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Planning for the Best: Understanding Real People’s Stories with Simran Gill

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MullenLowe Singapore's associate planning director on why thoughts, behaviours, experiences and feelings are the most useful resource for a planner

Planning for the Best: Understanding Real People’s Stories with Simran Gill

Simran Gill started her career as a WPP Fellow, where she spent a year in trends and futures consulting (in Singapore), then traditional advertising (in London) and finally digital and business strategy (in Los Angeles), working on brands such as Coca-Cola, Nissan, Microsoft and Nestle. Since returning to Singapore, she's led the strategy on a variety of brands such as Invisalign, Shiseido, Rexona, ExxonMobil and Prudential, as well as government accounts such as National Library Board and Land Transport Authority, on projects ranging from branding to customer experience. 


LBB> What do you think is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there one? 

Simran> It’s dependent on the types of projects you’re expected to do. A planner would be expected to do more of brand strategy and communications strategy, whereas a strategist is expected to work on projects that are broader in scope than just ‘traditional’ advertising’ – business strategy, digital strategy, CX strategy.


LBB> And which description do you think suits the way you work best?

Simran> My heart will always identify as a planner. That’s the type of work that makes me the happiest and most engaged. However, the industry is changing and both planners and strategists are increasingly expected to be able to add value to all types of projects, which explains the growing (and understandable) trend of using the two terms interchangeably.


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? 

Simran> Fevicol’s ads from India are some of the best. I’ve grown up watching these ads, outside of India, and have never watched a Fevicol adhesive ad and not laughed. It remains in the deepest trenches of your mind and when the time comes for you to finally think about purchasing or using a high-performing adhesive for whatever reason, Fevicol’s the first brand that will enter your mind.

What I love about Fevicol’s ads is that they knew that to make people pay attention to a low-consideration product from a low-involvement category, they had to make it really memorable. This isn’t some smooth shampoo ad or a glitzy lifestyle brand – this is a boring product that you use to fix your furniture or book-bindings or fabric with some simple but hilarious ads.

And they draw attention to its USP (i.e. being a really strong adhesive) in an incredibly zany way: by leveraging immediately recognisable cultural situations (e.g. this ad features a truck in rural India overloaded with people to the point that it seems like people are about to fall off but they don’t – this is a sight that many, many Indians have seen). It allows such a seemingly boring brand and product to now become a part of Indian pop culture. 


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?

Simran> Real people’s real thoughts, behaviours, experiences and feelings. 

My starting point is almost always a quick conversation with a few non-ad friends, which will then get me thinking about further questions to ask even more people (even better if they’re strangers!). This usually gives me enough fodder to then look deeper into various types of data or reports or analyse certain trends online. Over the years, I’ve realised that clients do like the opportunity to better understand their audience. So not only am I getting the inspiration for my creative brief, but I’m painting a realistic portrait of my client’s audience for them as well. 


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

Simran> Understanding real people’s stories and then stringing together a narrative or a story that I personally find very emotionally compelling to address a client’s problem. I learn so much about the world around me just by speaking to people and after all these years, I realise that we all just want to be heard. I’m very grateful to have a job that lets me do this. 


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

Simran> When I started my career, I was once told that a planner’s job is to take all that complicated and complex information (that most likely no one wants to trawl through) and understand it and distill it to its simplest yet still informative form. I always strive to do just that, no matter the project. Sometimes I’m more successful at it than other times, but it’s a principle that’s never failed me in the eyes of my creative team and my clients. It’s a useful concept because in communications, we’re trying to get people to stop and pay attention to us and think about what we’re saying. And we have to do that in a way that’s the most effortless for our audience – and for a planner, our audience even before the campaign goes live is the creative team and then the clients. We need their buy-in before we can get our strategy turned into a campaign. 

The other thing I always try to follow is to focus on emotions. How does the audience currently feel? And how should they feel, once the issue is resolved? So, how can a brand build a stronger emotional connection with its audience? 


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?

Simran> I love working with creatives who view me as their partner instead of the brief-giver. My job is to help them and vice versa. This means having them interrogate my creative briefs and also asking me to join their brainstorm sessions with them so that I can see if there’s any finding that I have that supports any spark of creativity. 

Ideally, I’d like them to use the information I give them as jumping off points for creative ideas. Whether it’s an emotional quote or a thought-provoking data point – for them to be able to see the seed of a creative idea in different types of information is something that I love witnessing.


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?

Simran> Sometimes the timeline is too tight, resourcing is an issue, things need to be a lot more fluid than the more structured system of research > creative briefing >  ideation > presentation. Strategy should enable the process and the team, but not get in the way. If the team can come up with creative ideas that, according to the strategist, do a sensible job of addressing the core issue at hand, then I don’t see why strategy can’t be used to validate them as long as it addresses the client’s objective. Good ideas don’t necessarily have to be the result of the creative brief. The creative brief should be the jumping off point, but it’s the responsibility of the strategist to speak up if they think the creative ideas aren’t headed down the right direction and to steer them back. That’s how strategy can continue to remain a resource to make sure that the work is effective. 


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?

Simran> One of the things that has allowed me to hire some amazing strategic talent in the past has been to see how they talk about and view their failures. We love to talk about our successes and wins but so many of us are so ashamed of the low points we’ve experienced. It’s a way to show me how grounded, and how human the individual is.

I’ve had a candidate tell me about a time they had to repeat their ‘A’ level year in school because they failed their exams, how alone and unintelligent they felt that entire year being left behind, only for them to be of the brightest, kindest and most interesting strategists I’ve had the privilege of hiring, who wrote the most interesting and perceptive creative briefs. I believe that being a planner is all about being someone who can be vulnerable and, very often, be able to speak to other people’s vulnerabilities too. 

I’m not in a role that hires and/or manages people at the moment, so I can’t exactly speak to how Covid-19 has changed the way I think about it. But I can’t imagine that my way of recruiting strategic talent would be drastically affected by any pandemic.


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?

Simran> It’s probably helping strategists feel like there’s at least a little more purpose to their work, that all their research and observations can lead to some form of tangible results that ultimately benefits the clients. While I don’t think awards should matter the most, agencies starting to invest in effectiveness awards also means that it’s more difficult for strategists to just create ‘strategy’ out of thin air. It forces us to make sure that we can back up what we are saying the campaign strategy should be with some evidence. And I think it may also help strategists and planners have their roles be more understood by others. 


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

Simran> I’ve noticed that sometimes the discipline tends to attract people who just want to be known as ‘smart’ because of this horrible perception that ‘planners are the smartest people in the room’. That perception, which for some reason remains pervasive, is not true and it shouldn’t be true and is such a sad and insulting way to view an industry where I’ve worked with razor sharp suits and creatives. If your motivation as a planner is to appear smart, then it’s likely that your work isn’t going to be as good as it can be. Whereas if your motivation is to really be the bridge between the client’s problem and the target audience’s need, it comes through in your work as well. (i.e. effective!)


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

• Read – anything. Buzzfeed, fanfiction, non-fiction, chick lit, The Financial Times, whatever you like. Just read anything that interests you and makes you wonder.

• Be curious about people and why they behave the way they do. 

• Don’t forget your hobbies even as you grow in your career. They’re what make you more rounded and human!

• And please don’t assume that you’re the smartest. Keep learning. Remain collaborative. But always have opinions.

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MullenLowe Singapore, Mon, 04 Oct 2021 09:59:00 GMT