP, account planning, in Mumbai and a general manager, account planning, in Delhi, with 15 people reporting to each.
These 15 people manage accounts through groups of two people on each account. This structure enables cross-accounts learning. "Our model is client-centric, rather than consumer-centric. We insist that our account planning team spend 70 per cent of the time on its accounts, 20 per cent on trend spotting and 10 per cent on new business."
Mishra points to the fresh challenges that account planning faces: "While earlier, there was a leading brand in most segments – toothpaste: Colgate, skin cream: Fair &Lovely, scooters: Bajaj – today, we no longer have such a linear product centric market." Most companies first cut down on their brand portfolios and then extend the shortlisted brands to satisfy different user needs. Thus, a planner has to work harder in the areas of feasibility study, the likelihood of extensions succeeding, path of diversification, portfolio alignment etc. Also, there is a greater need to have sharper insights.
JC Giri, President, O&M stresses the importance of a strong leader to drive the planning process. Like there was Desai at McCann, there is Madhukar Sabnavis at O&M and Pranesh Misra at Lowe.