Wednesday, July 6, 2011

In an ideal world...

Banish the myopia: Committed relationships can benefit a brand and its advertising/PR managers — Titan Industries has been associated with O&M and Lowe since its inception and Iodex with HTA (now JWT) for 86 years.

A few years ago I saw a very interesting commercial for the iconic brand Absolut vodka. I daresay not the ideal product category to talk about early in the morning even if the commercial was about an Absolut world. The interesting thing, however, was that the commercial had been created by a consumer for the brand and posted on YouTube. It featured different situations - a policeman leaving a lollypop instead of a parking ticket on the car's windshield; a huge hulk of a man whom you would dread meeting in a dark alley contentedly sitting and knitting a sock; the wife giving the husband a huge pastry full of cream and chocolate with the comment “Doctor's orders”; a young couple saying fairly intimate and yet uncomfortable things to each other with a pleasant smile and so on. This got me thinking, what if we had an ideal world in marketing and communications instead of the stress-filled and tension-ridden one that we currently inhabit?

Clients and agencies thinking long-term

The most mutually beneficial relationships between clients and agencies are those which have endured. I remember the brand Iodex working with HTA as JWT used to be called those days, for a small matter of 86 years! What a fund of knowledge would be available with the agency in a situation like this! Hardly surprising that new product managers and trainees spent time with the agency when they joined the company as part of their induction.

More recently, Titan Industries which launched its brand in 1987, still has the same agency Ogilvy and Mather. It has a similar long association with Lowe as well. Agencies and clients keep talking about a “marriage” and “partnership” and yet start shopping around at the drop of a hat. In an ideal world both clients and agencies would look at a relationship from a long-term perspective and not ask for a few agencies to pitch every year as a matter of routine. This is particularly true of public relations arrangements. Will you keep looking routinely at other interesting men or women if you wished to stay in a marriage? As a person who has worked in the agency business for far longer than I should have, I am convinced that the agencies work much better (on the average) when they don't have to keep looking over their shoulder. They will invest in research; send their people out to markets if they know that the client is looking at them with a long-term perspective.

Integrating the communications partners

Today with the communications business completely unbundled, clients work with different partners for research, advertising, public relations, events, and even packaging. So very often the client is the only one holding the baton of the brand with each partner doing what he thinks is right for the brand, which may often be at cross-purposes with the tone of voice of the brand and what it should stand for, or attempt to convey. Rarely ever are meetings held with all the communication partners where plans are shared and open discussions are held. In an ideal world everyone would know what needs to be known about the brand so that they don't operate in isolation. It would help too if advertising agencies had a greater understanding of public relations and what it can achieve, and equally importantly the PR company must have a greater understanding of the power of advertising and the value of integrated marketing communications. An ideal world is a world of open sourcing. Sadly today the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing!

Awards are not only about Cannes

At some point in the recent past the major agencies decided that they would not participate in local awards functions, especially those being run by the Advertising Clubs in the South and some of them actually did not have awards functions for a few years. So if a young writer wished to compete with the Piyush Pandeys of this world, he could not do so at Chennai but could do so only if his work was sent to Cannes! It was a bit like most Indian Ranji Trophy players never getting to play with Sachin or Dhoni because they never ever played domestic cricket. Thanks to the IPL, the budding cricketers do get to play with the greats of Indian and world cricket. In an ideal world, India would be calling the shots in world advertising and awards, a bit like what is happening in the world of cricket.

An outstanding issue

In an ideal world the vexatious issue of money would not be the heartburn it so often is. Agencies constantly have to put up with inconsiderate and insensitive clients and it is usually the smaller partner who goes through the wringer when the client has a cash flow problem. Often, though, the cash flow problem is less of an issue than the carelessness or the lethargy of the brand manager or the marketing communications manager who is on leave, in meetings or unable to meet her boss! The situation gets even more traumatic when the account moves, particularly in public relations assignments. Clients cheerfully sign on new partners without bothering to settle their outstanding bills with the agency that they have been dealing with for so long. In an ideal world both the old public relations company and the new public relations company will talk to each other instead of studiously avoiding each other. If there is no forum such as the Advertising Agencies' Association of India that the advertising agencies have, the PR companies who strangely claim that they are in the communications business must at least communicate better with each other.

Training the key

In an ideal world agencies would train their people irrespective of the costs (or is the right word investments) and not make idiotic statements like “What's the point of training, in any case she will leave?” Attrition is a fact of life and will become even more acute as we are in a phase of growth. But properly planned and well conducted training programmes can most certainly improve the attitude and performance of the employees while they are in the organisation and actually help them stay longer. Our company does a lot of training for advertising agencies and market research firms and has direct and certain experience that a properly conducted training programme has a direct impact on the motivation levels and performance of the employees who are trained. The smarter companies have a basket of training programmes for their employees with different rating points for each and every employee has to go through or acquire a minimum number of points as part of their appraisal. This leads me to another interesting hope in the ideal world — learning from one's clients.

Can we learn from our clients?

Today agencies work with the best firms in India. Their clients are giants in more ways than one. Some of them are outstanding corporate citizens who have set up benchmarks for best practices across disciplines. In my experience agencies are quick to criticise clients (behind their backs, of course) as they are unable to see the larger picture and their opinion of the client is largely dictated by the fact that they have a demanding marketing communications manager or brand manager. It is perhaps the right time for senior management at the agency to educate their younger colleagues about the client, the business and what they can possibly learn from them. Agencies are often too critical of their clients as they often tend to take most things personally, especially criticism, and that colours their opinion of the client. At a larger level, I think it prevents them from objectively looking at the client and her achievements. So here is a tricky question. Do you admire your clients? Are you willing to learn from them?

Positioning – a battle yet to be won

Agencies are admirable at positioning their clients' brands. They come up with clever strategies and smart ways of communicating the positioning of their clients' brands and the more I see television, the more I am convinced of this. And yet, how well are agencies positioned? How distinct are they from their competition. In an ideal world advertising agencies and public relations companies would do some serious soul-searching and ask themselves the same questions that they so often ask their clients. Who are we? How are we different from our competitors? How do we communicate that difference?

Yes, we live in an imperfect world. We do not get the respect we think we deserve, though often enough our thinking and execution leave a lot to be desired. We can better our lot as organisations and industries that matter. The question is — do we have the will to at least create a better world even if we cannot create an ideal one?

Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO, brand – comm.
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