Thursday, July 30, 2009

The changing world of advertising

The challenge for today’s leaders is to reposition the industry as a profession to aspire for..

It is always tempting to compare the calibre of today’s leaders with those of the previous generation. A leader is a function of the times he lives in.

Creative leaders have their tasks cut out. Clockwise: Piyush Pandey, Balki and Prasoon Joshi

When you spend a lot of time in a particular industry or in doing a specific activity it is not uncommon to do some soul searching.
It was in June 1983, a small matter of 26 years ago, when I entered the world of advertising. Of course, 1983 was a historic year for India since we won the Cricket World Cup at Lords.
I must quickly add that there was nothing historic about my joining the industry. I am only glad that I have not become history!

Yet, 26 years has seen both the industry and I go through change and I did enter the industry with my heart full of hope and a head full of hair!
As it is easier to talk about the industry let me stay on that track. While it is easy to write some general feel good statements like “the only permanent thing in life is change,” let me take the more difficult road of understanding and mapping some of the changes that have happened in the last two decades and which continue to happen under our collective noses.

Legends in their own life time

When I came to advertising one heard about legends. However, there were legends of a different nature. They could drink you under the table, they had three martini lunches (after all, those were the heady days of 15 per cent commission) and a wag called them “legends in their own lunch time”. But seriously the industry had its fair share of real legends. Legends, as they were respected by their clients and their own people. Real leaders of industry.

People such as R.K. Swamy, Alyque Padamsee, S.R. Ayer, Subhash Ghosal, Mike Khanna, Ranjan Kapur, Mohamed Khan, A.G. Krishnamurthy..
And I am quite sure there were many others of equal eminence who I did not have the privilege of coming into contact with. I think it is quite easy for me to get nostalgic about the leaders of the past because I knew some of them and even had the privilege of working with a few of them.

But some of them had one unique quality. They took on industry causes and if that meant that they had to take on clients on matters of principle, they would and never mind the consequences! I must also mention that we had very limited media covering the industry, unlike today.

Yet, these leaders were recognised, most significantly because they were ‘trusted advisors’ to their clients. They not only gave their time and wisdom to their clients but to the industry as well. They gave back as much as they got and often more than they got.

What about today’s leaders?

It is always tempting to compare the calibre of today’s leaders with those of the previous generation. But I have always resisted the temptation to compare across generations, even cricketers. People who have watched Gavaskar take on the best fast bowlers of his time would certainly rate him higher than Sehwag. People who have watched Border might rate him better than Ponting. But these are mere academic exercises.

A leader is a function of the times he lives in, just as much as a batsman is a function of the opposition that he bats against and the pitches that he bats on.

Be that as it may, the most significant change today in advertising is that many leading agencies have creative people as leaders whether it is a Balki, a Piyush or a Prasoon, all of whom are legends in their own right, visible in media and bringing recognition to themselves and the agencies they lead, not to forget the industry they represent.

Are they ‘trusted advisors’ to their clients? Most certainly they are, otherwise their clients would not swear by them and if one may add, ask for them in most meetings! So what has changed?

I suspect the best of talent does not come to the industry any more. It is no longer “a high involvement’ industry and that is the challenge which today’s leaders have to come to terms with.

In fact the next big challenge for today’s leaders is to reposition advertising as a profession to aspire for. I am sure they have the capability to do it. After all, if they have made so many uninteresting products saleable, then surely they can make the second oldest profession interesting.

Print to pictures to television

We grew up on the printed word. Just see how many of us wear thick spectacles! The people who inspired us were David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach and Claude Hopkins… in India too, the ads by Enterprise and Trikaya were worth reading. Would you believe it? People read “body copy” in those days! A tribute to the writers of those days.

Then we had a breed of art directors who really demonstrated the value of the statement ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. I remember that many of the textile brands of yesteryear demonstrated the value of this axiom.

We used to have a funny system in a few agencies at least. There was no creative department. There was a “copy department” and an “art department’. They used to sit in different cubicles and the copy writer would go with her lines written in her note book to the art director. Then someone broke down that cubicle wall, well if the Berlin wall could be broken down, why not the advertising agency?

This was also the time that cricketers realised that great bowlers hunted in pairs whether it was a Lillee and a Thomson, a Bedi and a Prasanna or even a Warne and a McGrath. Similarly, the best creative teams hunted in pairs of a writer and a visualiser.

Writers sought out art directors and paired themselves. After a time, no one bothered whose line it was or who’s visual it was, they were only concerned about how good the ad was, and it was often very good.

When did the dramatic shift towards television happen?

It is difficult to recall how the shift towards creating for television happened. We need to remember that colour television in India is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was with the Asian Games that were held in 1982 that colour television ownership in the country really burgeoned.

There was just one channel, Doordarshan, and the Hindi feature film and Chitrahaar or Oliyum Oliyum, if you lived in Madras, were the only programmes you watched unless you were a farmer!

I remember too that there used to be a programme called “Rangoli” which played songs from films and whenever a black and white song would come on, my son would shout “daddy’s favourite song” thereby proclaiming my age and (lack of )taste. The Levers brands all used television. Liril and the “girl in the waterfall’ created ripples, not only because it was breakthrough but also as one of my cynical friends said “Indians. So rarely get to see skin”. A far cry from today where one just has to go to page 3 in one’s daily newspaper!

But the wheel changed a full circle and inexorably at that. A new breed of writers who thought “film” soon took over Indian advertising. Today, some of them lead agencies and rightly so. The emergence of cable and satellite television has heightened the importance of the script writer in a big way. The script writer is here to stay, call the shots and get heavier bonuses (oh well, at least when times improve). This has also led to the next major change and that is the media.

Medium is more than a message

Media in India has transformed. From the days of just five mainline papers and one television channel, we have metamorphosised into a maelstrom of choice. I remember that media managers were being evaluated primarily on their ability to get space.

The newspapers were busy saying ‘no space’ and magazines like India Today wished they had multiple “front sections”, so acute was the demand for space and preferred positions. Ad managers of major newspapers were busy asking their agency partners to plan better.

I remember frantically calling the manager of a major newspaper that I cannot name, to ask for space for an ‘obituary ad’ as my client’s father had passed away and the ad manager of the newspaper actually asked me out of force of habit “Why can’t you plan!” Well with competition, the times have changed and how.

The emergence of cable and satellite and the growing literacy of India has lead to vernacular media making its presence felt in more ways than one. Regional media is growing and is no longer the country cousin of English.

People are no longer bashful of reading vernacular newspapers and magazines. And what about the Sun TVs of the world? Try visiting a Tamilian family between 8.00 and 8.30 pm on a weekday and you will understand what I am talking about.

Yes, it is not easy to map 26 years in a mere 1,500 words and I am not even going to try. So dear reader hang in there, like the Ashes, this column is still far from over!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly - Branding on Indian Turf.)


Narahari K said...

Hi Sridhar,

This is a very nice article and takes one back on a nostalgia trip. Like everything else in life – including the graying and receding of the hairline and the bulging of the “midriff” – advertising has undergone a constant change and you have captured it very well. Not surprising, given the close association you’ve had with the industry. I would have liked more cricket analogies than the few that you have given. Perhaps how from a simple peak cap, cricket gear changed to helmets and guards that protect almost every part of the body. Not to mention the arrival of white balls in addition to the traditional red ones.

Of course, 26 years ago, I guess the role of the media planner was much easier than it is today. There were only a handful of print publications and just DD. Today, there is a plethora of publications and television channels bringing in their wake various options on packages and “bouquets”. I’m sure we have many from this tribe also heading agencies today.

Thanks for sharing the link with me. I look forward to many more such stories both on the blog and in the media.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks Hari,

Yes I guess there are many changes in cricket and in our lives as well.
Yes media too has become very complex and important both in advertising and in our lives.

Ram said...

Dear Mr.Sridhar,

That was an excellent recap of the years gone by and you took me back in time although I cant claim to have seen throuth that entire period.
My feeling is advertising like any other industry has succumbed to market forces and that has lead to waning interest levels for the industry.
In the early nineties any fresh graduate felt like having a brush with a then high profile profession like advertising. It had a lot going for it. Lots of glamour. Lots more freedom at the work place compared with other classic 9 to 5 jobs and the variety of brands one could work with at the same time making the job far less monotonous than other jobs.
But lets remember the bottom line for any professional was and always will be what kind of money you are taking home.
It was all rosy till the servies sector boomed and the IT revolution happened in India.
All the perks and fun in an advertising job were dwarfed by the kind of jobs IT was offering to a fresher. He was getting jobs even without meeting anyone face to facce and within three months was out of the country and was collecting a double salary.

This I feel had a tellign blow on the ad indusry with fresh talent drying up and people opting for more lucrative jobs.

And sadly the advertising profession didint have any ripple effect of the IT boom since IT was toatally advertising non dependent.

An advertising boom similar to the early nineties ( When you just had to go past lloyds road chennai to land a job in mudra)will happen only when advertising gets more lucrative for the fresh entry level guys.
Otherwise we could soon be asking the same question as we ask in cricket. Who after the fab 4( sachin,dravid, laxman and ganguly).
Who after the fab 3( piyush, prasoon, balki) in advertsing.
Where is the bench strength!

Ram said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
B Srinivas said...

Dear Mr. Sridhar,

A very thought provoking article………I can relate to a lot of the stuff that you’ve written coz I lived in the era that you’ve talked about in the article. The true advent of TV & TV advertisement was 1982 Aisad Games. I know for sure that the Advertising game has changed a lot & you’ve very correctly brought out the changing nature of this great world of advertising.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anoop said...

Thank you Mr.sridhar for the mail. Article is really interesting and special congratulations

Ram said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Dear Ram,

Yes you have hit the nail on the head. "If you pay peanuts you will only get monkeys." In the eighties many guys from the IIM would join the advertising industry . Today not even guys from small business schools want to come in.
Excellent question - "Where is the bench strength?"

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Dear Srinivas,

Yes from 1982 TV has transformed viewership and media in this country.

Charles Cadell said...

Hi Sridhar,

It was a pleasure to meet you last week and thank you for remembering to forward the article. I had no idea my question was so topical to your piece.

Our thinking is absolutely in line - as you will see from my piece this week. Making the profession aspirational again is a very necessary but significant task. Personally, I am not sure the industry is currently up to it and thus this is a tree that I feel needs shaking to ensure we wake up before we get past our own tipping point.

My concern is that there are no leading lights, nobody showing the way. Unfortunately it seems that real news is more often than not made by foreign agencies / companies coming in with a new angle or offering. I believe we need a real vision for a very different tomorrow and ideally this should come from our own industry body – 3A’s of India – but I am not convinced either they or our current Creative titans know the way or indeed appreciate the urgency of the need for reformation. This is not to say the answers are easy to spot, they are not and the job is very difficult….but we need to start making some faster moves.

Best regards

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Dear Charles,

In fact I had just written it a few days before we met up.
You are right, the advertising industry does not seem to understand the current challenges that are facing it. I am sure we will have more opportunities to discuss issues of these nature when we do meet.

Veeramani G said...

Your recent article on "The Changing world of Advertising" is truly great ....

All the best for everything ....

Sridhar said...

Dear Sridhar,

I fully echo your feelings about yesteryear leaders. I have heard some of the clients say that today's creative leaders were focused only on the creative product. It is their strength as well as weakness.

The other thing I notice is that today's leaders do not have time for mentoring & grooming people. Mr Swamy or Mr Ghosal or Mr Ayer all of them spent great amount of their time mentoring people.

Admire your energy to keep at it.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks Sridhar

karishma said...

Dear Mr. Shridhar,

Really apologize for the late reply but got a chance to view your blog and few topics that you have written on Brands and Advertising, but i felt this article was exceptional.
The topics that you covered at the seminar have also helped us a lot ..
looking forward for more posts.