Monday, January 4, 2010

Not a memorable year for advertising

The advertising industry seems to no longer have an affinity for storytelling. As advertising moves down the value chain, inventive marketing is taking charge..

On a wintry morning in Bangalore as I sit wondering how advertising and marketing were in the year gone by, my mind wanders as it usually seems to do on wintry mornings (and just about any time). This time my undisciplined mind went to a commercial of the early Nineties for Band Aid, made by Johnson & Johnson. A kid has hurt himself playing football and his father who is a doctor (incidentally the model looks amazingly like Bhaskar Bhat, Managing Director of Titan Industries) tells him of the need to use Band Aid and how the injury should not be left open and the boy repeats the messages mechanically, his mind obviously on something else. Both of them leave the frame and as we expect the commercial to end the boy comes darting back into the frame and shouts, ‘ Bhoolna math match jeet gaya!' (‘Don't forget we won the match!').

Strikingly, perhaps the most significant recall factor of 2009 for me is the fact that India is the No. 1 test team in the world and was also the one-day leader for approximately 24 hours! Of course, being the karma yogi that I am, I shall resist the temptation to talk about the BCCI and its enormous capability to botch up anything and its phenomenal foresight in scheduling a colossal number of two test matches in the next 12 months for our all-conquering team. I shall stay with the yearly review that you are so patently and ardently (!) waiting for!

The mother of all crises!

The US and the Western world would like to forget 2009 in a hurry and wish it would end soon but the happenings in September 2008 spilled over for most of the year and had far-reaching implications for many countries, including India. Let me stay with the impact on advertising during the year that is chugging to a painful close. I think the year served more than ever to remind us of the fact that the truly Indian agency is a rarity and every second agency is part of a global network. The headquarters of global agencies panicked, and how! It is fair to say that India in real terms was not as badly affected as the rest of the world. But this did not prevent extreme reactions.

Many years ago I went to Hong Kong for a DDB Needham global conference and country after country presented. The order was usually North America, UK, France, and Germany and somewhere towards the end was India. India was not in the picture. Thankfully that has changed; India is much higher in terms of importance and visibility. But I wonder how many of the agencies' heads here in India realise that or, more critically, have the courage and the will to take on their global bosses? Although it seems a bit outspoken, I wonder if many of the agency bosses in India are in the last stages of their advertising careers and do not wish to assert themselves or take the trouble to educate their network partners on how we were not as badly off as the rest of the world and why the same cost-cutting strategy should not be adopted here.
India was administered the same medicine as the rest of the world, never mind the fact that it did not have the same degree of sickness. There was a ban on recruitment, travel, training … you get the drift? Agencies for once took their eyes off the headline and focused on the bottom line.
I daresay agencies treated talent in a harsh manner, to put it mildly, and let a number of people go. It is perhaps correct to say that the industry has alienated a whole lot of talent which was unable to understand or appreciate the steps being taken. In a sense it has been beneficial as it has spawned a few start-ups of disenchanted creative people who quite rightly want to do their own thing. Of course, agency heads, like their clients in the IT industry, kept parroting that they were only asking non-performers to leave and were improving the quality of their talent. I did feel sorry for the people in the advertising business, some of whom lost their jobs, forgot about raises and were not even trained during the year as all budgets were frozen.

The media struggles too

If advertising is ailing can media be far behind? Media has become the truly lowest common denominator and television is the primary offender as media woos eyeballs and revenue. Television seems to be going the David Dhawan way and we seem to revel in the era of ‘manufactured reality'. The Raakhi Sawant show is a case in point. People, it seems, are avidly switching on to things that you love to hate.
Thankfully, cinema, which people used to castigate readily, is moving up in creativity, technique and a lot of young talent is moving into it. What about news channels and their enormous capability at branding non-events as ‘breaking news?' I guess one of the commercials for the Hindustan Times where an anguished mother has a child in hospital thanks to defective medicine while an intrusive reporter asks her obnoxious questions best sums up the pathetic state of the channels.

About newspapers, the distressing trend of ‘paid editorial' is spreading like the AIDS virus. Recently when we were speaking about possible PR coverage for one of our clients, a prominent challenger newspaper, not the leader as one would suspect, asked “Why do you want PR coverage for this client? In any case they are not advertising in our paper, surely our readers are not the target audience?” I think the newspaper industry needs to step back for just a moment and consider its very reason for being. The world has enough products and services that are marketed mindlessly, often without the slightest consideration for truth, honesty and the consumer. Must the newspaper be just another product like these or must it stand for truth and fairness?

What about creativity?

The advertising industry seems to have lost its penchant for storytelling. Of course, the Zoozoos were a beacon of light in an otherwise dark and often depressing creative environment.
Mind you, this is not to ignore some isolated campaigns which still stood out from the clutter. But this has been a lean year for creativity as perhaps it has been for Ishant Sharma who was the greatest thing that happened to Indian fast bowling not so long ago.

There were very few campaigns that made one stand up and cheer as David Ogilvy would say, or make one wistfully say, “I wish I had written that.” There was the trend of some brands such as Idea Cellular and Tata Tea trying to tap into the social consciousness of the country, particularly of youth which may have some implications in terms of future possibility.

Some of the digital agencies used the freedom of the medium to provide outstanding creatives.
If one were to sum up the mass media creative, we probably delivered a plateful of advertising that one did not want. There was too much advertising and too little engagement, as an expert said, and advertising runs the risk of killing the reason why we are watching the media.
I think this is affecting the customer adversely. Have you ever tried to watch an interesting Hindi or Tamil movie on TV on Sunday? More than ever advertising needs to remind itself that at the best of times it is an interruption. People do not switch on the TV to watch the ads or buy a newspaper to see the ads, unless, of course, they want a job or wish to sell their apartment.

The advertising of today which tries so hard to be different is actually getting commoditised. While a good trend is that people from advertising have moved to films and are directing noticeable, popular films - the most visible of them being Balki and his second film Paa – clients too must realise that unless they give their agencies elbow room, the best of them will drift away to pastures where their creativity is recognised and rewarded and that will be disastrous for the industry as a whole.

Innovation the name of the game

Obviously advertising is moving down the value chain and is becoming more low-involvement as a career, which is in fact affecting the overall perception of the industry. Tata DoCoMo revolutionised the mobile services market with its per-second billing. Where is the innovation from advertising? I know that agencies will talk about roadblocks that they have created for Volkswagen and Hindustan Unilever. My take on this is slightly different. Are agencies being self-indulgent or are customers noticing these innovations that agencies are so proud about?
And as a prospective customer I am taken aback at the advertising for the Volkswagen Beetle here in India.

Will I pay over Rs 22 lakh after seeing this ad or even ask for a test drive? Is this aspirational? What a fantastic opportunity to work on an iconic brand! Has the opportunity been seized? I wonder. I remember seeing the room that Bill Bernbach used to work from in Madison Avenue.
It was like entering a shrine, so much was the aura of creativity around the man. The key question in DDB in those days whenever a campaign was being designed was to ask themselves the question on the lines of ‘What would Bill say?'
We have no way of knowing what Bill would have to say about the creativity of Indian advertising in 2009, but something tells me that the advertising legend who created campaigns which conformed to the 3 Ss of ‘simplicity, surprise, smile' might have for once been ‘stumped' for an answer!

(The writer is the CEO of brand-comm and the author of ‘Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.')

Image Source: NorthMediaHigh


Ram said...

You have mentioned that 2009 wasnt such a good year for advertising. I would go one stage further and say that the last decade itself has been stepmotherly to advertising. As you say advertising has lost its prima donna status in the marketeres mind. And maybe it is not such a fleeting thing as might suspect. It might just be this way for a pretty long time. Because no boom or bust in the economy is having an effect on the industry. The big picture has changed and for good!
Wrt to the other point of falling creative stnadards i cant agree with you more. The ratio of good to mediocre ads has fallen adversely.
And whats more the "garbage" category ads have increased hugely.
Gone are the days when adgencies took pride in all the work that comes out. Nowdays they are more intersted in getting some award winning ads right.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

You are right Ram, there has been a gradual slide in the way the rest of industry has been viewing advertising and the ad industry is responsible for this slide.
Your views on the declining quality of creative are bang on and the industry is obsessed only with getting awards.

J Shankar said...

I read your article and it amazess me to see how much you have grown and become a an outstanding professional

Batch of 82 IIM is proud of you.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

hey this is rare praise, thanks!

Kavita Mehta said...

Very interesting and though-provoking article. Thank you for passing this on

R Kasthuri said...

A good one sums up the events nicely

Sundar Swamy said...

I concur with much of what you have said. Creativity is a fancy of a handful and they seem to be feeding one another. Customer is left bewildered.

Shivakumar Shiv said...

Tks great srticle

i like the points on ad creativity

awesome sridhar

Thomas Xavier said...

Thanks sir! I really like the way you weave (and conclude) an argument.

Suresh Kumar said...

Glad to hear from you...I read your new article for Hindu BusinessLine...liked the 3 S ending!!

On your point about Advertising Industry losing creative talent, I guess most of the creative folks at agencies have always aspired to be part of entertainment industry and many struggle with a foot in (supposedly strait-jacketed) marketing & another in showbiz..ofcourse there are exceptions who have successfuly handled both.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes Suresh, when we were in advertising the creative person had limited choice, perhaps restricted to a job in another agency. Not any longer.
I think the ad industry must strive harder to attract and retain talent.