13 December 2007

Murphy's Laws: Interview with Brand Equity

Murphy's Laws, The Economic Times, by Ravi Balakrishnan, December 12, 2007

Guy Murphy is bit of an anachronism in the world of planners - where the mere mention of 'consumer insight' makes many of his contemporaries all misty-eyed, his take on this most-beloved trope of account planning is decidedly contrarian. The planner who swears by JWT's Stephen King (regarded as the originator of account planning) finds himself in the agency his icon helped build, charged with the task of driving its creative agenda. Murphy aims at building the industry's most networked team of planners, and has them pinging each other with suggestions and information on pitches via a dedicated group on Facebook. Taking time out from a day spent inspiring and evaluating JWT India's clutch of planners, Murphy, JWT's global planning director, speaks his mind on research, creativity and lots more.

For an agency that was grounded in strategy, how was the creative resurgence received by account planners at JWT?
I think the creative resurgence has been received very well by everybody, especially planners; it's the reason we joined the business. The bit that was less clear was what the role was for planners in the new agenda. It's not a complicated answer - planners are fundamental to a move for a more creative agency. The options for how a brand can communicate are so many that you need someone to make sense of it all. That's the preserve of the planning department - to guide us through a complicated world and do things with a proper sense of 'why' rather than just to be trendy and new.

Do you believe part of the reason you were brought in from BBH (where he was deputy chairman) was to reassert the importance of planning at JWT?
It's not that they needed me or any head of planning to apply to a certain recent initiative or issue. But you are not a complete management line-up without a head of planning. One of the reasons why I was an acceptable candidate is I'm a firm believer in the quality of creative work, and the role of planning to help deliver that.

In a lot of agencies, with planning taking the centrestage and arrogating for itself the thinking part of the business, what is the future of account management?
The future of account management… that's a $64,000 question! My belief is we are seeing equality of relationships. What I see in the emphasis of creativity is a re-balancing to ensure the creative voice is heard. I don't think anybody knows what the role of account management is in the future. Something I'd point to is that nowadays there are many, many agencies involved in a campaign. And one of the skills is to help know how to handle multiple agencies and lead them in a kind of collaborative force to create a great answer. Account management could be the specialist in becoming the lead agency pointing others in the right direction and helping them work together.

There are several definitions of planning in vogue - from Stephen King's conception of the planner being a combination of a marketing person and a media person to the idea of a planner being the voice of the consumer within an agency. How would you define the role?
Planners help build great brands and in so doing provide exciting creative opportunities for the agency. King spent no time really trying to define what planning was. One of the dangers of the discipline is that it becomes too obsessed with itself. There will always be many definitions, but that doesn't mean people are unclear on what it is. It's just that we do things in so many different ways.

There was a feeling even among the Account Planning Group a few years ago that planning was becoming a bit too esoteric and self indulgent…
As an industry, planners have to stop worrying about what they do and whether it's helping. In some way, it's a reflection of our intellectual honesty and integrity - being constantly concerned about adding value. We don't have an obvious metric. Creatives have awards and account management has client satisfaction surveys and budgets. Those are false metrics anyway, but people rest on them. I really don't have much time for the question - the answer is clear and we should just go on and do it. Besides, I don't think we are arcane…

In many advertising case studies, planners switch between debunking research entirely and using it to ratify their strategies - there are enough examples of both approaches having succeeded. How do you decide when to go with research and when to disregard it?
You should never see research as an arbiter of a decision. It's just one of the tools and inputs. There are many other factors to be considered - what you believe internally, what the sales force considers appropriate… But for many, it has become the yes/no gate, which shouldn't be the case. If you have a strong enough vision of how the world should be and have a well-founded belief in that vision, then it's fine. Most of the time, when we've done a good job, we change the world a little. Research is never going to come back easy on those answers.

How did your current mistrust of consumer insights as they are popularly used in the advertising context develop?
I've always believed there are many things that can get you to a good answer - not just understanding consumers. I'm not against insights; they are useful. And I'm not saying don't talk to or try and understand the consumer. I used insights a little, but never particularly stuck to it. My personal style of planning (and that of agencies I've been with before) always prided itself on originality and uniqueness. But over the past two or three years, we've been bombarded with 'what's the insight?' It's becoming a frenzy now, eclipsing other things. Ideas are being rejected because they are perhaps not 'insightful' enough. People seem happier with consumer insights more than the work; they think the creative product is great because it stems from an insight. It becomes a big magnet that everything is drawn towards to the exclusion of other things. Processes are being designed primarily to get a consumer insight.

JWT has a team of trendspotters on board - how does the planning department work with them, considering in many other agencies planners themselves are expected to play this role? Do you commission your studies to them?
There are people in New York, Italy… some in Argentina. Those are the three places I know for sure, where they quite formally do trendspotting work. In South America, 'cool hunting', as they call it, has become a real fashion right now. Trendspotting is just one of our inputs. Their work gets published into the network and sometimes externally too - that's how people have heard of Marian Salzman.
They are involved in two types of assignments - Marian and her team will have an eye out for what future trends might be. They commission work, explore it and maybe publish it. By the end of every year, they'll come up with what's going to happen next year. We have access to that information. The second aspect is when we have a particular point on an account and want to try to understand; for instance, notions of beauty and femininity in the case of Estee Lauder. We used the trendspotters to find what it means at the moment, and how it was going to be in the future… and that becomes one of our inputs.

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