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.)