Thursday, January 4, 2007

Those were the days

When I wrote my year end column for this same newspaper I had the benefit of the counsel of a “few good men”. The men whose brains I had picked on are the “movers and shakers” of advertising in today’s India. It was interesting to hear these people who live, think and dream advertising talk not only about the year that was, but also about what the immediate future holds for us – after all the new year is just waiting to receive us fogs et al. And this is something that I need to remember. We are not likely to indulge in crystal ball gazing or talk about some distant future but something that is as imminent and as immediate as the next hangover. So what does next week and the remaining 51 hold for industry in general and advertising in particular? What must the advertising industry do?

Let the good times ring
An ancient Tamil proverb when translated reads something like this. “You need to have a wall to paint a picture”. And if advertising is to continue to paint a success story, it needs the industry to not only be comfortable but boom as well. I am no economist – the only thing I remember from my 5 years study of economics is the statement that there is no such thing as a free lunch! And yet even I can figure out that the Indian economy is on a roll. The sensex is closer to 14000 than to 13000 and the bullish mood is not only restricted to the stock market. And while one can quibble about which version of GDP growth you choose to believe in, there is no arguing the fact that we are a nation on the move. No flash in the pan this. Nor is the bubble likely to burst. And whilst some of the sectors like steel for instance that are booming may not directly impact advertising, others will, more directly. Soaps, detergents, shampoos, confectionery and biscuits continue to be advertised and heavily at that. Young India takes on to mobile phones as a duck might take to water. And in mobile services as in other categories there is a healthy sign. And that is the longevity of the advertising idea and the desire to create properties that the brand can own. Advertising agencies love to “push the envelope” and create new path breaking campaigns. Campaigns that are so different from each other that you need to tell yourself that they are for the same brand, just done by different creative teams. And aiding and abetting change are brand managers who are so sales driven that they can’t think beyond the immediate quarter. That calls for strong creative heads of agencies who are holding on to their brand properties for dear life. Thank heavens for pug dogs and signature tunes. And how do you hold the agency responsible if the advertising delivers and the network doesn’t? Still staying with phones one just hopes that in 2007 at least BSNL will get its advertising act right. After all if LIC can do better advertising who knows what other public sector units can do. If 2006 saw a lot of consumer durable advertising, then one suspects that 2007 will see more as challengers attempt to topple the larger, better established brands. New cars, new bikes, new mobiles, long live consumerism! Let’s just hope that 2007 will see better ads for all of these categories.

Clients and agencies
Whilst agencies complain privately about their clients, they realize now more than ever that they must gear themselves for the demands of the market place. They must realise (if they haven’t already done so) that there is more to their life than a 30 second commercial (or is it 20 seconds?) The client wants the agency to understand his brand and business and gear itself to serve her better. It is not about what agency wants the client to do, but what the brand needs and if that means agencies have to think outside of the box, think beyond mass media advertising, then the agency must do it. And yet there are worrying signs for the agency that refuses to adapt to change forget about creating change. Agencies still seem to rely on their “comfort zone” – mass media advertising. They seem clueless about even major communication disciplines like public relations and internal communications which the client increasingly wants. If the agency is truly a communication partner then it needs to upgrade its skills and open its mind to new windows of opportunity. Is the agency there? I suspect it isn’t there, but will it get there in 2007? It certainly must. And I think this is where the large global networks are at an advantage. They have better access to global trends and more critically, deeper pockets. They are willing to acquire other companies who will supplement their communication deliverables. I also see a major conflict that the agency is going through. Today is the day of specialisation and unbundling of services. And herein lies the rub. Today the agency is unable to view the communication process holistically and is biased towards its own area of competence notwithstanding client needs. This will hurt the brand and inevitably the very nature of the relationship.

Show me the people

I remember the words of a popular song:

“Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
La la la la…
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days”

Many of us prefer the comfort of the past and the nostalgia that it evokes without confronting the challenges of today’s world head on! We talk about Vijay Hazare to a kid with a Dhoni haircut! We still talk about the 1983 cricket world cup even as Australia prepares to win the 2007 cup. The advertising industry runs the same risk. It most definitely has a situation that it must confront. And now. It cannot live by the moment and just hope that business will take case of itself. After all it is growing. And that is the challenge. Business needs people to handle it. At all levels. And just at the time of writing we have someone like Santosh Desai who has spent over a couple of decades in advertising and given a new dimension to the discipline of account planning, leaving the industry. We have enough concerns about people leaving at the middle management levels too. Related to unrelated industries are getting advertising agency types without too much wooing. Marketing communications, below the line, retail…all seem more attractive than advertising. And what about the entry levels? I think for far too long we have resigned ourselves to the fate of getting “second graders” and “also rans” from institutions that are hardly known. We have consoled ourselves by saying that “if you pay peanuts…..” Yes that is a larger issue but the advertising industry seems to forget its core competencies. The industry handles problems. It gets talent for the BPO industry for heaven’s sake. Well charity begins at home mate. If we can design campus recruitment collateral for our clients, we should do it for ourselves. And I think that we are not analysing this people problem seriously enough. There are no quick fixes to this. It has to be a long term solution. It requires new thinking, not tried and failed old ones. The answer is not lying in the past, not in saying “it was good enough for me”. And it is not only the money. We are kidding ourselves. It is the excitement of creating award winning commercials. It is watching your commercial with your family in the middle of an exciting cricket match. It’s getting to do a commercial with Rahul Dravid and Amitabh Bachchan. It is about building brands, companies and businesses. It is about a career.

Sell shamelessly
Many of us in the advertising business are excellent communicators. We can sell people anything. Even campaigns that suck! India is young. How often have we thrown that demographic statistic around? But now is the time to view youth not as a mere audience to sell mobile phones and sun glasses to, but a serious talent option. Talk to them, woo them and recruit them. Speak less at seminars and boring Rotary club meetings with people of your age and more at campuses where people are half your age. Be seen at job fairs. Talk at forums as a representative of advertising. Remember, you and I have to do this. Not someone else. If 2007 is going to be a defining year for advertising, then the answer my friend lies in youth. It lies in the future. It lies in excitement. Not nostalgia. Lets create advertising in 2007 in a way that we can say 20 years later, ‘those were the days’ and that will put advertising back in the reckoning.

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

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