'A lot of folks don't realize that they are planners'

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McCann Worldgroup Global CSO Suzanne Powers weighs in on cultivating planning talent and how "globalization" prompts polarization

McCann Worldgroup Global Chief Strategy Officer Suzanne Powers was among the speakers at the Dubai Lynx International Festival of Creativity 2015. At the event, she discussed McCann's study "The Truth about Global Brands," which surveyed 30,000 people's attitudes and beliefs about global as well as the fast-evolving media and cultural landscape.

This interview was first published in Campaign Middle East. It was edited and republished in the April 3 issue of Campaign India.

A lot of clients have been involved even while the study was being conducted. How has the response been thus far?

We are quite lucky to work on some large pieces of global business, and they were quite helpful with shared learnings. The response has been pretty good, though I think we have only touched the tip of the iceberg with this piece. Because there is so much of data beyond what is there in a presentation of 30 or 45 minutes (on the study). There is so much data behind those presentations that we can use for our clients.

We can look by category, by markets, by region. When you marry that with a client’s key question or challenges — anything that they are grappling with — we have a whole other way to help them approach their business. 

We are in the very early stages. We could build out workshops or deep dives. Many clients, including Chevrolet and Nestlé, have asked us if we can do a bespoke presentation for their teams. 

You mentioned in your talk that the study started with "Globalization" and then changed to "The Truth about Global Brands." Could you explain?

We found that the word "globalization" was incredibly polarizing. Even when we were talking to many of the markets before the data gathering, some markets said, "Our clients are not part of globalization" or "not concerned with globalization."

We gathered that the word "globalization" could have a very negative connotation – to suggest (companies and brands) pushing towards and imposing upon cultures. That was probably okay 20 or 30 years ago; not so now, with the re-emergence of national pride and culture and so on.

So we started to change the name of the study in order to help everybody understand that it was a way to understand how global brands can and should behave and figure out the new landscape.

From the findings, is there anything that suggests that companies that are not global, need to behave on some aspects like global companies today?

Yes, definitely. Some of the things are basic — whether you are local or global, or old or new.

There may be no such thing as a "global media buy," but earned media is very global. Earned conversations are very global, very quickly. Even if you are a regional brand, there are negatives to having the social media landscape (particularly) strangulate your message or point of view.

We are in an era of discovery. People can discover things that are not happening next door. If they love it, they’ll take it forward. If they hate it, they’ll still take it forward.

So I think a lot of the findings have application for local and regional brands. When we were in Asia (Pacific), a couple of local brand leaders came up to us to have a conversation. They were local brands wanting to go global.

Some of the local brands we see are probably global from a conversation standpoint already. It’s about how they can get those products into those markets. Some of the patterns that we notice can help figure out even what the distribution should be – you need to be listening properly.

What does the sense of returning national pride mean for brands? In a market where local and global brands co-exist, should both align themselves in a particular way?

One of the pieces of the study that we didn’t show (at Lynx) was a segmentation study, to understand how consumers were either open, or closed to global brands. There were some very interesting differences between what we called the ‘Armchair Globalists’ and the ‘Staunch Localists’ (and everyone in between).

So to your question, it depends on the segment – which segment is prominent in the market, who has the louder voice, who is influential within that market. 

All that said, there is room for both. We definitely see a nice mix. When global brands do it right, they give back to that (local) culture and earn their right into the consideration set. When they don’t, the "Staunch Localists" reject it.

A subject of global debate has been on where the future planner will be housed.Will they be within client organisations? Will the agencies still have the right to the function?

It depends on what business agencies think they are in. If agencies continue to believe – and I hope they do, selfishly – that they are in the business of creativity, and whatever form the creativity takes on – then planning is completely integral to that business.

We are all trying to make creative solutions to our clients’ problems. That’s where strategy — a k a planning — is much needed because strategists dig for different ways of approaching things, different ways to solve problems, and different insights that can help drive creativity. When planners are involved in a creative organisation and process, that’s when magic happens.

It’s fine if clients have their own planners; that would be a little different in that it’s unattached to that solution. Strategists don’t really have the distance they need to look at and analyse a client’s problem if they are sitting in the middle of that problem.

A lot of the planning talent has come from servicing. We’ve got schools training people, largely, to go into servicing, creative or media. Where is the source for planning talent?

A lot of folks don’t realize that they are actually planners. I don’t know if it’s a personality profile or an approach to life that you will find in a strategist ... They have intense curiosity, they are fascinated by everything. These are approaches to life that are ingrained in people, versus a particular skillset.

You can  teach someone the skills of qualitative and quantitative research. And hopefully there is a bit of intuitive understanding of how to tell a story from the numbers. But without curiosity, and without being fascinated by culture and people and behavior, the person is not possibly cut out for strategy.

We try and scout for talent from every area, be it account servicing or someone trained in creative. We found a new member for our team, who was a new business project manager. We noticed that she kept looking at everything quizzically, and we realised she was probably a planner.

Has planning struggled to demonstrate its value to the client end? Is that an ongoing challenge or are things better?

It depends on the market and the level of understanding of the different components of what we do. But it’s definitely better. 

I remember having to fight for planning in my early years. It was before data overwhelmed everybody, before the Internet. You had to get people to go out and do research. (Then) you farmed that out and got that paid for separately. 

I think it’s come a long way. I’m not sure we as agencies have really figured out the shape of our organizations in being ready to solve client problems. And strategy has to be an integral part of that.

Are we in the business of problem solving, or are we in the business of servicing? Having good meetings and keeping people happy is part of it, not all of it.

Which are the most evolved markets, from a planning perspective?

We are seeing a growing interest in fast-growing markets. This part of the world does cherish strategy, which is very important. There are constant challenges (depending on the market) in the Middle East. Having strategists figure that out moment by moment is critical.

We see quite a developed market in Brazil. Because media is bundled, there is still a lot of strategic rigor involved.

It’s funny that where planning began (which is London, if you believe that), it doesn’t feel as innovative to me anymore. It’s entrenched, but it doesn’t feel as though it has had a refresh for a while.

We struggle in Europe (as most agencies do), coming out of the recession, to structure properly and get the right talent in the right place. We’re putting a lot of focus there to build back in some of those strategic competencies and thought leadership.

The question on planners going on to head agencies – or the lack of them: what explains it if planning was indeed such an important function? Are the skills different?

The skills that a strategist has are very good for leading an agency. Again, that is if that agency understands the business it is in – of strategic creativity. If an agency is in the business of financial risk management, perhaps a strategist isn’t the right leader. That’s something very controversial, I think. But with massive holding companies, a lot of people think they are in the business of financial risk management, rather than making things and doing what’s right for their clients.

I’m lucky that I worked at TBWA for many years, where Jean-Marie Dru was the global head — and he was a strategist. I saw how those strategic skills could be applied to running a company. It seems self-serving when I say that but I do think it’s compelling – we always knew what we were there to make or do.

Has data (and analytics) increased the importance of account planning, or has it made media planning more important?

There has always been a role for strategists to translate things, whether you are translating piles of quantitative data, or translating between cultures, consumer constituencies and brand leaders. That role continues in the world of big data.

But the big fear that I have, is that data should not replace the decisions we make. Data is part of the decisions, part of the arsenal. The second data leads the answer, we have a problem. You may as well just give it up to robots if you take the human element and the creative side out of it.

The media folks have done a tremendous job in aggregating huge amounts of data into global toolsets, or things that help them plan and buy more efficiently. I am slightly jealous of that. But my worry again is that if you take the humans out of that, you just have a system that everyone else does (or will).


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