Thursday, August 20, 2009

Changing world of ads and entertainment

The emergence of regional markets and consumers has led to the evolution of regional brands and advertising. Entertainment formats are evolving too, with reality shows capturing eyeballs and TV ratings..

The changes in advertising continue just like the changes in this column or the uncertainty as to whether the Ashes will change hands (at least at the time of writing) as the teams have just left Edgbaston.

A quick recap, more for my benefit, dear reader, than yours, of what we discussed in the previous column. We spoke about some of the legends who led the advertising industry with great distinction (not only their own advertising agencies).

Another significant shift that we mentioned has been of the trend of creative people leading agencies today, which too is an important point of difference from the past. Media too has transformed from five mainline newspapers and one Government-controlled TV channel to a bewildering array of choice for both the media planner and, more importantly, the consumer.

The increasing literacy in India has been a source of optimism for advertisers and advertising agencies, unlike in other countries, as India is one of the few markets where readership is growing and, consequently, advertising revenue and rates. And while 80 per cent of the world is under the grip of recession, India seems to be one of the few exceptions bucking the trend, a bit like England which seems to be the only country where even the fifth day of a test match is a sell-out!

But there are a few more changes that one has observed in between the rain interruptions at Edgbaston and the shifting of the battle to the possibly weepy skies of Headingley.

English to Hinglish to Hindi to regional

When I first came into advertising (Oh God! here I go again), the industry suffered from the Madison Avenue hang-up. Agency types looked westward for inspiration, quoted Ogilvy and Bernbach and admired George Lois. The generation was proud of saying ‘we don’t see Hindi movies or Tamil movies ...’. They were from St. Xavier’s or Stella Maris and spoke the Queen’s English. They presented scripts, concepts and ads in English. Then the ads were translated and, usually, badly.

It was in the mid-eighties that Asian Paints recognised the importance of regions and languages with the commercial ‘Pongal’ that was conceptualised, filmed and released in Tamil Nadu with great success. Then, as India became younger, it started to loosen its collar (I am not speaking of ‘Friday dressing’ only) and if one may add, its tongue.

It first started speaking in a mix of English and a regional language as it no longer needed to speak in English to either express or impress. This led to lines like ‘Hamko Binnies mangta.’ Soon the wheel turned a full circle, just a bit like the Australian cricket team’s fortunes — more and more scripts were conceptualised, filmed and released with ideas that were essentially Hindi, and to confound people like me, many of them had a clever turn of phrase as well that are as perplexing as Abdul Qadir’s googly. Slogans like ‘Daag achha hai’ and ‘Dimag ki batti jala do’ to recall just two simple ones (you must make an allowance for my ignorance of the noble language) led the way.

However, much as I might crib about it, I do know that this trend is here to stay and a new breed of writers has emerged whose creative ability extends beyond scripting mere 30-second commercials selling soaps and shampoos to tear-jerking commercial cinema as well.
Hindi movies, and if one may add, TV scripts, conceptualised in Hindi for brands that are part of our everyday lives, are now on our television screens, often for 24 hours at a stretch. The emergence of regional markets and consumers is a trend that promises to stay as more and more brands are creating specifically in Tamil, Bengali or Malayalam for their customers so that they can engage with them.

The other trend is the emergence of regional brands that are making their presence felt and growing their market share with the aid of cable and satellite television. ‘Think regional beat multinational’ could well be the slogan of 2009.

Programmes, commercials or both?

I remember reading an interesting study many years ago which said that consumers in India found the TV commercials that preceded a programme to be more interesting than the programmes that were being aired. Soon things changed and serials such as Humlog and Buniyaad, not to forget ‘Ramayan’, ushered in the context of long running serials.

Aradhana, the movie with Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore, ran for a mere 100 weeks in Madras of all cities but this was nothing compared to some of the television serials that followed.

Ramayan was followed by Mahabharat and now by Jai Sri Krishna, not to forget the K series and the Chithis, the Arasis and the Kolangals on Sun TV. One of the biggest challenges that advertising agencies seem to face (and it is not a new challenge) is the answer to the question, ‘when do consumers get tired of our ads?’ I wonder if the makers of TV serials worry about such unnecessary trivia as the serials seem to go on and on ad infinitum (pun intended).

But other formats have emerged, not the least of which has been the reality show. Whilst one may agonise about the reality in the Rakhi Sawant wedding, the ratings are real. The TVR for the final episode on August 2 was as high as 6.3 and the audience an estimated 15.8 million. Of course, a few mad Indians were watching Australia salvage a draw, but many more savvy Indians were watching the ‘real thing.’ Consider, too, the tremendous build-up to the grand climax, the publicity, the cynicism from the elite (!), all of which points to a new, more confident India.

Yes, even as India is changing in front of our very eyes, so too must the means of communication to its people.

You’ve come a long way, baby!

Advertising, television and movies can at best represent the times we live in and symbolise the current generation of Indians. The new India is confident of itself, though, at times, it is possible for some to view this as arrogance. But honestly, today’s India does not care. It has found acceptance from the rest of the world and is not afraid of reiterating and reinforcing its importance to the rest of the world.

The BCCI can tell the whole world a thing or two about being successful and reminding the world about its success. India has its fair share of successes from the smaller towns. It has cricketing greats who will stare at taller, stronger and more reputed guys in the eye or sledge them to kingdom come.

This attitude reflects India more and more and you just have to switch on your TV sets to watch this on display not only in the cricketing field but in advertising and in the films that are re-run Sunday after Sunday.

The woman is no longer content to keep quiet but actually raves and rants in front of the camera as to why the person at the other end of the line could have sex without protection. A small bit in a commercial but a giant shift in outlook and thinking.

Celebrities rule the roost as every third brand uses celebrities with varying degrees of popularity inflicting varying degrees of damage to the advertiser’s wallet. India and its advertising have come a long way like ‘Virginia Slims’ — a far cry from the days of using Leela Chitnis for Lux in 1941.

Unbundle, consolidate or perish

As for the agency business itself, the days of 15 per cent commission and 85 per cent confusion have gone. More and more agencies work on reduced commissions and some on retainers. The full service agency is a thing of the past, a bit like full houses in test matches in the sub-continent. The agency share of the pie is shrinking as clients use identity experts, event companies, media agencies, PR companies, creative shops, packaging consultants and brand advisors on a regular basis. The agency is being seen as a provider of ‘creative services’ and often enough not a partner. The reduced earnings make it difficult to get the talent that clients want and yet refuse to pay for, which is adding to the stress. The core competency of the agency is still the ability to produce great TV commercials that make a difference.

The agency business has changed and will continue to change in front of our very eyes. The agency business needs to take a closer look at itself and maybe find answers to some questions that are perhaps easier to ask than to answer, but here goes:

Are agencies truly partnering their clients, or are they living in hope?
Does the agency understand new media such as digital and mobile or is it merely looking the other way?
How much time and money are agencies investing in training their people to serve clients better?
How well does the agency understand and apply the other allied communication services?
What is the strategy to get better people into the business?

These are not great times to be in business. But this is, perhaps, the time for serious introspection. It generally needs a good crisis to get people thinking about important stuff that can make a difference to their future. Let’s not waste this opportunity to worry about the future now. That way we will, at least, have a future.

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


Prasanna said...

Dear Sir, Congratulations for the enormous work you have done. Thank you for sharing your insights about the industry.
I would agree with all the question marks raised. Just a piece of my mind to share here. The root cause of this industry, not able to position itself as one of the desired industry for talents is due to the industry as a brand in itself. The industry works for clients to engage with the customers through communications which leads to sale of the product/services. But, eventually the industry has not found a need to promote/brand and sell itself. I believe the human resources are customers for every industry. The day the ad industry treats resources as their customers and offer them a better packaged career, the results would not be far away from being achieved. since, it is these new brains which makes a change for tomorrow.
This is not out of cynicism I write this, but an experience I had with the industry. I hope coming generations will not encounter the same. You are right, that there is a need for serious introspection.

Prasanna Kaveri

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thank you Prasanna. You have probably put it much better than I have! The dream merchants need to brand themselves!