Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Jan-Feb 2020

Strategic questions

Sarah Fahim on 6 of the most asked questions on strategic planning.

Is it an enigma? An industry-wide conspiracy? At least once in their career, most creative, account, production and design professionals have asked one of the following questions about strategic planning. Here is a list of questions on the role of strategic planning backed by crowd-sourced answers taken from my Master’s research study at the University of Texas at Austin in 2018.

1. What has strategy got to do with advertising?

Strategic planning originated in the UK about 50 years ago. Ever since, its goal has been to integrate cultural truths with advertising. Strategy connects the dots between consumers’ lives and culture to inspire creative thinking. I have found it personally challenging to create work that breaks through the sea of sameness. Strategic planning alleviates some of that pressure through data synthesis, in turn helping to identify trends and insights embedded in behavioural science. A marriage of art and science, if you will.

2. What does strategy do with the client brief (for a week)?

This is a golden question, embodying much of the struggle of planners in Pakistan. As the voice of the consumer in the room, each planner’s motivation varies greatly. The process of addressing a brief starts with a data dump, a competitive scan, a consumer research sub-project within the brief – and finally, the creative brief and a big idea come out of the other end of this process. Planners always encourage and appreciate when creatives indulge in their process early on and more often than not, it results in creative excellence.

3. Culture, ads and society – are these just planning buzzwords?

Scholarly literature and academic research have been investigating the ‘big picture’ role of strategic planning. It largely poses a question as old as time, and one still without consensus: does advertising influence society constructively or merely reflects its reality? Picking on this thread, I investigated the role of practitioners in creating cultural influences. as well as how consumers perceive the role of advertising in society.

“Conventional advertising doesn’t have any legs to stand on. You don’t create anything. Everything stands on popular culture... An architect for instance creates something very tangible. Advertisements don’t.” (25 years, senior creative writer)

Conversely, strategic planners believe creative thinking is inspired by truths hidden in seemingly mundane behaviours: “Functional benefits entice brand stakeholders. Emotional payoffs hook creatives. The hot spot for a real world, ‘indifferently walking by every brand in the aisle’ consumer, lives somewhere in the middle of those two. Strategy helps crack that and provide a focused yet inspiring launchpad to creatives to take their ideas into culture and make a difference.” (26 years, strategic planner)

4. What does this have to do with advertising in Pakistan?

To understand this in a local context, let’s look back to the 1950s – the nascent days of advertising as an industry in Pakistan. Think of Lipton in the 1960s and Chai Chahiye – that slice of life jingle that was so effective that ‘umda jawaab’ turned into an earworm for decades. Think of the Peek Freans’ Pied Piper, a character from western folklore that aired for the first time in 1973 and became a unique symbol of advertising, especially among children. Think of the ‘Gold Leaf Man’ or ‘Marlboro Man’ who portrayed wealthy Englishmen in search of fine paintings and other artwork and at the end of the day, personified the cigarette brands.

With little strategy input at that time, creative expression had the power to break through and make an impact. Scaling these campaigns in a social media world were challenges that would come much later. Today, creative and strategic authenticity seem to be moving at a different pace than modern media, resulting in what one may call an intellectual gap. A copywriter echoed this pain point;

“I’m not complaining but in Pakistani advertising, we have started losing out on that (authenticity) grid. It has become extremely artificial. Forced. There is no thought behind any commercial... Honesty in advertising has decreased. We follow India and international advertising and inspiration sometimes leads to copying ideas. This is also one reason to stay open and write about what is actually true through ads.” (29 years, senior copywriter)

5. Does strategy matter to the creative process?

As a former creative writer, this question strikes a chord with me just as much as with a creative director who spoke of the nature of advertising and the lack of research resources available: “Not every profession needs support to create something new but advertising does. We need insights. We are dependent on a lot of things. We need to learn. We need to research and that is so low in terms of quality (in our industry).” (35 years, creative director)

All opinions on this question mirror each other in principle. Creative thinking gives way to best work when directed correctly. Strategic planning is a tool in the service of truth and fact. Strategy, at its best, must be simple, crystal clear and in service of creative thinking.

I find from experience that the most commonly used insights lack strategic integrity.

“Advertising has a lot of dictatorship now. In the name of insight, mundane facts are used. For example, patriotism is not an insight.” (40 years, lead scriptwriter at a local production house)

“You can learn only when you meet someone one-on-one; when you spend time with them. We don’t get to learn properly at all. We only use things that are acceptable in society from our own perspective in our work. Stereotypes sell and this is what makes us helpless because that is the purpose of ads.” (33 years, creative director)

6. Can strategists sell something that doesn’t exist yet?

“We loved your ideas, but want to run it by our leadership team before taking it forward.” To cushion creative heart and soul, we often hear this sentence, especially during new business pitches. Selling creative ideas and providing ammunition to the brand gatekeepers is as much a strategic job as one for the account management team. While account teams are tasked with fostering relationships for the agency, the strategy team has an immense (yet frequently missed) opportunity to sell creative ability using research and logic. The relationship between strategy and creative is a strong foot forward for any creative agency, helping their ideas earn and enjoy momentum during and after face time with clients.

Finally, I share my secret-sauce planning resources anyone can have fun exploring. The following tools (read ‘strategic ammunition’) can improve your strategic products, both internal and external. From consultancy to creativity, these resources can elevate strategic thinking and presentations through seemingly simple, handy tacts.

  1. Julian Cole’s Planning Dirty Decks: Quick and scrappy planning resources and case studies (planningdirty.com)
  2. The Noun Project: Visually consistent icons, for literally everything (thenounproject.com)
  3. Unsplash: Every photo is a complete visual treat, and high res (unsplash.com)
  4. AnswerThePublic: The most Googled questions about insert keyword here (answerthepublic.com)
  5. Netlytic: For free social listening and textual analysis (netlytic.org)

Sarah Fahim is a planner at Ogilvy Pakistan. Her full-length study has been published on Texas ScholarWorks: https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/ndle/2152/67965