Thursday, October 22, 2009

A tribute to print advertising

Our columnist makes a case for a return to the medium which, he says, allows marketers to “sell rationally”.

Vintage brand, vintage advertising.

When was the last time you saw a great print ad? I know I must scratch my head to get the answer, but given my failing memory and disappearing hairline, I may be excused. But what about you? One of my favourite pastimes is to ask people which adverti sing campaigns they remember. The answers vary from Cadbury’s (these are usually older people with diabetes who are not allowed to have chocolates), Fevicol (perhaps guys who have never fixed anything in their lives), Vodafone (definitely dog lovers married to people who cannot stand dogs), Idea Cellular (obviously guys who have never had a single idea in their lives), Tata Tea (guys who slept through election day) and Titan (perhaps because they have been gifted with so many watches in their lives).

These are seriously good television campaigns. But honestly, does anyone talk about press advertising today, much less remember it? And it is not as though we spend every waking moment in front of the idiot box. We surf the Net, spend half our working day sending forwards that no one reads, continue to read the newspaper in the loo (widely accepted as the best antidote to constipation) and browse through magazines (after all, we want to know who Salman is going around with). Yet, where are the ads that stop us? Ads with arresting headlines, visuals that paint a thousand words, body copy that is as easy to read as the topmost line in the optometrist’s chart and a tagline that is as easy to recall as the six times table (having a name like Ramanujam gives me some inherent numerical ability that sadly stops at this level of multiplication.)

Oh, the disadvantages of remembering the past!

I always wanted to be a copywriter. Maybe the advertising industry had earned some good karma, because I was never allowed anywhere near a typewriter. I returned with a vengeance and became a column writer, but that still does not explain my passion for copywriting. I was completely hooked on to ads. I lived, dreamt, ate and slept ads. And those ads were press ads. Who owned a television set in the Seventies?

I could visualise the pleasure of driving around in a Rolls Royce thanks to David Ogilvy’s much publicised lines “At sixty miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” I still visualise the ride, as my books don’t sell a hundred million copies and I have only seen a Rolls Royce from the outside, most recently on the Bandra-Worli sea link. I was madly in love with the Volkswagen thanks to the “Think small” and the “Lemon” and the hundred other ads for the brand. Maybe one day I will buy a Volkswagen, who knows!
Who can forget the Avis “We try harder … ” ads? I was not a drinker when I saw the Cutty Sark ads that exhorted me to ‘never give up the ship’. If and when the brand is readily available in India I will follow that advice. I remember the Chivas Regal ad for Father’s Day and it still brings tears to my eyes when I read it: “Because I don’t say thank you as often as I should. Because it’s Father’s Day. Because if you don’t deserve Chivas Regal, who does?” says the ad. Clearly my children have not read the ad. In any case they studiously ignore the one day that poor, uncared-for fathers are recognised and blatantly ignore the most overt of reminders from their mother! They too will be fathers one day!

And what about the Absolut ads, arguably the greatest print campaign of all time! I can never forget the ‘Absolut DC’ ad with the bottle draped in oodles of red tape. Pity, the tape in New Delhi would have made that of Washington DC look a weak shade of pink without a shadow of doubt! Yes, those were romantic, heady days. We had some great press ads in India too with people such as Frank Simoes, Kersy Katrak, Kiran Nagarkar, Mohamed Khan, Elsie Nanji and Alok Nanda, to name just a few, who were doing great press work. Agencies such as Trikaya, Rediffusion, Enterprise, Ambience and Nexus produced print work that was comparable with the best in the world. But what happened after that?

Only TV, only TV, it’s only TV!

Even as Delhi struggles to get ready for the Commonwealth Games, it is worthwhile to remember that it was the Asiad in the same city that spawned the growth of colour televisions in the country and, therefore, TV advertising. Agencies realised the potency of this medium and geared themselves to meet the challenge. Many of the Levers brands such as Liril and Surf latched on to the medium. Other agencies, particularly Mudra (as I was familiar with its operations at that time), geared themselves to build competencies in this medium. Brands such as Vimal and Rasna walked into millions of living rooms with their creativity.

There was a point of view that talented film producers were bailing out agencies still trying to create for this medium as a lot of the early TV work was actually attributable to talented film producers who were improving the creative product enormously with their ideas and even their scripts. Be that as it may, agencies started to create for this medium and a new breed of copywriters emerged who understood and thrived in this medium. India has got enormous talent in Bollywood and Kollywood and every other ‘wood’.

The best names in films realised this was a different challenge – final products with a duration of 30 seconds as against three hours, needing its own brand of skills. This did not deter the best music composers, film and art directors from making their mark. It is pertinent to remember that A.R. Rahman started out as a jingle composer. Others such as P. C. Sreeram and Rajiv Menon from the South did outstanding work both in commercial cinema and in TV commercials. Consequently, our skills in this medium are finely-honed and over the years some outstanding work has taken place. When I visit the US and watch the TV commercials there, I am inclined to believe that the average TV commercial in India is much better conceptualised, produced and is a lot more rewarding for the viewer and there are billions. Yes, India has tremendous challenges of language, religion, customs, even dialects, but the advertising industry has conquered these in the medium of TV. But what about print?

So what is the problem?

As always, it is easier to describe the problem than to offer a solution, but problem definition is a good first step to finding a solution. The problem partly lies with the advertising agencies which have recruited, trained and rewarded a whole breed of copywriters who think, breathe and live TV scripts … and it shows. Success is built around the 30-second commercial and “integration” usually means one outstanding piece of work that is created for television and multiple adaptations of the same thought. The print version is usually a poor second cousin. Rarely is print the lead medium. Of course, the numbers justify the importance of the TV medium but print delivers brilliant numbers too, if only we recognise its value and functionality.

Print allows us to sell rationally. But do we have the skills? The old school of copywriters that I worked with was reared on Wren and Martin. (I can almost hear you asking who they are?) If they gave you a piece of writing, you could bet your bottom dollar that while you could argue about the creative approach, you could not utter a word about its correctness. They read The Hindu and The Statesman, did the crossword and could engage you intellectually. Of course, in those days ads were originally conceptualised, written and released in English and then translations followed. Today, the conceptualisation for most brands is created in Hindi. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I wonder if that too is affecting the quality of the creative product as perhaps it is easier to create for TV in Hindi than to write ads in that language.

I think the time is right for the advertising agency to realise that it’s missing a trick. Television has been and perhaps will continue to be the low-hanging fruit. But there needs to be a long-term solution. The increasing literacy levels of the country and the potency of print as a medium cannot be ignored forever. I do know that agency folk listen more to their clients than to their spouses so maybe clients should put their foot down and ask for better print advertising.

Advertising too should highlight the value of print in its awards, forums and discussions. Maybe the newspaper industry should lead the way in this initiative. The industry has its own share of veterans who understand this medium and its nuances. Maybe now is the time to ensure that their talent is recognised. It is time for people like me who have been in the industry for ages to give back to the industry that has given us so much and what better way than to train the talented and yet raw youngsters who are in this industry and have no clue of what they should be doing?
Yes, the time is right to ‘Think Print’.

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


Anonymous said...

Hi! The decline of Print as a favoured medium could also be because it is much more expensive than TV.

Snigdha M.

R Sridhar said...

Print as a medium itself is losing credibility and is not hot. Which newspaper or magazine is something you can’t do without? How many good writer are there in print who can be considered stalwarts?

May be that is print is not attracting good advertising creative too. (my two-bit hypothesis!)

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes Sridhar the decline is pronounced and I wish I knew the answer to your question about who are the current stalwarts in print advertising. I am unable to come up with any names!

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

You are probably right, but I am not talking about the decline in volume of press advertising as much as the drop in quality of print advertising that is being released.

Fazle Naqvi said...

Hi Sridhar,

I enjoyed reading your very insightful commentary on where print advertising has gone!

And as someone who grew up with Wren & Martin too, its agonising to read the copy written today, even when its for the lowly in-shop poster. I have to share one gem with you which the agency in question thought was quite passable - "Introducing our new menu thats great on taste and good on your pocket".

You made the point about copywriters conceptualising in English and then translating or getting it translated into vernacular. This line here has the hallmark of the opposite.

That said, the work that agencies do today with images thanks to technology, is light years ahead of what we used to see 20 years back. So you gain in some spheres and in some ..........

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Dear Fazle,

Very interesting comment. Like you I am observing the declining standing in both the quality of thinking and writing and also the tendency of thinking in one's mother tongue and later translating it poorly into English.

Ram said...

I quite agree with you on the fact that print has taken a backseat these days inspite of the fact that when you get up in the morning you actually read the newspaper rather than switch on your TV.
There are lots of advantages of print over TV. You can read a print ad over and over again till you understand it fully. You can note down details like phone nos etc far more easily. A tv ad you dont knpow when it is going to appear again.
Historically Print has been used for a rational sell and tv by its very nature has worked better for an emotional take. But marketers have forgotten than even an emotion al story can be conveyed along with a rational tale with print. And quite often it is just a one liner that we remmber from a
TVC which can be drilled more esily by print.
And most importantly a Print ad would qualify as an agencys own product. Not so with a TVC were the producer/directors role is to say the least significant.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes Ram, the traditional advertising agency that we belonged to , knew that both print and TV had different roles and that print afforded a few special benefits of its own, like the ability to put in a response device, which had its own advantages.
And you are absolutely right that the agency is responsible wholly and solely for the creativity , unlike TV where there are so many people contributing.
But the agencies are missing a bet.

Manish Kharod said...


Couple of thoughts. The poor quality of advertisements these days may have lot to do with 7/24 media coverage and multitude of channels. Since there are lot of promotional slots, prices per slot has come down unless there is a premier event (world cup of super bowl here). Also, irreverent humor is selling lot more than (Different than what it used to be) 30 years back. This may minimize the chance of a serious ads.

I am no branding expert, but just my thoughts.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks Manish. You are right but there is no denying the fact that the quality of print advertising is declining.

R C Mouli said...

dear sridhar
read through your article in detail.
in part it was a trip down memory lane. the reference to all time great ads, and all time great ad men such as Frank Simoes brought back an era that many would never have known.
your summation that few people are left to write good print ads is absolutely right. today's copywriters can manage to write headlines, but struggle to write concise body copy.
your writing style is appealing - free flowing, informal and one to one.
in the opening para, the use of brackets to convey light hearted information made good reading; at the same time, the reader had to move away from the core message and return after every bracket, so may be such a technique could be used in later paragraphs when the reader has warmed up to your article.
please let me know if you write any columns regularly, which I can read online.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks for you comments Mouli, especiallly the one about the brackets, never thought of it that way.
i have a regular fortnightly column in the brandline every alternate thursday, the next one will appear next thursday.

B Srinivas said...

Dear Mr. Sridhar,

I found your article very interesting. It’s very true that we sometimes get carried away by the fancy degrees that we hold while the others walk away with all the money.

Your experiences in this article are akin to what Robert Kiyosaki has very beautifully put in his book “Rich Dad Poor Dad”. Maybe it’s time for you to convert all of this into a book, which I’m pretty sure you must already be doing.

All said and done….I really enjoy your articles & thanks for keeping me in the mailing list.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Thanks Srinivas, interesting comment about the "Rich Dad. Poor Dad".

Nanda Kishore Sethuraman said...

It is true that print as declined as the 'medium of choice', but a few steps behind would give the following thoughts:
1. There is not a single 'national newspaper' worth its salt today. Almost all 'key markets' are so split on their reach that it becomes exhorbitantly expensive to reach all 'TG' despite the spill over that TV bundles us with
2. Print, probably rightfully so, has become the 'favorite second medium' (pardon the oxymoron). One reads print 'only' when the user needs to learn more about the offering and take action. This seems true for almost all products and services (barring a few obvious exceptions).
3. At least with respect to the urban population, internet seems to double up for the 'information dissemination' part.
As marketers, it seems imperative to move with times and the relegation of print does not actually seem surprising to me. With so many different ways to reach the consumer, one tends to do a proper asset allocation.

Manish Kharod said...


Couple of thoughts. The poor quality of advertisements these days may have lot to do with 7/24 media coverage and multitude of channels. Since there are lot of promotional slots, prices per slot has come down unless there is a premier event (world cup of super bowl here). Also, irreverent humor is selling lot more than (Different than what it used to be) 30 years back. This may minimize the chance of a serious ads.

I am no branding expert, but just my thoughts.