Friday, April 4, 2008

A time to reflect

Conventions, fests and industry gatherings are not only a wonderful time to network and catch up on gossip as much as a time to consider larger issues like the state of the industry that has given us everything that we have. In my 25th year in thisindustry (God, has it been so long, it hardly seems like that though!) many things have changed, while many others have not. Clients continue to be what they are, creative and account management cannot see eye to eye and there is never enough money to give the campaign the money it so desperately needs, we are not paid half of what we deserve… Having cleared the air of all these obvious generalities let us spend a little time on the industry and the way forward.

The very essence of the agency business
Sometimes we tend to forget the basics or the obvious things in our quest for unreasonable goals. Brands need a raison d’etre, a basis for existence. Like Starbucks came into existence because the average American needed a “third place” in his life after his home and his place of work. In the same context, what does advertising bring to the table? Or if we were to borrow a concept from C. K. Prahalad, the renowned management guru, “What is the core competence of the advertising agency business?” It is creativity; pure and simple. We can talk of global networks, integration of allied services, media optimisation and indeed we must. But at the end of the day nothing much has changed since the days of Claude Hopkins. Clients still come to agencies because they have a need. They wish to sell their products and services and they expect outstanding creative that will make that happen.

Leaders or followers?
The agency business believes in understanding the consumer and pushing buttons to make her act in a particular way. In short, our understanding of insights that motivate the consumer to act in a particular way are reflected in our creative, whether it is for insurance or detergents or shampoos. Yet to me it seems passive and represents more of an efficient follower of trends. Films, for instance, however bad they may be on occasion, have tended to lead change while the advertising industry has been content to follow the trends that someone else seems to represent. Yes, it is true when we say that advertising reflects the times we live in. But does that mean we lose the capability to lead change? One of my clients had an interesting thought. He said, “You agency guys are pretty good at following clients. You do the things we want, open offices if we ask you to which is all fine. But I have a suggestion for you. Why don’t you follow the consumer and her trends rather than follow clients?” Interesting question! I wish I had the answer to that one.

East or West the Indian way is the best
The way I looked at the world when I was 21 is different from the way my children who are around that age look at it. I was diffident, looking to the rest of the world for guidance, inspiration and approval if not for recognition. Today my children and their peers are confident, sometimes, I feel, to the point of arrogance. They do not need the approval of the rest of the world and that, sadly, includes their parents.

The environment, mood and overall outlook has metamorphosed, to put it mildly. If I were to look at this change from the advertising industry’s perspective we were in awe of Madison Avenue and looked to them for inspiration. Today I guess we still look at Madison Avenue for the approval of our budgets but there is a definite reliance on Indian thoughts, insights and ideas even if that has meant that scripts are conceptualised with a turn of phrase that is essentially Hindi that challenges the likes of me.

But what I am proposing is perhaps slightly different. Let me borrow from two sports, hockey and cricket though I must confess that my knowledge of the former is sketchy at best. When I was young Indian hockey was supreme on the world stage and then we lost our way as we were unable to find a style that worked for us in the face of the strength and the different styles followed by teams from Europe and Australia and we were left behind. In cricket we have found a new dominance, which, one hopes, will last. The reason for our success is because our batsmen continue to be essentially wristy and stylish while our fast bowlers have suddenly discovered pace, bounce and swing that we were usually subjected to. In a sense this is the best of two worlds as we have built on something that we already have, and acquired something that was lacking. The Western advertising world has believed in the power of the single-minded idea which, to my mind, is still the most compelling way of producing advertising. Couple that with an ability to create for our consumers and you will have a winner. I think a lot of Indian advertising is good and what prevents it from becoming great is the preoccupation with a Hindi turn of phrase and not so much the power of the idea and its long-term value.

Integration! What it is?
Agencies have been talking about integration for almost two decades now and their understanding of it is becoming hazier by the moment. For too long agencies have said “One voice” when they actually meant “One invoice”. Integration is a powerful concept that has delivered wonderfully for brands. Take a brand like Britannia’s 50-50 which has used this concept wonderfully, even sponsoring the third umpire’s decision in cricket matches where the audience waited tensely for the decision. Was the batsman in the crease or outside? Fifty-fifty! 100 per cent for integration! One of the reasons for the poor execution of this concept of integration by others has been the limited understanding of some of the communication disciplines by the people concerned. Take public relations … for instance, the advertising agency thinks that PR is getting its commercial reviewed while the PR company is clueless about the power of advertising or the strategy behind its own client’s campaign. The onus on integration, therefore, is squarely with the client. How many hats will the poor client wear, however gifted?

Is positioning only for clients and her brands?
Agencies have been brilliant in differentiating their client’s products for over 150 years. Remember the “bottles washed in steam?” Agencies too have been responsible for brands owning words in the consumer’s mind. Volvo has owned the word ‘safety’, Volkswagen has stood for ‘reliability’ and Nike has stood for ‘attitude’. Let us not forget that agencies have created this differentiation and helped position these brands uniquely. Sadly the agencies have failed to position themselves clearly. They continue to be ‘full service’, ‘creative boutique’ or ‘ideas’. What word does the agency own in client’s minds? They need to think about this. Charity, after all, begins at home.

A few good men and women
The economy is booming, if what one reads and sees in the media is any indication, and advertising cannot be left behind in an economy like ours. Yet we are constrained by the lack of people. In the Eighties we had people from top flight management schools coming to advertising. Several of the MDs of India’s leading agencies are from one top flight management school or the other. Today advertising agencies are going to smaller, less reputed and inferior schools to recruit. Advertising has lost out and become a low-involvement career option if at all it is an option. Clients who complain about the size of the agency retainers are also critical about the sort of people who are handling their business. This is the biggest challenge for the advertising industry. How does it package itself better with clients so that they see the value they are providing and hence get paid better? How to position the agency business as a destination for young men and women?

Do better ads
In 1987 when I was being interviewed by Mr. A. G. Krishnamurthy, the then CMD of Mudra, he asked me the usual question, “Why do you want to join Mudra?” I looked at the pin-up board in his cabin and said “I want to be involved with work like your agency is doing”. The work for Vimal and Rasna in those days, to me, at least, was path-breaking. I think the long term solution for the agency business is to produce work that people notice, talk about and love. Young people will want to be a part of this fascinating process of creativity. The Benton and Bowles agency used to have this philosophy: “If it doesn’t sell it isn’t creative’.

My advice to the advertising industry is simple “If we don’t sell ourselves to young people, we will no longer be creative.”

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds)


Ramesh Venkateswaran said...

Two observations :

1. Advertisers are not the only ones who have to be creative. I think this old way of describing ad people - creative , client servicing , medai etc. is not valid. Anyone in any job has to be creative. Whether a marketer or accountant ro whatever.

The job of advertising , in my opinion is not to be creative but to be able to be relevant - communicate relvance on behalf of the client, product , brand , customer etc.

A product deisgner is as creative as production man who develops new processes to improve quality etc.

2. As regards hockey and cricket - I know precious little of both. I do not think we are doing better because of better wrists or reflexex or whatever else you say we have. The reality is that over trhe years the competition in cricket has reduced and that in hockey has increased. You mentioned that even in England , cricket is not the premier sport. I think that is our problem - we cannot really handle competition. We will go the same way in sofware soem years from ow - trends are already showing.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

I agree with you that not only advertising needs to be creative.But this piece was actually meant for the benefit of the agency guys who are having a big do at Goa.
Yes it probably is a function of competition and that is an insight.