Friday, November 11, 2011

Momentous days for the communications industry

Stellar outing: The F1 event showcased India’s event handling capabilities much more favourably than the Commonwealth Games could. - Photo : Rajeev Bhatt

On October 31, I was at Lucknow to celebrate a landmark birthday of my classmate from IIM Bangalore. It was a unique experience to be in Mayawati's kingdom, but I shall resist the urge to talk about statues and parks with huge, forbidding walls and stay with the events that India and the world witnessed around that time.

The media in Lucknow was showering praise on Mayawati for helping organise the F1 event, taking place in Noida at that time. Although it was largely a private sector initiative, the papers, in Lucknow at least, spoke in glowing terms about the support that behenji had provided to make the event a great success.

In all fairness the event showcased India's event-handling capabilities much more favourably than the Commonwealth Games could. Even as I was admiring the lady's good relations with the media came the news of Vaishnavi, the high-profile PR agency of the Tatas, announcing that it would be shutting shop and the even more high-profile founder Niira Radia sending out an emotional press release to the company's customers and media about the mental anguish and the agony of the last year leading up to the winding up of the agency.

While all this was happening Omincom announced its taking a majority stake in Mudra Communications even as AdAsia, back in India after a gap of eight years, was holding the advertising industry spellbound at New Delhi. Let's start with AdAsia, the showpiece event of the advertising industry, before we talk about the other events that held the communication industry's attention at around the same time.

Back to Delhi after 29 long years

I remember looking at the AdAsia Convention in 1982 from the outside. I was not yet in advertising but knew that advertising was going to be my port of call soon. After all I had read David Ogilvy's Confessions of an Advertising Man and the great man himself was there talking up India and likening advertising in India to the tortoise which he said would overtake the hare, his description of advertising in the West.

I am not sure if the dour Scotsman was just being nice to the hosts as he spoke for his supper or it was his prediction of the shape of things to come. But even before he took permanent residence in his chateau at France, India was showing the world a thing or two as the Indian advertising industry was still growing while in the rest of the world it was stagnant. India and I had to wait for a small matter of 21 years before AdAsia meandered to Jaipur. I was covering it for another newspaper and had the opportunity to interview some of the greats who made it to Jaipur, including Jack Trout and Lester Wunderman, even though part-time journalists like me could only see the Big B and the walking salesman SRK from a distance. It was truly an experience, what with the palaces, the camels, the dinners and the presentations that were uniformly interesting and I had reams and reams of notes and frantically used to mail my stories to the newspaper in Bangalore at the end of each day.

If my memory serves me right Rajat Gupta, who was at the peak of his professional achievements, too was a keynote speaker. How things can change in just eight years for people and organisations! Strangely, in the midst of a galaxy of international speakers and presentations, the most profound exposition came from the unlikeliest of sources — Amitabh Bachhan — who, in his own inimitable style, gave examples of “positioning” and filling a “need gap”.

According to him, following the political emergency, an angry and frustrated India found a role model in the “angry young man” that the actor brought to life so wonderfully in films such as Deewaar and Zanjeer. The actor showed a frustrated nation how to hit back and they took to his role as hungrily as a top-class batsman would take to mediocre bowling. The second stage in his career (which had taken a major hit) was with KBC in its first edition. India had changed since the Deewar days and had spawned a “latch key generation.” A whole generation grew up on its own and the host of KBC was seen by them as a friendly, helpful uncle. The show was a hit. The Big B came back in a big way and his analysis of his own career situation was brilliant, something that even marketers would have been proud of.

Back to the present

Although I could not attend this edition of the AdAsia I have been following it with great interest in the columns of this very paper and online as well. Clearly, India's emergence as the tortoise that is showing the world a thing or two is clearly in evidence as evidenced by the galaxy of speakers, not least Indra Nooyi, originally from Madras that is now Chennai, making it in the global world and her five points that marketers would do well to remember.

The advice of one of the speakers to remember that women are a distinct and important market segment, and not merely men wearing skirts, as some would like us to believe, was extremely insightful. A lot of the discussion and debate has been about the emergence of online as the medium to watch out for and how brands could easily be left behind if they did not understand or harness the new medium that is throwing up new opportunities every moment.

The session about India becoming a global brand was a particularly interesting one to someone who like me has always agonised about the country and some of the things that have buffeted its brand image over the last few months. Sadly, the image of India has been dented by factors that it has little control over and seems to be completely clueless at tackling.

India does not seem to have a brand champion who cares for its future and destiny. Yes, we live in uncertain times and that is the only certainty today, as the conference theme aptly portrayed. And the fact that the advertising industry is changing and, probably, maturing was in evidence with the presence of Swami Sukhabodhananda whose quips and wisdom demonstrated that whatever you may be doing today , you still have to think of the future — not only of your body but of your soul as well.

I think the AdAsia is a tribute to the organising ability of the people who planned and executed it and India can justifiably be proud that the same Delhi that hosted the Commonwealth Games, also hosted the AdAsia, with far greater success and less heartburn.

One more Indian agency joins the network

I used to work in Mudra when the “fastest growing agency”, as it used to be called in those days, tied up with DDB Needham, the creative agency started by the legendary Bill Bernbach. The Indian agency, for a long time, held 90 per cent of the equity till recently, when Omnicom announced a majority stake. Mudra was one of the very few Indian agencies that had retained its name, identity and operating freedom for over two decades. The valuation too is an indication of its success and value to the Omincom group which can suddenly make a difference to Indian clients and businesses and will no longer be a mere fringe player. While I am quite sure Mudra will continue to think Indian and make a difference to its clients in its own unique way, as it has been doing over the years, I feel a tinge of regret that a truly Indian agency will just be another part, albeit an important part of a global network.

And another agency shuts its doors

Even as momentous things were happening in advertising, an even more dramatic happening was the winding up of Vaishnavi, a relatively new PR agency. While it certainly seems to be thinking about the welfare of its clients and its employees, it is a sobering moment for the public relations industry. While I am sure the industry has the legs and the commitment to come out of this crisis, an even larger crisis struck me. Cricket, the game I love and adore, got a body blow when the deceit and machinations of the cricketing trio from Pakistan threw the game into shame and its followers into complete dejection. Will the game survive? I hope so, otherwise what would guys like me do? Who knows, maybe we could watch Formula 1!

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