MullenLowe Group APAC's chief strategy officer on creating a strategic path for brands and why he believes the key to success in planning is having a hunger and drive to succeed
S. ‘Subbu’ Subramanyeswar was recently elevated to chief strategy officer at MullenLowe Group APAC making him not only MullenLowe Lintas group in India's CSO, but the APAC CSO too. He has spent two decades in advertising and marketing, having worked at Wipro, Publicis, Rediffusion Y&R, and Saatchi & Saatchi in the markets of India, US and UK.A regular columnist and passionate academic, he is also a visiting faculty at the IVY League business schools IIM Ahmedabad and IIM Bangalore in India. He is a frequent speaker and delivered talks at the world famous Kellogg School of Management, Illinois and MIT Sloan, Boston in US and addressed quite a few business and marketing global forums.
Subbu is a passionate believer and practitioner of purpose-inspired brand building. His mission is to bring purpose to the world of brands and his breakthrough ‘Brand Point of View’ methodology and frameworks have been adopted by many of the brands that MullenLowe Lintas Group.
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?
Subbu> I believe there is a big difference between the two, although they tend to be used interchangeably. Planning is a process, program or pattern of thinking intended for a conclusive purpose. It is objective in nature, and largely reductive or inferential, with logic backed by data. Planning generally seeks to eliminate risk and lends solidity to the way a brand or brand marketing organisation functions. In advertising, the role of Planning, for some reason, is largely confined to the realm of communication.
Strategy, on the other hand, is more expansive and goes beyond mere communication. It is a game plan, a design, or more importantly, an idea to accomplish or win a slightly long-term agenda for the brand/business. Innovative thinking needs to be at the heart of a strategy - an imaginative leap or a spark of intuition that goes beyond the hill of analysis, in finding unexplored solutions for the brand/business. Hence, Strategy goes beyond communication, which is just a sliver of the brand problem.
Personally, I’d go with ‘strategist’, any day!
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?
Subbu> I’d like to take the liberty to mention two of them here. From a strategic perspective, my all-time favourite is Tata Tea’s brilliant strategy based on the brand taking a stand – Tea should not just wake you up, but awaken you. While tea has laid back, relaxed, even luxurious connotations in the west, in India the ubiquitous refresher is known as ‘Chai’. Unlike Tea that is fashionably put together, Chai is fastidiously cooked with milk, sugar, ginger and cardamom, at almost 200 degrees centigrade.
Though it’s enjoyed at any time of the day, it’s invariably what millions of Indians wake up to in the mornings. In many ways, it’s the taste of a new day, the beginning of new possibilities and an eye opener, literally.
And that set us thinking. What if it also awakened their thought process, to take a moral stand on issues confronting society? As the market leader, the onus was always on Tata Tea to assume the role of a thought leader and be a catalyst for new thinking. Its pole position ensured it could readily appropriate the core benefits of the category, in a manner that the others simply couldn’t. This was an opportunity not just to embellish its leadership credentials, but to also put the strength back in the allure of tea, when it came to the younger audience. The strategic shift for the brand gave Tata Tea a lasting cultural authority, not just brand authority, for over a decade.
Globally, ‘Dirt is good’ from OMO (Surf Excel in South Asia) is something that I truly love. It’s again a case of a brand that took a stand and became a conversation leader not just in the category, but beyond that, in the larger society. It’s incredible what the brand has achieved with its thought-leading cultural strategy!
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?
Subbu> I draw my inspiration from everyday life. And that comes from spending time away from the computer. I love being observant and curious about everything around me, including people that I come across – the way they think, dress, eat, move, chat. I also draw a lot from culture and the inspiring stories that happen there - be it art, design, literature, cinema, music, politics, sports, technology, television, social media etc. and the influence and impact they have on people.
I believe this is where the most powerful insights and ideas reside and these can be a rich source of inspiration for great ideas. And of course, beyond all these, my own self-expression of the things that I see, connecting my experiences and blending new perspectives. The way I see it, the whole brief needs to be a strategically-constructed inspiration. And it has to be designed to inspire creative people. Only creative people.
LBB> What part of your job/the strategic process do you enjoy the most?
Subbu> I essentially love the entire process of creating a strategic path for the brands/businesses that I work on. But if I have to choose one aspect, it would be ‘problem solving’. I find the mathematics and experiments involved in it quite exciting. The idea of looking at issues from multiple perspectives or diverse disciplines, challenging the holy grails, pushing boundaries, and exploring at different altitudes helps me to be my best. Business problems don’t exist to beat us down, they help us grow. I look at every problem as an opportunity to make things better. When you connect people and opportunities together in thoughtful ways, you can generate tremendous business impact. When you solve a brand/business problem, you invariably solve consumer, or even people’s problems. Just remember to leave no answer unquestioned.
LBB> What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself going back to over and over again? Why are they so useful?
Subbu> I like using maxims, templates, principles or some sort of conceptual framing in arriving at a strategy as they are mental representations that order experience in ways that enable us to appreciate it. At MullenLowe Lintas Group, we lead with the philosophy of ‘Brands to Stands’ - a brand’s definitive declaration of what it believes in and fights for, a distinct standpoint on why and for whom it exists, influencing everything a brand does and does not do. This idea of making brands real and purposeful has become the centrepiece of our strategic and creative process in the last few years. And this powerful and pervasive thinking has conclusively changed our point of view on how branding and advertising needs to be shaped in a hyper-connected world. I find most of my answers here.
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?
Subbu> I look at the partnership between a strategist and creative as one of thought and action and vice versa. It is like the body’s nervous system made of sensory and motor links. Your senses work in tandem with your actions. They’re not two separate systems, but a single integrated one. Just as a strategic thought might spark a creative idea, a creative thought might spark a strategic idea too. So it’s not about what creative folks do with the information that I give, it’s about what magic we create and take forward together, with what we have and explored further, as a team. To me, it is a very intimate process.
What I look forward to in this partnership is the time we spend together as pals feeding each other’s mind by reframing the problems from different perspectives and looking for solutions in myriad ways, the respect and admiration for each other’s ideas and the attention they deserve from each other, and finally, aligning our beliefs or shared vision in creating greater value. I also love the part of us challenging each other to spur, spark, and push the best ideas to be bigger. Finally, I personally believe, the partnership between strategy and creative is as big or as important as any friendship or romance between two individuals.
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?
Subbu> We always respect the result. But at MullenLowe Lintas Group, we demand that everything leading to it is a process. Our process of ‘Hyperbundling’ fortunately pulls the strategy and creative teams together right at the beginning and continues till the last mile. It’s a highly collaborative process at every step and also involves digital transformation, customer experience activation, public relations and social media, media planning and buying, mobile marketing, design, direct response and performance analytics. Leave alone a thought or inspiration coming from strategy or creative, there have been many occasions where an idea that stemmed from digital, experiential, technology or PR went on to become the bedrock on which the entire idea was built or was the very idea itself. I believe that’s how a solution has to be arrived at in the modern day business world. This is by far the best process I have yet been a part of, in my career. So essentially, strategy for us is a process that is fore-thought, not an after-thought.
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?
Subbu> I personally place qualities ahead of qualifications. Passionate people possessing the vision, imagination, instinct, curiosity and an open mind are highly valued, but if I have to pick one quality that beats everything any day, and is fundamental for any strategist, it would be HUNGER. Good strategists should have the hunger for every aspect of strategy, and not just for a while, but for the entire length and beyond. They should always be hungry to learn, hungry to grow, hungry to master things and hungry to make things happen the way they believe in, without any fear. They should have the desire to continually hone new skill-sets and gain fresh insights. This to me is even more important than aptitude.
And though intelligence is important for any strategist, they need to have the drive to maximise their intelligence. And when they do, limitations like Covid-19 won’t stand in the way for these people. The pandemic presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to make the world a better place than what we had inherited, and this business gives us that platform.
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?
Subbu> At MullenLowe Lintas Group, we worship at the altar of effectiveness. It is part of our culture and is built into our ‘Hyperbundled’ thinking and briefing process. However, I believe that, while the strategists are the inspiration engines of this game, winning effectiveness awards isn’t a solo sport. The collective stock of intelligence of all the functions in the agency, and more importantly, the client, have to come into play. If you were effective, you were creative too. Creative that has positively impacted the business metrics of all forms.
Winning effectiveness awards definitely lifts the spirits and boosts the morale of the strategist and the agency as a whole, but it will always be a by-product of great work. Contribution or inspiration to creating great work that works in the market place will always be the only driver of the strategists at MullenLowe Lintas Group. Of late, there is a disturbing trend of favouring short-term and one-off creative at these awards shows. Durable campaigns, to my mind, are the single most important driver of effectiveness, with enormous performance multipliers. Advertising delivers only a fraction of its true potential over short time-frames.
LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?
Subbu> No major frustrations, but I have given myself a challenge to help elevate the discipline. It is to make everyone outside and inside believe that strategy is a ‘product’ on its own. It isn’t an ingredient or just an input that goes into someone else’s work. More often than not, the strategic thinking that has changed the fortunes of many brands and businesses goes completely free, while agencies make a pittance on things like production costs. That is quite annoying.
Today, clients have many complex business problems, and I believe the solutions for many lie outside advertising – be it in new product innovations, exploring a new cohort of audience or geography, or a change in pricing strategy. Despite having the talent, technique and temperament to contribute in these spaces, strategists are rarely sought after by the clients. In a few odd cases where they happen, the agency model isn’t designed to charge for those. Through LinConsult, our Strategic Consulting practice we had set up a few years ago to deliver pure strategy, we started playing the game at the top of the value chain. Our thought-leading product ‘Brands to Stands,’ from creating the platform idea to putting together the brand interaction field, has almost been a second big bang experience for the strategists at MullenLowe Lintas Group.
LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?
Subbu> Strategy or planning is a belief. Based on your belief, it’s all about taking a stand or having a point of view. The whole study of management in any aspect is an inexact science. It’s only your views, beliefs, or self-expressions based on your experiences, strong rationale, intuition and conviction that truly matter. In a world where everything is connected, where everyone is striving for perfection, a strategist today has a unique opportunity to be the central point of this raging tornado of change in advertising, and in general, in the world of business. As ‘human software’ specialists, who understand human motivations, fears, anxieties, dreams and desires, we are gifted with the ability and opportunity to access human creativity, imagination and magical thinking in the cause of business.
Strategists have to move away from being servile to the creative product to being the leader of the new agenda for brands/businesses. From being an analyst to an innovator. From methods and means to being a catalyst for the creative community. From defining the next step to creating new fertile grounds for brands to play in. From insight to foresight. From promotion to the other 3Ps of marketing. And finally, from being a strategy manager to being a strategy entrepreneur. It’s now time for every strategist to pull Strategic Planning out of its narrow cast, expand its definition, collect varied expertise, and actually be the gateway between the marketer and all other agencies – advertising, media, activation, PR, DM, digital, tech and whatever else that springs up.
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