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Planning for the Best: The Business of Talking to Humans with Saad Khan
Advertising Agency
Gurugram, India
Chief strategy officer at FCB Ulka on the time, sweat, frustration, destruction, and recreation of working on brand strategy
With over two decades of diverse experience in advertising and brand consulting, Saad Khan brings to work solid problem-solving skills and an attitude that questions formulaic marketing. A vibrant and vivacious leader, Saad can energise his teams to address business problems and find opportunities. An ardent advocate of detail, data, and behavioural economics, his approach to strategy is to remove all the noise to get to the core problem. Having previously held roles at Leo Burnett India, Dentsu and MullenLowe, Saad joined FCB Ulka five years ago as national planning director before taking up his currently role as chief strategy officer a few months ago.

Here he shares his passion, joy and sometimes frustrations with strategy. 

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?

Saad> I usually skip this debate. Both have been used interchangeably in advertising. Fundamentally, it boils down to where they join the process. While some take the baton and run forward towards the finish line and the creative output, some go backwards to go forward. They backtrack and spend time in the grounds of marketing and business, and then move forward.

Before moving forward, I prefer to go backwards, to ground zero, where the focus is more on the problem the brand faces, say plateaued sales. Flat sales are not the problem. It is a symptom of the problem. There is reason why sales are not growing. 

A strategist’s job is to catch the tail of the problem and pull it out from its hiding hole. First, define the problem, find a strategic solution to overcome it and then move forward to insights and ‘what to say’. This way of working suits me best.

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?

Saad> While there are leader brands who have done fantastic creative work, I am more fascinated by creative work from challenger brands because it is never easy for them. They have to think out of the box, they have to work with more constraints, and they do not have the same marketing firepower that a leader has. Therefore, they have to rely more on disruptive strategies and innovative creative work.

One of the most strategic and creative campaign in my view is Volkswagen’s ‘Think Small’.    It reeks of bravery. Of sacrifice. Of commitment. To launch a small, relatively basic, and foreign car in a culture that loved big, fast, and stylish cars. To identify that there were enough people whose buying decision was fuelled more by peer pressure and the need to conform. To zag when everyone zigged. To commit to sheer honesty as a strategy and pack it in an intelligent way, which became a part of popular culture.

Finally, to go all out and do a campaign that simply disrupted the category norms. Everything ‘Think Small’ did forms the fundamentals of challenger brand strategies for modern challenger brands. 

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

Saad> We live in a world where stimuli are everywhere – within us and around us. They are a part of our own memory structures in the form of our experiences, our personal stories, stories told to us as kids, and they are also brewing and bubbling as we walk the block to pick up a hot cup of coffee. Everything and anything can be inspiring. Culture, particularly ancient cultures. Stories in any form. Music, movies, books. Cartoons, mythology. Characters. All of them are wormholes to the minds of people we talk to.

For inspiration, I have resorted to everything from Bob the Builder to Lion King to Maori culture, to song lyrics, to poets and writers, to science. For me, anything that fuels imagination and connects the thinking to something simple and true is a fertile ground for an inspiring creative campaign.

Like Jean-Luc Godard said, “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.”

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

Saad> As cliched as it sounds, the entire part. As I mentioned earlier, strategy or planning is not just data or just creativity. It is a continuum. How can a strategist or planner not traverse the entire continuum? I really enjoy pinning the problem, connecting the dots. It is like solving a puzzle. Of course, for different campaigns, the key to solving the problem comes from different aspects of the planning process. 

On some campaigns, it is data. Data is lenticular in nature. Looking at the same data from various perspectives gives varied signals, different starting points. On some projects, where the problem is not very self-evident, research comes to our rescue with valuable insights. And on some, it is the good old inspiration and ideation that can ignite a spark for the creative team.

LBB> What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself going back to over and over again? Why are they so useful? 

Saad> These are not principles per se, but three important guardrails for any project I work on:

1.Interrogate the product. I think that line of enquiry is not used or appreciated as it should be. We generally use the phrase ‘product parity’ and move on. I believe every product has something distinct. It might not be a big technological or product difference. It could be the sourcing, manufacturing process or even the machine with which it is made. In fact, it could be something as simple as its colour. I recently used an ingredient product’s colour as the inspiration and the unlock and it instinctively clicked with the creative team.

2. Second thing I resort to more often than not is using the principles of behavioural economics. It is a gold mine of understanding human behaviour and human irrationality. We often forget that we talk to humans, and humans are driven more by the irrational than the rational. I am talking not just about emotions, but especially about human behavioural patterns. Once we know why humans behave in a certain way, we will be able to get out of formulaic marketing and persuade them better.

3. Lastly, I always give myself and everyone on the team a reality check - "No one goes to sleep thinking which brand of toothbrush or shirt they will use the next day. They have got bigger problems”. Our business talks to humans. Right now, as I am writing this, they are out there dealing with life. With peer pressure, with loans, with identity, with social structures, or with a slow internet while they try to book a cab online and getting late for a meeting in the bargain. I try to keep people at the centre and look at what conflicts and issues our work can either resolve or make it easier for them to deal with.

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?

Saad> Most of my learning while growing up in advertising happened via some brilliant creative minds. I have worked with almost all kinds. The ones who just ask what the problem is and then close the door only to open it again with a solution in their hands. Or the ones, who after going through the brief ask, what’s your ad? 

I prefer and love working with the latter kind, the ones who jam, ask for more springboards, more inspiration. The ones who take a strategist’s clay and mould it into something fantastic. 

LBB> There’s a negative stereotype about strategy being used to validate creative ideas, rather than as a resource to inform them and make sure  they’re effective. How do you make sure the agency gets this the right way round?

Saad> One doesn’t put the cart in front of the horse. Find the problem, write the strategy, create the work. That’s the way. The only exception is when the creative idea is so brilliant that it needs to go on the table, but even then, if it is not addressing the problem or the objective, then we drop it, or take it to the client where it can help solve some other problem. 

LBB> What have you found to be the most important consideration in recruiting and nurturing strategic talent? And how has Covid changed the way you think about this?

Saad> For young talent, a curious mind is the key trait one must look for. Curiosity is oxygen for planners.  Second, I look for how far someone is willing to push the thinking. How observant one is. How much one challenges the status quo and conventional thinking. Finally, how well read. Strategists need to read.  

Since strategy is skill that’s learnt, nurturing young talent is one of the most important tasks senior strategists will always have on their plates. With the onset of Covid, the atmosphere and quality of interactions, feedbacks, thinking and bonding have taken a hit. I haven’t found a magical solution that recreates the same office work environment and culture in a home setting. But I have doubled up training meets and casual meets. Senior strategists and I ensure that we take time out for young planners and discuss their work.

LBB> In recent years it seems like effectiveness awards have grown in prestige and agencies have paid more attention to them. How do you think this has impacted on how strategists work and the way they are perceived?

Saad> Isn’t it great? Effectiveness awards are important. They give validation to people. They celebrate thinking. They bring strategists as well as account managers in the fold. It is shared victory. The change that effectiveness awards have brought into the lives of strategists is that apart from working on the daily shift, they have started to sniff out more opportunities. They have started to proactively think from the point of view of how many more cases they can think of and put out. Which is fantastic, because, in the end, any effectiveness case will not just bring glory to the agency but will also automatically help client’s business.

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

Saad> Only one. Excessive action bias. Strategy is not a fast process. Cannot be. It has its intrinsic pace and rhythm. It demands time, sweat, frustration, destruction, and recreation to nail the problem. I do not see many planners go through this passage or pay obeisance to the discipline. There is a tendency to jump to the solution without really cutting oneself off and going in a cave to find out the real problem. Only when one does this does one realise that, probably, the problem is not communication. The answer is not another campaign. So yes, going backwards to forward and spending more time on the problem is something planners need to learn in today’s fast culture. 

LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?

Saad> It’s a career where we solve problems. Every day is different, every campaign, every project is a different beast one must manoeuvre. To put it simply, it is chaotic. But then, there is beauty in chaos and it our job as planners to find the patterns and create something fantastic out of it. It’s finding the method in the madness.

And to do this, you need to be game for all the rigour, for being always well-read, for constantly moving backward and forward till you hit the right spot, for never being okay with the first obvious idea, for questioning the brief, whether it is yours or of the client. In the end it’s worth it for it leads us to great ideas that solve problems.

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