Thursday, December 28, 2006

2006 – Hardly a defining year

There are a few moments in life that are definitive. My life seems to revolve around cricket and advertising. A few defining moments in my life? It was 7.36 p.m. on 4th June, 1993. I was sitting in the bar stool of the Bangalore Club watching the Old Trafford Ashes test on TV. And Warne bowled Gatting with a ball that turned two feet and clipped the off bail. I was watching the ball that would soon be dubbed the “ball of the century”. I just yelled in amazement. I rudely woke up the oldest member who was quietly dozing in his favourite stool who must have wondered at the falling standards of behaviour of new club members. (Another sobering moment as the spin wizard announces retirement just now). England in 1999. Herschelle Gibbs drops Steve Waugh and the World Cup. To me watching from the stands, it was another defining moment. 2003, South Africa, and the World Cup final. Zaheer Khan’s first over cost 15 runs and cost India the cup. Another defining moment. The 23rd of November, 2006. It is 5.30 a.m. and Steve Harmison came into tremendous applause to deliver the first ball of the most anticipated series in recent times – the Ashes. I am right there in front of the TV. He started with a huge wide to second slip which started England’s slide to a 3-0 Ashes defeat (at the time of writing). Another defining moment. All these moments had the capacity to move and shake me and made a profound impression on me and made me believe that I was seeing something unique, different and unforgettable. Did I have one such moment in advertising in 2006? The answer is a quick if a somewhat sad “no”. 2006 was one of those years. One of those commercials that you see and yet don’t notice. One of those ships that pass you by in the night.

The business of advertising
“Advertising” somebody said “is the business of producing ads and TV commercials”. And the business of advertising by all accounts has been good, whether your agency is ranked No.1, No.8 or No.30. A whole host of categories have discovered the power of advertising. The automotive industry is booming and as a consequence the advertising spends. Never mind the fact that every car ad reminds you of some other car ad that you have seen before. The roads are clogged with two wheelers and the networks jammed with two wheeler ads, each of which tries desperately to be like its competition. Mobile services it seems has lost its pre-occupation with tariff plans. Thank God for small mercies! And in the same breath we must thank clients and agencies for continuing campaigns in the mobile space. The ‘pug’ dog continues to charm us magically! From dogs to monkey. Idea Cellular’s tune of an Ilayaraja hit has a monkey running helter- skelter but the network follows. One of the few nice ads I saw this year. If mobile services are heavy spenders, can mobile phones be far behind? One saw a lot of advertising that was hip for mobile phones. And yet to me the stand out was Motorola’s ad for MotoFlip W220, which features a young boy being grilled by his parents for having what they believe is a horrendously expensive phone. What a brilliant way of saying that the sleek phone costs only Rs.3990! FMCG continues to alternate between brand building and price cutting. Lots of advertising, not too much worthy of recall. And yet I must recall the Surf Excel commercial in Tamil with a foreign kid eating with great relish with his “hands” watched by his horrified parents. And a reassuring old lady who says that in India, we not only eat with our hands but wash with our hands as well. Banks continue to provide mediocre service but the advertising has improved dramatically. SBI stopped being “Surprisingly” diffident but had an interesting range of commercials. HSBC had some different advertising as had Bank of India. We all live in hope and one day the service of banks will match the advertising! Education (thoroughly fragmented) has still become a large consumer of space. IIPM continues to release ads that are in your face. I don’t wish to comment on how bad they are as I thankfully am not applying to management school and am therefore not the target audience. Mutual funds is another category that has advertised heavily. HDFC Standard Life Insurance had a very insightful ad for pension plans. The retail boom is yet to result in brand building advertising which seems to be still obsessed with “sales and price-offs”. Someone has to start building retail brands harnessing advertising.

Some trends
The ad industry has announced its “unbundling” of services with great fanfare. Today agencies offer specialised services and I guess this in turn makes the client’s job more challenging. He has to be strong (and if one may add enormously patient) to deal with the creative agency, the stand-alone media agency, the PR agency, the MR agency, the events agency and the sales promotion agency. Is the client man or superman, only time will tell! And yet I think there is an increasing disconnect between creative agencies and media agencies and clients are feeling the pinch. Today agencies are a lot more focused on the bottom line. And the direct reaction is declining salaries at entry levels and increasing disenchantment at the middle level. The advertising industry is growing – but where are the people? Which bright young kid in his right senses would like to join us?

The year in perspective
I remember seeing a commercial for RIKK Bank that reminds me of Indian advertising in 2006 “The most boring bank in the world” was the descriptor. “The people are working. The money is working and that’s all”. Yes people are working in advertising and agencies are making money. But we need to introspect. If we don’t get the right people, we just won’t make any money. Let 2007 be the year of talent. And may it be the year where India’s defining moment could be winning the Cricket World Cup! At least it would make it worth my while to travel all the way to Barbados!

The author is Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO of Brand-comm.

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