Thursday, October 7, 2010

Look who's talking!

And just as it got everyone else talking, so does our columnist about the pros and cons of Volkswagen's experiment with a talking print ad..

Ch. Vijaya Bhaskar
A buyer with the Vento.
Did they ever consider putting in a response device, a number, a Web site? I am certain that while the talking newspaper ad will win an award for media innovation, it is not my idea of a creative ad – and when so much was being spent on the media delivery, should not a little more effort have gone into the creative product?

The 21st of September 2010 started more sleepily than it usually does for me. The previous night I had been watching another meaningless Champions League game late into the night and as is common for me, had difficulty waking up the next morning. (Of course, most people in Bangalore wake up late and blame the weather!) As I made my way groggily downstairs I was greeted by great excitement and loud voices from the elders of the family. The delivery of the newspaper, which itself is a major achievement in Bangalore, could not have created such a tizzy, surely? Yes, it was the newspaper, but with one important difference. The newspaper was talking!

It did not take me long to figure out that the alien voice coming over the black box was exhorting the virtues of the Volkswagen Vento, the new luxury sedan, positioned against the Honda City and incidentally, rated as a superb car by my local car expert. After the excitement died down and we figured out the message after listening to it a couple of times and also with great dexterity figured out how to switch the darn thing off, I started to think. (While thinking may be an automatic process for most people, for me it is a bit like starting the old Standard Herald that we used to have. I need time and effort.)

Enough of me and more of the talking newspaper. Was the talking newspaper the greatest technological and media innovation that India had ever seen as a few humble gentlemen (who were behind it) were claiming? Would it guarantee ‘thought leadership' which Volkswagen wants, as it is quite some distance away from market leadership? Will the phenomenal costs (estimates vary) bring in comparable benefits?

Media the “other creative department”

Creativity is the core competence of the advertising agency, or at least, so it should be. Having said that traditional wisdom suggests that creativity is the sole prerogative of the guys with ponytails and earrings and those young things in torn jeans who nonchalantly blow smoke rings in the pub but who also produce brilliant TV commercials. The media department, however, conjures up images of guys sitting in front of computer terminals, a bevy of spreadsheets in front of them, constantly speaking on the phone. These guys also have the admirable quality of being able to arm-twist the poor guys who sell space. But the media department is not supposed to be creative. They are brilliant backroom boys who will get you fantastic positions, mouth-watering deals and work with crazy deadlines.

It was this perception and role that DDB Needham was trying to counter in the Nineties by exhorting media to be the “other creative department” and come up with pathbreaking innovations. And the Volkswagen Vento ad is just that. A fantastic media innovation, a logistical masterpiece involving two of India's most dominant newspapers, The Hindu and The Times of India, reaching out to a small matter of 22 lakh people whose reactions ranged from complete surprise to total shock and anger. (I am ignoring the few who dutifully called the cops.) You could love the innovation or hate it, but you could not ignore it, at least till you figured out how to shut it off!

The creative/ media divide

While people in advertising are in the communications business, they are very poor communicators internally. Historically media would get in at the last stage, after the creative had been done, and tell the client service that there was only money for a half-page ad in magazines, not the four-colour spread that the creative guys had conceptualised! While I am exaggerating to make a point, I must state that my example is from the days of the full-service agency where client servicing, media and creative used to work in adjoining cubicles in the same agency and yet not talk to each other. Today with “unbundling” the task has become even more complex as creative and strategy are being done by one agency whilst media are being bought by a media house. When people have difficulty in communicating within the same agency then imagine the confusion likely to arise when they work for different agencies!

It is in this context that I am intrigued by the Vento ad. Whose idea was it? Was the creative agency part of the whole process? Given the current scenario, I have no hesitation in commending the process of innovation. I wish it shows the way to a whole host of others who are continuing to do mundane, mechanical work, day after day.

What about the message?

R. Ravindran
The talking Volkswagen ad in The Hindu

It has often been said that the message is the medium and there is no doubt that the medium has been used to great effect in this case. The message itself is fairly straightforward. It says the car has the best-in-class German engineering, so much so that the engineers who designed the car feel bad when they watch the car being driven away.

Of course, this is integration, in the sense that it is the same message that is being used across media, whether it is TV or print. But could it have been done more aesthetically? Maybe with music? And did they ever consider putting in a response device, a number, a Web site? I am certain that while the talking newspaper ad will win an award for media innovation, it is not my idea of a creative ad – and when so much was being spent on the media delivery, should not a little more effort have gone into the creative product?

Some more questions

Even though I have been in advertising for as long as I can remember and even if I love (some) car advertising, I must confess that advertising has limited relevance to the buyer. Speaking from the experience of one who has bought several cars in the last two decades (my friend says I change cars like some people change clothes) it does seem obvious to me that it is all about ‘word of mouth' and user experience. But car manufacturers spend millions of rupees on advertising like this and very little on the online space which is becoming increasingly important. And how many people in India can afford a luxury sedan? Mind you, this is not a corporate message or a message about the small car, but about a luxury car!

At the end of the day

Having gone on a bit about the negative side of the ad, I do realise that it is important to have a sense of perspective. There is no denying the impact of the new advertisement for the Vento. It was unexpected and caught a few of us napping in more ways than one. It must have certainly made the other car manufacturers sit up and take notice, for deep down they must know that their own efforts in the marketing innovation space have been nothing to write home about. As it is said correctly, the true leaders will compete for share of mind and thought leadership rather than mere market leadership. Volkswagen, through its earlier ad for the Polo, had also created waves, so it has continued to do things differently in India. And it is not merely a case of innovative advertising, for Volkswagen historically makes damn good cars and I am certain that the Vento is just that and the advertising has certainly worked in my case as my next car will most certainly be a Vento!

Here is hoping that my wife who is the decision-maker in our house (as in most houses) is reading this column!

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