Monday, January 16, 2012

Year of the break-away agency?

Anna Hazare and his campaign against corruption was one of the most widely followed stories on the media last year.

The ad industry's attention was once again drawn to people processes.

I met the head of the Indian operations of a large MNC a few days ago and asked him how the year had been and he made a telling comment. “Well, the only thing I can tell you is that I am glad 2011 is over.” The Indian cricket fan too would endorse the sentiment entirely, as contrary to bookmakers' predictions and my own hopes, India slumped to an embarrassing defeat in the Boxing Day test, which thankfully ended the cricketing action for the year.

But worse was to follow in the New Year as India slipped to an even more inexplicable innings defeat to an Australian team that is “in transition”. But the optimist in me still says, “Well things can only get better.” Instead of putting one more knife into the already beleaguered Indian cricket team, which must be feeling a bit like Julius Caesar right now with all those stabbings, let us move on and cast our attention to the relatively more peaceful world of media and advertising and look at what the year brought.

Analysis or news

Here is a quick look at the world of media. People watched more television, despite the tremendous choice of media that the viewer had. Significantly, it was the programmes that analysed events such as the Anna Hazare movement that people were watching and talking about. Of course, we did have a fair share of events worth talking about, even if television channels were preoccupied with classifying “non-events” as “breaking news”.

The significant programme to my mind at least was KBC in its latest avatar as it gave a lot of people the hope of becoming millionaires. Not a new concept, but this time it made more news than the previous editions as people made money, sometimes lots of it.

Though I am not a great watcher of soap on TV, the success of a programme such as Bade Acche Lagte Hai on Sony is, perhaps, an indication that people will constantly look for and support change in formats and formulae.

While still on the subject of making news, the biggest event for the PR industry, which constantly tries to make news on behalf of its clients, was the winding up of Vaishnavi Communications and the beleaguered Niira Radia calling it a day. In a sense, it was a sobering development, reiterating the validity of the statement that “one who lives by the sword shall die by it”. I am sure that many of the competitors of Reliance and the Tatas, who had their bones of contention with these huge groups, got back at the chief lobbyist. In many ways, it saw the quick and complete demise of “corporate lobbying.” There were certainly disproportionate earnings in this activity, but there was sudden death as well, which she experienced to her mortification.

Creativity, that all too rare commodity

Whenever I wanted to watch a cricket match on TV, I got to see advertising and lots of it. Of course, I have got used to not seeing the first and the sixth ball of overs when they are actually bowled, so I am not even going to complain about it — not because it does not matter to me and millions of other cricket lovers, but simply because nothing will be done about it. And the way India is playing, it might even be a blessing in disguise, as otherwise you may have the heartbreak of watching yet another Indian wicket fall — “live”.

But it is certainly irritating to watch the legitimisation of “creepy crawlers” on my TV screen and the fact that the image of the action has been truncated to accommodate advertising messages. Nor should I forget the repeating of ads (and lots of them are bad) within the same capsule. The day the consumer hits back is not far away and I am sure the advertiser will not even know what hit him. But back to the advertising agency and its “core competency”, which has always been creativity.

How creative were agencies last year? Brands that have a strong culture of creativity continued to do great work whilst others simply continued to use celebrities After all, the laziest strategies are the ones that are easiest to sell.

Brands such as Cadburys continued to entertain and sell. The Airtel friends campaign (and we will talk a little more about it) and the Idea number portability come to mind. Though, I must say, that most of the 3G campaigns left me cold. The latest Tanishq campaign to my mind at least was a throwback to the times when people actually wanted to see ads.

However, the age old principle that “20 per cent of advertising is great, 30 per cent mediocre and 50 per cent downright bad” seemed to hold true in 2011 as well.

As mentioned in my prelude to this column last fortnight, digital advertising is becoming increasingly important with some of the work in that area getting recognised by international awards such as the Effies.

Taproot takes root

The emergence of the creative agency is not a new one, but one has really made an impact and reinforced the industry folklore of guys in suits from all parts of the world working feverishly on their laptops to crack the problem while two guys walk in with their writing pads as competition and walk away with the business is the stuff that fairy tales are made of.

Taproot is not the first breakaway creative agency, nor will it be the last. The entry barriers to starting an agency have always been low.

But the reality is that for one success, there are several failures. I have run agencies and know how difficult it can be to start and, more critically, sustain. But clients are not bothered too much about the size of the agency, and worry only about the people they are dealing with.

People will always buy from friends, whatever the business they may be in. And in advertising, they will buy from people who will solve their communication problems and agencies which are secure in the nature of their client relationships must realise that it has always been and will continue to be about solving communication problems.

I am not sure this is a trend or even the shakeup of the advertising industry as some would say. But it is, perhaps, indicative of the problem that is likely to confront the larger agencies sooner rather than later and brings up the need to closely monitor the morale and mood of the people who work in these agencies.

After some time, people will want more than the security of a salary cheque on the first and the association of an international brand name.

Time to think? Perhaps, more significantly, time for certain agencies to act. How good are their people management processes?

One more Indian agency bites the dust

Mudra, which was arguably the last and the largest Indian agency, too, went under the Omnicom umbrella. It is probably a sign of the times. But I am worried about Indian clients. A large Indian advertiser on the condition of anonymity complained to me that though he works for a large MNC agency, he never gets to see the top flight creative talent. “They are busy servicing their MNC clients,” he cribbed. Well, with 19 of the top 20 ad agencies being part of large global networks, situations like these can only become even more complex. I have a larger worry. I entered advertising when it was headed and led by real owners, some of whom had pledged their wife's jewels or mortgaged their houses to run their businesses. There will always be a difference between owners and managers, in the way they think. Their priorities, how to handle stressful situations and 2012 will see more decisions that are agency-driven with very little thought being spared for the industry as a whole. I think the other reality or the issue of the agency business is that today's top agency heads are spending more time worrying about their budgets and their deliverables and answering their bosses in London, New York or Singapore than worrying about their clients. Most of the agency heads are fairly good financial administrators but don't they have a larger role to play? There is another reality too. Like the stars in the Indian cricket team, many of the agency heads are on the verge of retirement. Being in the age bracket of some of these agency heads, I can empathise with them for their reluctance to neither rock the boat nor look too far ahead. Is this the best option? I wonder.

Let me end with an interesting learning which probably holds true for older people like me. I met a director in IBM who is of my vintage. He spoke of an interesting concept called “reverse mentoring” where senior employees of IBM are being mentored by young employees, who are probably three decades younger to them on the digital media. So a twenty something guy tells this director who makes momentous decisions, on what to do with his Facebook page. And I think this has to be the way forward for 2012, for lots of older managers of today.

I am ready to be reverse mentored? Are you? That could well determine our future, not only in 2012 but even ahead. So get ready to get ahead.

Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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1 comment:

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