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Planning for the Best: Karan Gera on Why the Best Advertising Is Born Out of Everyday Culture


Deutsch NY's SVP, group planning director on turning the complex into a simple, sharp angled idea that inspires great work that sells

Planning for the Best: Karan Gera on Why the Best Advertising Is Born Out of Everyday Culture

A seasoned strategist with over 16 years on B2C and B2B brands, Karan has an unparalleled track record of taking brands and teams to the next level. At Deutsch NY his entrepreneurial approach and diverse team of strategists drives the agency’s strategic thinking and creative strategy development for PNC Bank.   

Karan’s extensive experience includes leading and mentoring teams on brands such as American Express, Citi, Pepsi, Aquafina, The United States Postal Service, and Cover Girl. He was also a strategy lead at Faith Popcorn’s Brain Reserve, and has held strategy stints at McCann Worldgroup, Y&R, Grey, Redscout and BBDO. Gera and his team’s insights helped lead to award winning work recognized at Cannes, Effie, One Show, Webby, Echo, Cresta, and others.

LBB> What do you think is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there one? And which description do you think suits the way you work best?

Karan> Although both mean the same to me but as a purist, I prefer planning. However, it does beg the question if planning is the right word to describe what we do? But, that's a whole different conversation.

When I started, planning was the prevalent word. And it was considered an art. About being a creative thinker who makes a mental leap from research findings to give a nice sharp angle to the creative team. 

Nowadays, I think the word strategy is being used more often. 

But whether you call yourself a planner or a strategist, the expectation is the same. Use your imagination to turn the complex into a simple, sharp angled idea that inspires great work that sells. This fundamental applies no matter what type of strategist you are (social, content, experience, whatever).

My one gripe about strategist becoming the go to word is that it has given rational (and lazy) thinkers permission to call themselves strategists. Instead of using critical thinking, and bringing their creative interpretation, a lot of them simply copy and paste information from a client's brief or a research deck and present that as strategy. It has brought a factory mentality to the discipline, and in my opinion has lowered the quality of thinking. Our imagination is what makes strategy exceptional and it is certainly in low reserves.

Planning on the other hand is a bit more sacred. It creates the anticipation of simple and imaginative creative thinking which I very much enjoy. The barrier to entry feels higher as it should be.

LBB> We’re used to hearing about the best creative advertising campaigns, but what’s your favourite historic campaign from a strategic perspective? One that you feel demonstrates great strategy?

Karan> For me the best advertising is one that is born out of everyday culture. You find a cultural nugget from something very mundane and turn that into a big, simple, creative idea that resonates with people. With that in mind, Coke ran a “Thanda matlab Coca-Cola” (‘Cold means Coca Cola’) campaign in the early 2000s in India (done way earlier and very different from the Brrr campaign if your mind is going there).

Usually in India when you visit someone’s home, one of the first things you ask the guest. “Kya lenge, thanda ya garam? (what would you like to drink, cold or hot?)” Coca-Cola had been absent from the Indian market for a long time so it was sort of a comeback for it. Indian soft drink brands were preferred as people had gotten used to their taste. And so Coke was almost never served when someone said they wanted to drink thanda (cold).

So they took this question that people ask in everyday life and turned that into a creative idea. The campaign associated Coke as thanda (so every time you said I’ll have 'thanda', it meant Coca-Cola). It used a variety of cultural settings where this question is asked and planted Coke in those situations. 

A simple but massive idea that everyone identified with. Not only did it increase sales and market share, the ads became a cultural phenomenon. An all American brand seamlessly entrenched itself in Indian culture without ever forcing it. All from a simple, mundane question in everyday life. That to me is the job of the planner / strategist to find that simple, relatable cultural nugget, providing a platform for big creative ideas.

Here’s a link to the ads if you are interested in seeing them (although they are all in Hindi). They were so popular that people wanted to see the ads more than the TV program.

LBB> When you’re turning a business brief into something that can inform an inspiring creative campaign, what do you find the most useful resource to draw on?

Karan> When writing strategy, there comes a point where you feel you are in a strong place. You’ve done the due diligence and you have a solid territory. But you also know it can be better. In other words, you have a planner’s block. In my experience putting an extra 30 minutes into it can make all the difference to the strategy.

Given the time and situation, I prefer to do either all or at least one of these things: 

1. Writing a creative brief is really about channeling your audience. You have to get into the character like an actor. Yes, you get a lot of information from research about your audience. But nothing beats speaking to one. Find anyone who has had a similar experience to your audience. Even if it’s not the exact experience, speaking to that person really helps get into the mindset of the audience more than any report. Even one conversation can break open the brief and take it into a far more interesting place.

2. Another way is to speak to people who can pluck a great idea out of thin air aka other planners. A quick five minute conversation can really feed your imagination and take you into new territories that on your own could take hours or days or maybe never. This is a sure-shot shortcut to fresh creative thinking.

3. If you have the option to do just one thing, this is what to do. Speak to your creative team (or any creative person). They have an eye for execution like you can never have. They will evaluate your strategy and your story as: does this give them a launchpad for a lot of great ideas? Their executional imagination strips down the strategy idea to its simplest, most interesting and inspiring form. BTW, most creatives I’ve worked with are also amazing strategists or rather they are very underrated as strategists.

One additional thing that I find very helpful is speaking to someone on the client side e.g. a sales person or someone who has regular customer contact (even a call center employee). These people can be your secret weapon because they have the deepest knowledge about your audience and your client’s business and their category like no other resource. The trick is to get them to open up because they are not used to having such conversations.

LBB> What part of your job/the strategic process do you enjoy the most?

Karan> Not sure there’s one thing but getting to the true nature of the problem is a lot of fun. Most client briefs define the problem at a very surface level like people don’t know about us. At Deutsch NY we take the time to go through the whole journey of understanding the business, the product, category, audience and then look at everything from a cultural lens. This allows us to turn the assignment on its head and get to the heart of the problem. It opens the door to so many possibilities. Of course it leads to powerful creative ideas but also sparks innovation ideas which can make a much bigger impact on the client’s business.

LBB> What sort of creatives do you like to work with? As a strategist, what do you want them to do with the information you give them?  

Karan> The best work truly happens when planners and creatives are in total sync and the interaction is seamless and organic vs. being a check-in. And when you are working hand in hand with the creatives, that’s like reaching nirvana in a planner’s world. Because you are adding value every step of the way.

And this type of collaboration and camaraderie often leads to work that goes beyond a standard ad. 

One of my favourite examples of going beyond an ad is #SwiggyVoiceofHunger campaign from India. Swiggy is a food delivery service in India. Local food and grocery delivery in India is miles ahead of the west in terms of speed and options. The app based delivery services are not only competing with each other but also the local delivery teams of many establishments. So instead of creating an ad, Swiggy used the voice messaging feature of Instagram to challenge all the foodies - which is basically everyone in India. 

The planner had an observation that when you send voice messages via Instagram, the voice notes look like food. So working with the creative team, the ‘voice of hunger’ idea was born. People were asked to send Swiggy voice messages that look like their favorite food. It consisted of four challenges: create the shape of a Kebab Skewer, Nacho, Shawarma and Pancakes using the voice note feature on Instagram. Whoever completed all the challenges could win a year’s worth of food vouchers from Swiggy. The engagement was off the charts. You can see the case study here:

Similarly, when I worked on the US Postal Service’s business, the planners, writers and creative technologists worked together to build an AI robot that can serve as a mini post office on the street. The planners brought insights to the writers, which helped train the robot on the many different situations it is likely to find itself in when interacting with people on the street. It was a lot of work but magical.

At Deutsch NY, this type of collaboration between creative and the strategy team really runs deep and it’s in our DNA, which makes it a great place for planners to thrive. That’s why the Budweiser idea of celebrating Messi’s record 644th goal by creating a custom beer for each goalkeeper who conceded those goals was born. Instead of creating an ad to celebrate, custom beer bottles were sent to every goalkeeper. And all the goalkeepers shared those bottles with their social media followers. It was the ultimate troll that drew so much international engagement that a regular ad could not have done. 

View the case study here.

LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?

Karan> I do very much so. Three areas I want to touch upon.

Earlier I had mentioned the dearth of imagination. I call it thinking with the handbrake on. A lot of new planners or strategists entering the industry are flat thinkers and the creative leap from analysis to strategic idea is very minimal if not non-existent. And this has been the case for the last 5-6 years if not more. It’s the job of the planner to bring dangerous ideas, instead it’s becoming safer. Maybe it’s just me but this flat thinking era coincides with the influx of banner briefs.

At Deutsch NY we really encourage releasing the handbrake, giving planners the license to go for it and bring dangerous thinking that can solve business problems in a unique way.

The second one is something that has persisted from when I started and even before. The truth is planning can be very self absorbed and superficial, creating an army of Deck Dragons. What I mean is that a lot of planners focus too much on building out slide after slide. A 50 page strategy deck is not frowned upon. You go through pages of self-congratulatory drivel and then land on an idea that seems so out of touch with the business problem or the reality of the business. A lot of planners are obsessed with creating a killer deck that makes them look really smart. Instead they should be spending the majority of time understanding their audience and the client’s business. My personal rule is 5 pages or less.

At Deutsch NY, we aim to bring strategies that quickly get to the point and bring ideas that can actually work in real life. Our clients appreciate the sharp and concise approach. It gives them confidence that we have clarity and grasp of the business problem.

The third thing is over reliance on social issues for a big idea. What makes strategy fun is that you find insights from mundane everyday situations and bring truths that everyone is thinking about but not really saying. Nowadays every piece of thinking uses social issues as a crutch to come up with big ideas. These are easy pickings and thinking seems hackneyed. It’s similar to what Norm Macdonald lamented about the decline of comedy standards as everyone was using an easy target like Donald Trump.

Like the Coke idea I mentioned earlier, “Thanda Matlab Coca Cola (Cold means Coca Cola)”, was born out of everyday culture. Such refreshing creativity is becoming scarce. I do believe it’s not just the planners, but also the creatives. So, this is actually an industry wide issue that is making advertising less interesting and more stale.

LBB> What has been your personal experience in the industry as a planner? Based on that, what advice would you give to a strategist / planner starting out?

Karan> Being born and raised in New Delhi, I faced a different type of obstacle to becoming a planner in New York. I got rejected a lot because the feeling was that since I don’t understand American or Western culture, how will I create strategy for the American audience? At the time, the only other Indian planners I knew of in New York were Suresh Nair and Devika Bulchandani. Finally, I got my break at BBDO and I’ll be forever grateful to Tracy Lovatt, Lee Chapman and Martyn Straw for that. 

But, because I was snubbed multiple times for being an outsider, it scarred me a bit mentally. It made me want to fit in. So, I tried to copy the style of other planners, how they thought, how they wrote decks and framed their ideas. Looking back at those initial years, I stunk as a planner because I muted my own style of thinking, creativity and personal experiences. I was trying too hard to be like other planners.  

It took me a few years to start recognising and believing in my own creativity and embrace my Indian upbringing. I realised this is actually a positive and will allow me to bring a different perspective.

So, my advice to everyone starting out is to really be yourself, use your background, culture and unique experiences to your advantage and believe in them. This will help find your identity as a planner and you’ll be a one of a kind asset for both creatives and clients. 

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Deutsch NY, Thu, 15 Sep 2022 16:22:05 GMT