Thursday, December 27, 2007

Rewind. Reflect. Rejuvenate.

Consumed as I am by two passions - cricket and advertising, I was trying to see if there is any parallel between what happened in cricket around the world in 2007 with what happened in advertising, marketing and business in India at the same time. F irst, let me talk about cricket. For Indian cricket, 2007 was probably a year like no other. The disaster of the cricket World Cup in the Caribbean was reduced in impact by a test series win in England after a small matter of 21 years.
Of course, neither the captain nor the team got the recognition they deserved and the captain resigned in disgust as this must have been the last straw on an already tired and frustrated camel’s back. It is no fun being captain of India as Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar will testify.
This was followed by an extraordinary triumph in South Africa where we won the T20 World Cup under a new captain, Dhoni who, incidentally, is a strong link between my two interests. The whole of India went mad after this. Then followed a one-day series loss to Australia and a one-day series and Test triumph over Pakistan, again after two decades. And now the all important tour of Australia has just begun. What a year of highs and lows! Many of the young Indians saw a World Cup triumph by India for the first time in their young lives.
The world of advertising, brands and communication that I am equally passionate about did not have as dramatic a year. Here are a series of reflections on the year gone by and predictions for the immediate future. After all, 2007 will soon become 2008. And if now is not the time to reflect or introspect, I wonder when is.
India shining
‘India Shining’ may have bombed at the last elections but it is not elections or the advertising for it that we are talking about now. The economy is booming, companies are doing brilliantly, the Sensex is soaring and confidence is at an all time high for India and Indians aided and abetted with deals like the Corus deal. In fact, it is bordering on arrogance, a bit like the way of the BCCI in its relationship (?) with ICC with which the BCCI frequently throws its weight around thanks to the sponsorship muscle it enjoys. A booming India and a 20,000 Sensex means good things for the Indian advertising industry and here is the first prediction.
Year 2008 will be an even better year for the industry and there will be an increase in advertising for products and services as sections of our population think the world is their oyster and rightly so. Where will this boom come from?
While the booming Sensex will mean that there will be a slew of IPOs, and agencies specialising in this arena of activity will rake in the moolah, an opportunity will present itself for public relations agencies as well. This in a sense will be a replay of the late Eighties and early Nineties. Yet many of the older, well-established agencies could be threatened by a younger breed of agencies as people who make decisions will change and younger merchant bankers come into the picture and maybe the stranglehold of the old stalwarts over the new issues advertising market will be under threat.
Retail hot and happening
I need to reiterate that the retail revolution will continue, burgeon and eventually sweep this country. Retailers who are currently in ‘sale’ mode will also realise that factors such as service delivery, branding and differentiation will have to prevail as price advantages will reduce, if not disappear. Yet, the agencies face a bigger threat. The rise of retail means the agency can no longer get away with glossy image-building ads that are cute to watch and do nothing for footfalls. Results will be the key.
“Don’t tell me what a great ad it is, just drive people to my store” could well be the mantra of the marketer who is already struggling with rising real estate costs and increasing competition. Earlier, agencies used to build image with TV and drive traffic through newspapers. What will the new formula be? If retail is the next big 20-20 of business then both marketers and agencies would not have the luxury of time to experiment. The time to deliver is now. Is the agency ready? Who knows? And on the subject of 20-20 cricket, which was a huge money spinner, agencies need to realise that it is here to stay. They need to figure out whether they need shorter, edgier and zanier work for the audience and the mood that is different, rather than the same commercial for all seasons and all programmes.
Yo, baby! We are young and talking!
The youth theme has been done to death but we cannot wish away the fact that 59 per cent of the Indian population is below the age of 24 and that we have an amazing mobile market. Indian youth has taken to mobile phones as a duck to water. With increasing connectivity and accelerating use of GPRS, it provides a great opportunity for marketers to look at this medium far more seriously.
My children are 23 and 20 and represent India’s urban, affluent youth. They are probably more attached to their mobiles than they are to their parents. While it is a disappointment to me, it is perhaps a great opportunity for marketers to capitalise on this, engage and build relationships with youth using the mobile. Do we really understand this medium and its potency? And let’s not forget that we are one of the fastest growing mobile markets in the world. Speaking of youth and the new medium let me go on to the next big opportunity, and that is digital.
The great technology divide
India understands technology and has used it to become a budding superpower. Yet, we need to remember that online is the medium of the future and we have not really cracked it, technology notwithstanding. We have talked about this and will continue to talk about it but perhaps its time has come.
Let me give you a simple analogy. In the Eighties, Print was king. People wrote lyrical copy and won awards. Body copy was crafted and visuals made your mouth water. Then TV became the medium to watch out for, work on and build reputations with. Those who adapted to the medium and understood its differences got a headstart over their competition.
And what about advertising professionals? The ones who understood the new medium did well while those who refused to or ignored it just got left behind. We are at a similar juncture now.
Online is the medium that will change the face of marketing. Does the agency understand this medium? Is it only using this as “spin” to media and clients, or can it harness it? This is a big ask and creative people too must cross this chasm. My request to creative people is simple. Embrace this medium. Train to create in it. Understand its nuances and pitfalls and you will reap the benefits but a quick assessment of where agencies are, or what little they did in 2007 in this medium, makes one slightly concerned.
A few concluding thoughts
What were the great ads of 2007? What were the ads that made you stand up and cheer or wish you had done them? I could not think of too many or maybe they are not playing on the sports channels. In any case Airtel, Reliance and Idea produced interesting ads. Some of the financial advertising was insightful while colas seem to have lost their fizz. But media fragmentation is a way of life and will continue to be so.
The past two years, and even 2008, one suspects, will be all about celebrities. Leading the pack is our small-town hero Dhoni.
Hype rules for a short while and then reality takes over, whether it’s Saawariya or ICL. Here are two of the biggest flops of 2007 and whichever year that we are talking about, the basics will not change. Media weights or slick advertising can never support an inferior product. And expectations must be delivered.
The fact that the worldwide advertising hub for Lenovo will be Bangalore is an interesting and heartening development for advertising. This is not only about costs as the cynics might wish us to believe but an appreciation of our creative and strategic abilities.
Three of the larger agencies have creative people heading the agency, a phenomenon which was earlier reserved for the creative shops. One of the largest payouts in recent time happened at Lintas, bringing with it its own share of controversy about consultants and perhaps might have even got the Finance Minister’s attention, though one sincerely hopes not.
Whichever the year one is reviewing it seems impossible to keep out the paucity of people and the real decline in advertising’s importance in the overall scheme of things, and most certainly in the job market. Agencies are sceptical of training youth for fear of losing them. Yes, people will leave but plan for it, and if you do strike it rich with a few, you are still ahead.
So where do we go from here? While a year is just 12 months there is a depressing sameness to the advertising industry. Clients refuse to pay and then complain about poor quality. Talent is an issue and we seem to do precious little whether it is 12 months or 12 years. Retail is under metamorphosis, technology is reinventing itself every day, and the consumer is transforming herself while advertising continues to be in preservation mode.
Here, my years are showing and I am ending up being pessimistic. It is a great time to be in business. So let me end by wishing every one of you in advertising, communications and marketing and the whole world a wonderful 2008!
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The trouble with ethics

I was recently asked to speak at a seminar on ethics in marketing and communication by a leading business school and that got me thinking. Strange though it may seem, I do it on occasion, thinking I mean! But my first reaction was one of almost total incredulity — “Ethics in marketing communications … these guys must be joking!” Advertising, which is perhaps the most visible form of communication, has hardly ever been known for its ethical practices and this is not a new problem.

Historically advertising professionals have only been marginally ahead of used car salesmen when it comes to reputation, so there is a problem here. While this has been pretty well established in the West, in India we do not seem to be so much in the public eye as guys with shady reputations. But what actually constitutes ethical practices? What actually happens in India? Is there a better way? What can and must consumers do? Let me try to address some of these issues in this piece.

Multiple hats, double standards
All of us wear multiple hats and an important one is that of a consumer. All of us consume goods and services. When we wear this hat of a consumer we are discerning, demanding even! If the valet in the five-star hotel does not come rushing to open our car door we quickly categorise the service as poor. We expect the bank clerk in State Bank of Mysore to have the same poise, elegance and panache of the Kingfisher Airlines stewardess!

Yet, when we don the hat of the service provider in our own professions, we go into our shells and forget our own behaviour and expectations as customers. So clearly we have a problem and a lot of marketing suffers from this problem. I thought that it is important to table this fact before we get into the thorny issue of ethics.

What exactly is acceptable quality?
In India, many brands have been successful because they have delivered acceptable quality at affordable prices. Mind you, not over-engineered quality but acceptable quality, and herein lies the rub. I would suspect that some of these hugely successful products, like the Bajaj Scooter, left a lot to be desired on the quality front. I remember also that Bajaj had iconic advertising by way of the ‘Hamara Bajaj’ campaign. Wherever I went clients in the mid-Nineties would ask me “Why don’t you do a Hamara Bajaj for me?” “Hello, since when did you start manufacturing scooters?” is what I thought, but being a true blue advertising client service executive {read spineless} I smiled weakly and mumbled something.

The Bajaj scooter was something that people waited for seven years to get and sold it seven years later at the same price that they had bought it for. Bajaj got away for many years with passable quality (at best) and the brand lost its opportunity to be the Volkswagen (a true icon) of India simply because it thought it could get away with a product that just about made the quality cut. I really think the way forward for consumers to get the best quality is increased competition.

Take another vehicle of our time, the Ambassador car. It was a functional car and had its admirers as well. But as someone said, though India might be religiously inclined, the amount of religious fervour that this car raised had to be believed. Let me clarify. The first statement that anyone who got into the Ambassador car made was “Oh God!”, so comfortable was the ride!

Would anyone buy this car today when one has a choice of 721 automobile options in the country? I wonder! The choice will ensure that shoddy quality is a thing of the past. To repeat, the choice that consumers have today in a liberalised economy is also ensuring that they are getting better quality.

“Solpa adjust maadi!”
This is something that people in Bangalore are very familiar with. Translated it simply means “kindly adjust”. Have you seen the commercial for VIP underwear where people get pushed and put up with it? Sometimes as consumers we put up with a lot of nonsense and manufacturers take advantage of this. Manufacturers, if given a chance, will stretch ethics to the limit.

I was talking to a promoter of a large mall in Bangalore where tremendous footfalls were expected. What about the parking? Well, there was provision only for 200 cars, which to me at least seemed woefully inadequate.

To my protest, the client said, “Arre Yaar Shiridhar, people will find a way, why are you getting hassled? This is India.” Yes, I am hassled because I am also a consumer but people are able to get away because they know that I will not push them.

So if we want things to get better than we should not adjust when it comes to comforts or requirements. We should not be patient or stoical as Indians are supposed to be but vocal and demanding when it comes to our rights as consumers. That will push manufacturers and service providers on the ethical path.

Promise them anything
A lot of advertising today is creative, clever and clutter-breaking. Let me take one category that I am familiar with - mobile services. If my monthly bills are any indication I am certainly a heavy user. The advertising in the category has been clutter-breaking and award-winning.
I am sure all of us like the Hutch advertising where the dog keeps following the little boy everywhere. Wonderful advertising! But is the coverage really anywhere as good as the advertising makes it out to be? Well, whenever I do visit Mumbai I seem to be a little more on my toes, thanks to the coverage. The moment the phone rings I have to run out of office so that I can hear the caller!

The Airtel commercial with the grandson and the granddad playing chess, while one of them is on the train and the other is at home in his village, is another creative ad which in no way represents the truth of the coverage. Surely this is not the same service provider that I am using day in and day out to my great frustration, with call drops being as frequent as Australian test victories!

Advertising, in India at least, seems to be independent of the product and service quality. So we have great ads extolling the quality even if the product has indifferent quality. Obviously one of these two parties has a convenient view of ethics and the person who faces the consequences is the consumer and that is you and me, my friend.

Ethics and the media
What about the media? The media has a major role to play in a developing economy like ours. Yet, I remember when all the confusion with NBFCs was happening the crisis was actually worsened because of the media. Let me explain.

Do you remember all those companies that were offering fancy rates of interest including those that sold you teak trees? Doordarshan, whatever its failings as an entertainment medium, had one virtue: It did not run the ads of these companies. But the private television channels had no such compunctions and soon consumers were bombarded with a host of creative ads that promised the customers the moon. The results, sadly, were there for all of us to see and many retired people saw their lifetime’s savings being wiped out by these dubious companies.

Neither the advertising agency nor the channel bothered to check if these claims were true. And quite rightly, some of the agencies lost their money even as consumers lost their shirts.

Today we have a larger problem confronting us as some media will write anything about your company as long as you pay for it. Sad but true? Whatever happened to editorial integrity and ethics? Thankfully there are exceptions like the newspaper you are currently reading that value their integrity and may their tribe increase!

However, one must, even at the risk of sounding like a prophet of doom, mention that this is a serious problem and is getting worse. I really feel sorry for consumers of these media who have no way of knowing that all that they are reading in the newspaper is not necessarily true. It does not even look like advertising for them to be on their guard. Under the garb of editorial it is paid for advertising! Imagine the hazards. You think a restaurant that has actually paid for the write-up is top of the line; a company is worth investing in. As P.G. Wodehouse wrote “imagination boggles”. Yes, Sir, it does!

So what must we do?
I believe that self-help is an amazing philosophy, more so at a time and age when most people seem to have a convenient view of ethics. In India, most people in power, whether in government or corporations believe that they can get away with anything and sadly enough they usually do! So we must be on our guard as consumers.

Remember caveat emptor? We do see service providers stretching the limits of ethics and shortchanging us. What do we do? Some of us protest quietly. We take it up with the offender and may even get it resolved. Rarely ever do we escalate it. We do not talk about it, or if we do, we only do with our spouses who in any case are not listening to us. Yet many of us are educated, powerful individuals whose words carry some if not enormous weight. Why don’t we use the power that we have?

There is a breed of people who passionately write Letters to the Editor. While we may smile about this, they actually do a valuable service. They usually write about public utilities and services. But today we have more choices available to us.

The Net is a powerful medium. Today irate customers can create a lot of attention for their problems to a host of strangers even thanks to this wonderful medium.

Let’s take our responsibilities seriously. Let us stop thinking only about ourselves and our immediate family for a change. Let us remember that we can make a difference to everyone’s lives if we just take our responsibilities as citizens seriously. That will ensure that our rights as consumers continue even if the people around us are not ethical.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Rest and recuperation for Rahul or is it RIP?

“If you rest you will rust” used to be the words of my Geography teacher in school. Sadly I did not listen to my teachers which explains my current state, but I was reminded of these words when I read about Rahul Dravid’s omission from the first two one dayers against Pakistan. Suddenly our selection committee has become a lot more professional or a lot more vindictive, take your pick. Yes, Rahul Dravid has been struggling both mentally and physically on the field. But the time is to support him now for all the wonderful things that he has done on the field for this country. Batting at every conceivable position, keeping wickets, putting up with a lot of nonsense from some of his colleagues, bearing the brunt of Saurav’s moodiness as captain when he was vice-captain. You name it, Rahul has done everything possible for a largely thankless country. He has batted more consistently than anyone else in India for years. He has put up with the aggression of McGrath, the wiles of Warne and the bounce of Flintoff with equal aplomb. It is the spitefulness of the board and the machinations of the selectors that he seems to have no answers for. The enemy, as always in our wonderful country lies within!

A bunch of jokers
Terry Jenner who probably achieved greater recognition as Shane Warne’s coach than as a player once called the selectors a “Bunch of jokers”. Looks like the ills of this breed are not restricted to our shores but this particular one is a shocker, and Kiran More I am sure who has his own agenda calls this decision to drop Dravid as a big joke. i am sure the former Indian captain would not have found this particular decision to drop him funny and yet one worries for the intense, committed individual that he is. One just hopes that he does not decide to hang up his cricketing boots in a hurry as he is just now facing the consequences of his decision to quit the captaincy.

Whither consistency?
Dileep Vengsarkar continues to shoot his mouth off about fielding ability and rotation policy and opportunity for youngsters depending on which television channel he is speaking to. Rahul Dravid is one of the best slip fielders we have ever had and has held crucial catches even in one day matches. It is only after he became captain that he moved to the outfield. Speaking of youngsters what about Badrinath and how come Sehwag returns to the team based on just one Champion’s trophy innings? If performance against Pakistan gives him the nod ahead of youngsters, then what is wrong with Dravid’s performance against the same team? Will the same consistency be followed with Sachin, Saurav and even Yuvaraj who more often than not flatters only to deceive should they fail? I am not sure. But what I am sure about is that the people who live in the Southern part of India are not violent unlike their counterparts from say the East of India .No effigies will be burnt, no processions will be taken out. After all we smiled even at Karunanidhi’s comments about Lord Rama! But Rahul Dravid needs support from all of us who love the game and for which game he has done so much in the recent past. He has won more matches for us than any other Indian batsman. He has just been unable to manage the administration. I somehow feel that this is part of a larger agenda to get him completely out of cricket. How on earth is he supposed to get his form back? Will it be the Ranji Trophy for God’s sake where no Indian international player ever plays!

Don’t give up
I think there is a lesson, albeit a sorry one, for Rahul Dravid and some others as well. It is suicidal to give up positions of authority in whichever part of the world you live in. Whether you are captain of the team, chief executive officer or even The Chairman of Selectors just do not throw in the towel too easily. There are people waiting in the wings with knives out. Whatever might have been Rahul Dravid’s reasons for quitting, and I too had a point of view on this which I spoke about in this very blog, he needs to learn from that. He lives in an unfair world and he is surrounded by people who all seem to have personal agendas which have no relation to the game’s well being. Rahul Dravid don’t get mad, just get even and for God’s sake hang in there.
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Looking back, looking forward

The Australians have gone back and it is time for us to take a break and actually do some thinking before the next frenetic cricket activity starts with our friendly cricketing neighbour Pakistan. Normally when the Australian cricket team leaves the shores of a nation the cricketing authorities and home supporters heave a sigh of relief as they leave the home team devastated. I remember this happened in South Africa and if my failing memory serves me right it was Graham Pollock who said that he was glad that the Australians were going back so much had the home team been defeated and deflated. This tour of India has not been so bad for the home team, for even if we lost the one day series 2-4 we won the twenty 20 game at Mumbai quite comfortably. The one day champions won their version and the twenty 20 version was won by the current world champions! What a fantastic feeling that is! Having said that one needs to have a proper sense of perspective about the tour and also think about the way ahead.

Favourable conditions and yet…
Most of the games were played in the recent tour in conditions that were probably neutralizing the Australian advantage of pace, nor did the wickets have too much bounce, though it did aid spin as at the Wankhede and yet we lost quite worryingly and we won by narrow margins at Wankhede and Chandigarh. Probably conditions might be a lot more challenging at Brisbane and at Melbourne and Hobart if not in Sydney. Even Sri Lanka, the other contestant in the Commonwealth Bank series will give us a run for our money. This impression was heightened when I saw us struggle at the Wankhede. Just throw in a Shaun Tait with Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson and I can imagine the tension that some of us are going to face at least watching, forget about our batsmen coping. I think the major problem has been and will be with viewers like me who fear the worst and sadly see their worst fears come true! So here is my first suggestion. However sorry Rahul Dravid might have looked this time around, he should be penciled into the one day team as must be VVS Laxman who the Australians respect and certainly Murali Kartik! I know that with this reinforcement of the 20-20 win the clamour to get rid of the seniors will soon reach a crescendo. But lets have a sense of perspective. Robin Uthappa has a lot of flair and ability but there are not too many others waiting in the wings for us to dispense with the biggies in a hurry. Let us try to be graceful [though that seems to be contrary to our current culture] and remember what these cricketers have done for our country. Let us not be a nation of thankless people.

What about Pakistan?
Pakistan will be a lot closer than Australia was in the one day version of the game. Thankfully for us they are a wonderfully unpredictable cricketing side with some outstanding players. But they field abominably and at times play absolutely unforgivably. But they still have some players Like Younis Khan, Asif, Afridi and Mohd Yousuf who seem to love the Indian challenge. I believe they have an outstanding pace attack and we need the big three to show the way. It is only with senior players that we will last the full complement of fifty overs. I love this talk about youngsters but you just cannot select someone simply because he is young and shows promise. He must be ready for the big occasion. We need to keep alternating, rotating and giving an opportunity for young people to blend. Some will feel left out and perhaps even be left out unreasonably or so it will seem, but some like Mathew Hayden and Mike Hussey will wait and break open the selection doors, just the way David Hussey is doing just now. We love to hate the Aussies but even they do some things right! I just hope the Indian selection committee does a few things right and I fervently wish that we, arm chair critics mindless cricket fans and media learn the art of patience.

Success is a process not an event
There is no bigger event than the world cup and India have just won that. And to reiterate our superiority we have just beaten Australia again in this format. Heady stuff! But Australia are struggling to come to terms with this version of the game attitudinally and tactically. They missed a trick by not playing Brad Hogg in the entire twenty 20 tournament and the one game at the Brabourne. They will crack this. But I am not so much worried about them as I am worried about ourselves. When Sachin Tendulkar was the premier batsman in world cricket every up and coming bowler wanted to knock him over. But he was equal to the task. Now every team in the world will try to knock us over after all beating the world champions will make headlines. We need to win consistently at least in the twenty 20 format for a long period. Since 95 Australia have been the test champions and the one day world champions since 99.That calls for some consistency, pride in your performance and a strong desire to remain on top. We have started well. The weeks and months ahead are going to be challenging for our team. It is a period of stress with the old giving way to the new. But let us not make it difficult for the team. In Dhoni we have a leader who could easily be a prime minister, so easily does responsibility rest on his shoulders! Let us support him and the team. Our place in the sun will come. Now that we have tasted blood we shall prevail sooner rather than later!
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Friday, October 19, 2007

What is this home advantage?

“Tigers at home and lambs abroad” “Indians do not travel well”… I am sure these are statements that we in India are familiar with and our neighbours from the subcontinent in Sri Lanka and Pakistan too would empathise with these statements as they have watched their own home team decimate the opposition at home and succumb meekly in England or Australia, done in by the bounce or by the swing and swerve that these countries presented to their teams when they travelled abroad. Yet what has happened over the last few weeks in the subcontinent has been extremely revealing of the changed dynamics in the game of cricket. Pakistan has just lost a home series to South Africa, England of all countries has beaten Sri Lanka on the pitches of Sri Lanka and Australia have beaten India in India in a one day contest which is still stretching interminably as there seem to be seven games in the series in all. Yet it is not all doom and gloom for the subcontinent as in April this year. It was Sri Lanka who was the losing finalist to Australia in the West Indies [not South Africa or even New Zealand] at the Cricket World cup and last month it was India and Pakistan that met in the 20-20 finals at the Wanderers, not Australia or South Africa as some of us expected.. Let us also not forget the Indian test team led by Rahul Dravid had beaten England in a test series at home after 21 long years. So what is happening? Does home advantage no longer exist? Are teams training better and preparing better for what were earlier alien conditions? Are locational advantages becoming neutralized?

WACA down the years

One of the most dramatic changes in the pitch that one has observed has been the WACA at Perth. Most foreign teams especially from the subcontinent used to dread going there. You could see batsman jumping around like cats on a hot tin roof on the bowler friendly pitch with the tennis ball bounce. Of course once in a while a batsman like Roy Fredericks would take advantage of the bounce and send the ball rocketing to all parts of the field with even greater force aided by the speed at which the ball came on to the bat. But all that has changed over the last few years. Remember Mathew Hayden’s(short) record-breaking 380 was on this now benign pitch and in fact one of the few drawn test matches that Australia have played in was the one against South Africa at this venue a couple of years ago. Of course England managed to lose here as well in their disastrous Ashes tour last year. India will be playing here early next year on the 16th of January 2008 and they must be hoping that the WACA is more like the recent past and not like the eighties and nineties. What about our Indian wickets? Sadly they seem to vary in quality, just a little bit like our Indian team. Last time around at Nagpur where Australia conquered the final frontier the curator presented Glenn McGrath with a green top and presented Harbhajan and co with a raging turner at Mumbai, sadly after the series had been decided in Australia’s favour.

Be prepared

I remember this slogan from my school scouting days and the success of modern teams is built around this preparedness. When Indian wickets tended to be complete dust bowls and raging turners, teams used to dread coming here. In fact some of the greatest Australian cricketers never toured this part of the world citing some excuse or the other and their autographies spoke about either how our hotels had rats running around or the lack of facilities in the country. But whoever toured here then just struggled on these pitches and our spinners ruled the roost. The new ball was happily thrown on the ground often deliberately and people like the Nawab of Pataudi opened the bowling. Even as the batsman took guard he would see Bishan Singh Bedi loosening up at third man! But by the late nineties people who came from abroad started to resist and on occasion actually dominate like Mathew Hayden did. Apparently the SCG practice pitches have replicated most conditions so the Indian dust bowls do not seem to be so alien to the Australians who conquered the final frontier in 2004. England too played much better here. But we are still struggling by and large in Australia and South Africa. Even the recent victory in England has been an exception. Earlier in the days when Indian cricket was not as obscenely rich as it is today, players would play in the Lancashire league and people like Venkat and Dilip Doshi to name just two, played in the English county circuit to get experience in different conditions. Today with all the money and the facilities that we can afford, the biggest task is to prepare for tours like the demanding Australian tour in December 2007 by replicating the bounce in practice pitches here before we tour. I wonder whether we do things like this. Can we ensure that more of our young cricketers train in academies in Australia and England? I think man for man we can compete with any team in the world but we struggle as a team, particularly abroad and more often than not it is because our organizers do not have the knowledge or the vision.

The way forward

Today the process of ranking teams is far more scientific than it has ever been. We have official world champions today unlike the early 2000s. This ranking will obviously happen based on our performances both at home and abroad. I think we need to religiously hold on to our home strengths and consciously prepare for overseas trips. Given the frenetic nature of the game today where most teams are given one warm up game before the tests [we have one game against Victoria before the Boxing Day test match]. Of course our greedy officials have ensured that there is just one week between the final test against Pakistan and the first tour game in Australia. So lets be prepared for the usual talk about how teams do not get time to prepare for overseas tours! We know this schedule and there are no surprises but the biggest surprise will be when we prepare for this tour and deliver abroad the way some of the foreign teams have delivered in the sub continent.
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

What is wrong with “the colonel”?

Indians as a nation suffer from “foot in the mouth disease.” I am not sure if there is any formal research on this to suggest that we are world champions at this in addition to 20-20 cricket. The incidence of this disease however is more rampant amongst cricket administrators, selectors, managers, board secretaries et al. But I think leading the pack is our chairman of selectors Dilip Vengsarkar. I used to be a great admirer of this batsman in the “70s. He started out a dasher and then became an amazingly correct batsman who played some wonderful strokes. His strokes off his pads were a delight to watch and rivaled those of Greg Chappell who was a superlative batsman and an ordinary coach. Now our former master batsman and present chairman of selectors is rivaling our erstwhile coach in shooting his mouth off to the media. My larger worry is whether Vengsarkar is being simply naïve and being baited by the media, or does he have a larger agenda and that is to get rid of Rahul Dravid?

Dravid leaves in a huff
Cricket (and if one may add life) has its fair share of people who despite tremendous achievements are largely unwept, unhonoured and unsung. Rahul Dravid despite his enormous achievements must be the person who has got the least credit for winning matches for India, keeping wickets, shouldering burden, putting up with pinpricks from the administrators and being largely unappreciated for India’s significant victory over England which was definitely superior to the victory of Ajit Wadekar’s team which was widely feted. England is a formidable opponent as a test playing country at home and have recently beaten every team at home including Australia. Because of the absolute bizarre scheduling of cricket at present the Indian team took off to South Africa and some of the seniors including Rahul Dravid who did not participate in the 20-20 returned home not to a tumultuous welcome as one would expect but to criticism by Vengsarkar about Dravid not batting at no.3. No one knows why Dravid quit the captaincy but I think the last straw must have been this unnecessary and unwarranted statement by our “colonel”. If he had a problem with Dravid was he not better off talking to him instead of talking to the media? Why does the chairman of selectors need the Times of India to talk to the captain of the Indian cricket team. I am sure he has his mobile number.

Seniors or Dravid?
Then when the Australian team started beating India as you would expect them to, the “colonel “got into the act again. He said seniors cannot take their place for granted. Not even the prime minister in this country can take his place for granted, just ask Sitaram yechury or Karunanidhi. Don’t the seniors know their place is not sure? How long have they been a part of this mess that is Indian cricket? I think all of this is to vent the colonel’s anger at Dravid resigning the captaincy, which he has taken personally. If he had his way Dravid would be out of the team at Nagpur and sadly Dravid has been at the receiving end of Brett Lee for a couple of games and has been out trying to accelerate in a couple of games. He also looks a shadow of his normal, imperial self at the crease ever since he resigned the captaincy. He needs support not criticism. All of us are quick to criticize the Australians but just see how they are persisting with Brad Hodge even though Brad Haddin is breaking down the door with his performances. Dravid is simply the best modern Indian batsman that I have seen, in all conditions, against all attacks particularly outside India. Adding to the confusion is a largely clueless television media who are questioning his role in the one day side and in the team as well, after all they belong to the 20-20 generation of cricket followers! I just wonder if they remember the recent English tour and Bristol and Dravid’s match winning innings .I am sure they don’t because this same media refers to James Hopes as an outstanding spinner! So there you go!

Think country
For too long the Mumbai faction has run the game the way it wants .I think the time is right to think about the game of cricket. It is not only about 20-20.We have important series coming up against Pakistan which will be followed by a long, arduous tour of Australia .If we do make the mistake of going to Australia without Dravid then we will surely come back with our tail between our legs and we would richly deserve that!

And finally a word of advice for the “colonel”.
This is an important job that you have been entrusted with. Try to rise above personal preferences and local considerations and don’t let your enormous ego get the better of you. The hopes of a billion people are riding on your decisions and try to give back to this game that has given you everything. Sadly the person giving more back to Indian cricket seems to be an Australian though it may be difficult for us to digest this-Denis Lillee! And if the Indian pace bowling is a strength for us today we have him to thank. I do realize that the colonel is doing a thankless job .But that does not mean he has to make a hash of it!
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Monday, October 8, 2007

How to beat Australia

Australia is here and is back to its winning, arrogant, swaggering, sledging ways. One can whinge endlessly about them or figure out a strategy to beat them. I suppose a lot of India is disappointed, that the results have been so far been so one sided, but to someone like me who has watched Australia closely over the years it is hardly surprising. In the 2007 world cup which one had the misfortune of watching live, the Australians were a cut above the rest and this was one of the reasons why the tournament was so uninteresting and predictable though the Australians opened up the tournament in the minds of media at least by losing the Commonwealth Bank series to England after drubbing them 5-0 in the Ashes and losing to New Zealand in the Chappell Hadlee series just before the World cup, despite being without some of their biggest stars. The World cup has been a happy hunting ground for the Australians and the last match they lost was way back in 1999 on the 13th of May to Pakistan which had the amazing Wasim Akram, who is now in the commentator’s box and is yet unable to inspire an Australian defeat by any other team in the premier cricketing championship in the world. However much the twenty-twenty world cup means to us in India, it is still new.

Is there a way?
Yet, Australia can be beaten and have been beaten on occasion. Australia have a simple formula in the one day game. They bat first and pile on an inspiring total. Look at this series and the three games that we have played so far. At Bangalore they scored 306 in the allotted fifty overs and before the rain came pelting down we were 9 for 1 in the third over. At Kochi they again scored 306 and we were 94 runs adrift. At Hyderabad Dhoni won the toss and surprisingly chose to field. The iffy conditions or so they seemed, did not matter to Gilchrist and Hayden as we started with our trademark wides. Once they have an imposing score then it is a familiar routine .Get an early wicket and then tighten the screws, soon the asking rate becomes 7 and 8 then all we are left wondering about is the margin of defeat which was 47 runs at Hyderabad. Are we getting closer? I hope so. The value of batting first has already been seen at Chandigarh as we have scored 291 and the Australians are under pressure for the first time in the series.

Intimidate them with bat or ball don’t sledge them.
Actually if you analyze Australian defeats over the last several years, the first thing that strikes you is that they have been few and far between. Yet there is a pattern to it. Lets go back to 2005 and the Ashes, albeit a different version of the game but essentially the same team, in fact better, as it had Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath as well. Remember the series? It started with Justin Langer being hit on the head and Ricky Ponting being hit on the cheek and Mathew Hayden being hit by an accidental [?] throw. The Australians were rattled and thrown out by substitute fielders. Duncan Fletcher annoyed them and they lost their cool .There is a lesson here. If you look at people like Graeme Smith they have tried to engage the Australians in: mental disintegration and end up coming second best and run to the media to complain. Harbhajan has just done that. This sledging and tall talk is all fine as long as it fires you up and not the opposition. Remember Flint off and Yuvaraj and the consequent six sixes. Poor Chris Broad, he felt the brunt of Yuvaraj’s reaction. That is my only worry about Sreesanth’s theatricals. Yes he is firing himself up but in the bargain is he inspiring the opposition as well? And comments like the one made by Robin Uthappa saying that we have a strategy for the Australians seem particularly interesting, since he was not even part of the team at Bangalore! Can we be subtle about the sledging like Stephen Fleming instead of being dumb about it? Back to the intimidation and Australian defeats, they have happened due to top flight pace bowling by the likes of Shane Bond [more often] and Mkhaya Ntini once in a while.

Spin the key
The Australians have struggled against the likes of Daniel Vettori in recent times. India must play two spinners in the sub continent at least. It is just unfortunate that Ramesh Powar has struggled, but who knows Murali Karthik may just be the talisman that we have been struggling so far to find! Batting second in our sub continental wickets with low, slow bounce will not be easy and this afternoon for the first time we are getting this opportunity. The next big opportunity to beat Australia will come out of one or two players batting out of their skins like Gibbs at the Wanderers or Collingwood in Australia or Ross Taylor in New Zealand A couple of Indians will have to bat out of their skins in the series and soon if we are going to win this series.

Its all in the mind
Typically the only way to beat Australia is to be mentally strong. Few people have had this virtue. Stephen Fleming comes to mind readily. Michael Vaughn was an outstanding competitor in the Ashes series in 2005 and had the better of Ricky Ponting. Saurav Ganguly got the better of Steve Waugh and much earlier the abrasive Arjuna Ranatunga brought Australia down a peg or two. Sadly most other captains and teams have been found wanting. And when Australia gets a chance to dominate a player whether it is Atherton or Cullinan then they do so quickly. How often have opposing teams got the opportunity to dominate an Australian player and keep him on the ground? Dhoni has a refreshing look about his demeanour and captaincy and there are lots of new players in the current team who have not been mentally scarred by the Australians by past defeats at their hands. Now is the chance for us to land a few blows otherwise it could be downhill all the way not only in this series but right through the cricketing season where we have so many games to play against the same team. I wish people who fixed this schedule had a little more sense.

P.S.: We have just made it at Chandigarh the old fashioned way. Put up a big score and watch the opposition struggle. I just hope that is the beginning of an era where we regularly beat the Australians. Congrats India!
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Cricket is back with a bang

The unexpected has happened. India has won the 20-20 world cup against odds as the bookmakers will sadly concede and against more fancied teams like Australia and South Africa. Of course nothing is more satisfying for Indians than beating Pakistan but that was only slightly less than my own personal satisfaction about my prediction about the bright future for the pint sized edition of cricket in my column in this very same newspaper and section as early as January 2007 under the title “A Hit-and-giggle or a laugh all the way to the bank?”. The response to the game and our victory has been nothing short of sensational. I happened to be in Mumbai on 26th September and one had to see to believe the scenes. In pouring rain, thousands stood on the streets to cheer their heroes. Old ladies went running after the gaily decorated bus to catch a glimpse of our stars and women and children braved the rain to squeeze into the Wankhede stadium hours before the cavalcade would enter, only to see our politicians hogging the limelight! So what’s new? But what is new is the speed with which our victory and cricket starved populace took to the spectacle of the new format. Some pessimists are already predicting the death of test cricket and questioning the need for the one day version of the game. I am sure people in advertising are familiar with predictions made earlier of the death of newspapers, radio, magazines and even television as one new medium or the other has taken the limelight. But today every medium has an audience, even if finely segmented and magazines and radio have found new audiences. Test cricket will stay on in mature markets like Australia and England at least. But what will certainly happen is that it will start to be played at a more frenetic pace. Already run rates of four per over are happening in test cricket and it could soon become 5 and a draw will become as rare as a maiden over in a 20-20 game. Anybody remember Bapu Nadkarni’s twenty seven maiden overs in a row or Barrington and Bolus? May we never see the likes of that in our future lifetime at least! But instead of waxing eloquent about cricket and its glorious (?) past lets talk about the future. Of advertising and its renewed obsession with cricket.

Advertising almost kills the golden goose

We saw a lot of advertising during the recent tournament in South Africa, most of it bad, a lot of it spilling over into the last ball or the first ball and quite often over both. Clearly the marketers felt that the time to make hay was now, while the lights were on! Late entrants to the advertising band wagon had, if media reports are to be believed, paid as much as 7.5 lakhs for ten seconds. But still the choice made sense. The TRPs if initial reports are to be believed have been vastly superior to the world cup held in the West Indies definitely and hit new highs. For one it has friendlier viewing times for our audience at least. Again our advertisers bought into the hoopla of the world cup without bothering to think that the matches would be in the middle of the night. Nor had we bargained for India’s poor showing. So the next time before you commit major moneys into a program, cricket especially, look at the timing of the match. Timing is not important only to Yuvraj, it is as critical to people in advertising and marketing as well.

Is there a smarter way?

Sometimes I believe our cricketers tend to sway emotions of not only fans but advertisers quite easily. So there is a herd mentality of following whether it is fans or sponsors. Remember the mad rush to sign on Sachin? He was even giving Amitabh a run for his money! Now one sees a similar frenzy in signing on Dhoni and Yuvraj. Why do our advertisers take the easy way out? Why not sign a budding cricketer at a fraction of the price? Maybe he will deliver disproportionate results. I remember a couple of years ago we had done a commercial with the firebrand Sreesanth for the Muthoot Pappachan Group. The company had the wisdom to sign on the local cricketer as one of his first sponsors even when his place was not certain in the team at that point of time. Today they would be sitting pretty as so many sponsors are falling over themselves in an attempt to sign on the bowler who castled Mathew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist in the semi finals. Mind you I have no problem with the biggies but even as they enjoy the adulation of the masses they simply cost more, much more. There is also the real risk of brand dilution as consumers may get confused and not really bother about who is endorsing what. We need to remember that every endorsement decision finally has to boil down to one of cost-benefit. What is the benefit that you are getting in relation to the investment that you are making?

Innovation the name of the game

Most advertisers have one plain vanilla commercial that they use across the board whether it is 20-20 or the K series. It is probably a fair comment given the fact that the advertising message does not change. However one saw Coca Cola this time around create quick ten seconders that were topical, on cricket, and probably not very expensive to produce. Advertisers need to look at properties that they can own cricket or otherwise. I remember TVS sa re ga ma. I am sure similar thought can go into properties around cricket. In the telecast of the recent 20-20 world cup Indigo Nation had sponsored player profiles. The Future Group is associating with cricket in a big way and the India- Australia seven match one day series is branded as the “Future Cup”. People want to not merely watch commercials, they need to be engaged, intrigued, and challenged even. So the question you need to answer is this-okay I want to get into cricket, maybe the twenty twenty variety, so what should I do? I am a great believer in advertising in non India matches. True the viewership will be lower .But the game will get a better audience than you think. The game will get viewers if it is tight, interesting and have twenty twists and turns like the India - Pakistan match. Just apply your mind. Don’t just follow the herd.

What about creativity?

Sometimes our advertisers believe that merely being present is enough. I saw some pretty pathetic advertising during this series. I do not want to upset my friends in the industry by naming them and I am sure you have your own list of diabolical commercials. Why is so much of the advertising that we see on the TV so poor? Or am I being too critical? Imagine the hatred that you can have for a brand which has irritating execution and that is bereft of ideas that also eats into the live telecast of the match or an Australian wicket. That is what happened quite often in my view. So advertisers who are putting in so much money behind cricket, particularly the accelerated version of the game need to take a long, hard look at their own creative product. Once again the cost of producing a commercial is a fraction of the media cost. Do not throw good money after bad. And yet I must mention one nice topical press ad that Pepsi had done which went something like this “Shoaib uncle, Adam uncle, Shaun uncle….zhara side dena, humko cup lena hai” said the ad. I saw this in Mumbai, the day the team returned. I wonder if it was a national campaign. It certainly deserved to be. That to me was a smart example of using the occasion and being creative as well.

Monitor, course correct

At the time of writing there is a major hysteria about cricket and euphoria about the team. But by the team the column appears things might change, such is the volatility of the Indian cricket viewing public. We have a gruelling season against Australia that will be followed by a series against Pakistan and a long and arduous tour of Australia with test matches and a tri series featuring Sri Lanka and the home team as well. We could lose focus, get injured and lose games. We all know what happens when the Indian team loses. While there is nothing one can do about the average Indian cricket fan’s extreme views, there is something that marketers can do about their own efforts. Look for cheaper opportunities. Look to do things around cricket if not during the actual telecast. Try to engage the audience with your brand using cricket if necessary. Try not to link your fortunes too much to the Indian team’s performance. 20-20 has been described as a lottery that we have just won. Try not to make your marketing a lottery as well.
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

India expects!

In the mid-nineties we used to have a cute, precocious boy of seven who used to be a frequent visitor at our house. The reason? He was not allowed to watch television in his house and whenever there was an India match he would slink in surreptitiously. But once he was inside and away from the prying eyes of his parents he would park himself securely on my sofa at a prime spot in front of the television set. We were watching an India match and Tendulkar played an audacious, amazing shot as he used to do often those days and my young friend jumped up and pronounced “I have not seen a shot like that in my entire life!” A lot of India watched something that they had not seen in their entire lives - India winning a cricket world cup! It was amazing! What an eloquent way I have with words! And what was making it even more pleasurable was that it was not expected. Our one day form which hit its nadir in the World Cup in the Caribbean has not been anything to write home about despite the odd win here and there. Three of our all time greats Sachin, Rahul and Saurav opted out of the tour or so we were told. We had a young captain and a younger team and we were taking on the likes of Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and our friendly cricketing neighbour Pakistan. Teams like England(!) spoke about their experience with this format and South Africa, as always before any tournament pronounced itself as the favourites as the matches were being played at home and they already had a domestic twenty twenty competition in place. Let me not go on and on about how well we played or how we humbled the Aussies or beat Pakistan twice or beat the much vaunted South Africans. However I must digress and mention that South Africa as a team never ceases to amaze me. Ever since the tied game at Edgbaston when they lost the world cup (and I can say with real pride that “I was there”) they have discovered new ways of losing. Perhaps this one must rank close to their Duckworth Lewis fiasco. Confronted with a choice of three different scenarios, they chose the unlikeliest and made their way out to sulk and hopefully learn some maths. But the team that the bookies had not bargained for made it and that is our own. As a result of this win our expectations are sky high. We believe now that the world is our oyster.

The power of expectations

“England expects every man to do his duty” said Winston Churchill. Clearly the present English team was after his time. But to get back to expectations. Now with all the euphoria about the twenty -twenty triumph it is easy to believe that a golden era of Indian cricket has arrived. While I hope it does, it is possible to be just a little circumspect as one who has watched Indian cricket ebb and flow for over forty years. One has also watched the weight of public and media expectations and its impact on team (non) performance. It has humbled quite a few. I suspect Yuvraj in the finals was probably weighed down by the collective expectations of a billion people. We are a funny lot, we Indians. We alternate between complete diffidence and absolute arrogance. Now I can see us getting into arrogance mode. “Bring on the Aussies” is the chant now. Look at our schedule. Our team comes back on 26th to a ticker tape welcome and an open bus ride in Mumbai but will have to play the Aussies on 29th in Bangalore as part of a seven match series. Then we host Pakistan and go to Australia for a four match test series followed by a tri-series in which we could play ten one day matches at least. The other teams? Australia and Sri Lanka. All this after a close test series in England followed by seven one dayers. While the BCCI and the TV channels are raking in the money, there will be injured bodies, tired legs and stale minds in the team soon. Look at the rush of injuries in world cricket. The Australian team already has four doubtful starters for the India series in Ponting, Watson, Hussey and possibly Bracken. Sehwag had to miss the finals. Yuvraj has not played all the games while Dhoni seems to be showing more of his back to the camera than he ought to in the field as he gets treated for some ailment or the other

What has worked

How did we win this 20-20 world cup? We won it simply because new, untried, youngsters who were not bothered by reputations played calmly. In fact we won the final because we held our nerve and if one may add catches. Let us use this great opportunity to get in more youngsters. Let us use the “rotation policy” that is easier to talk about than practice. Suddenly our chairman of Selectors is talking about our bench strength, something that he said that we did not possess a few months ago! The same Indian malady of alternating between diffidence and arrogance starts with the chairman! We are playing at home against an Australian team that is struggling to get into a season after a long break and is already haunted by injuries and a defeat in the twenty twenty world cup. If one knows them they will come out flailing. Thankfully we are playing at home in front of a fantastic, biased audience and a team that is on top of the world. Yet all is not hunky dory with our team. Our bowling weaknesses remain, more so in the sub continent and our fielding will take a toss for the worse with the entry of three seniors. This leads me to the next concern. Now that India has tasted blood, I see our thankless people baying for the blood of the seniors if they do not perform at the rate we wish them to.

Patience a wonderful virtue

Parents, at least the smarter ones, have discovered an important route to happiness. The secret is to have no expectations from children. The moment you expect certain things from them you get into trouble. You are disappointed, sometimes because your expectations were not justified in the first place. If India thinks that we are going to become the number 1, one day and test team in the world just because we won the truncated version of the game, then we could be in trouble. Yes we have done something unique. We are the first winners of this new format which is going to be the future. We have come from the cold without any of the stars. Let us savour the moment without worrying about the future. Then when that happens we can have the same unexpected pleasure we had on the 24th of September. Expect at your own peril. As for me I am still celebrating!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

What can media brands do to be different and become an integral part of their consumers’ lives?

I spent my childhood and youth in Madras (that was the name then, however much our politicians might scowl). That was in the Sixties and Seventies and it is hardly worth the effort to figure out my age! The only newspaper that we read then was The Hindu. The easiest way to create chaos in our lives then was to interchange our morning kaapi with a cup of tea and replace The Hindu with another newspaper. That would ensure that the day started wrong and continued to go wrong!
That newspaper was an important and integral part of my life and of others’ lives as well. When I tried to read the paper and Jack Fingleton’s column before my uncle had seen the paper one morning, I got slapped by him for the first and thankfully the last time.
I remember going to Bombay (that was the name again) for a holiday when I was in Class V and I can still remember going around the streets of Matunga asking at every shop for The Hindu while other sympathetic, like minded-people said, “Hum bhi Hindu hain.”
Newspaper brands in our youth were strong brands whether it was the one from Tamil Nadu that I have spoken about so lovingly or The Statesman from Calcutta. Parents urged their children to read these papers so that they could improve their English. Did we feel strongly about these brands of our youth because we were exposed to them at an impressionable age? Or was it because they were almost invariably the only ones we were exposed to? Or was it because these brands were relevant to us as consumers?
Whatever the reason for this, one fact is clear, today the challenge is inherently more complex for media brands than it was 40 years ago. Why do I say that? In Bangalore, the city where I live in, one has the opportunity to see 11 English newspapers every morning. What about television? There are 388 TV channels in the country with the expectation that it will become 400 in the near future. (Never mind the fact that when you switch the television on over the weekend you still can’t find anything worth watching). As for FM radio, there are 69 radio stations in the country and the expectation is that the number will grow to 245 in the near future.
What makes brands successful? Successful brands are relevant to their consumers and different from their competition. Are any of these media brands different? What can they do to be different and become an integral part of their consumers’ lives?
Positioning … the name of the game
David Aaker describes positioning as “A part of brand identity and value proposition that is to be actively communicated to the target audience and that demonstrates an advantage over competing brands.” This leads one to ask the question: How well are today’s newspapers positioned? I spoke about the 11 newspapers that I get to see every morning and once in a while to actually read – now how well are they positioned? What really makes for the positioning of media brands? What makes them different?
Let us first stay with brands and see what makes them different. Every brand, whichever the category it belongs to, has a few elements - the name, to start with. You can have a name that is generic, ordinary even. Consider a category like telecom. In a category which has brands like Singtel, Bechtel, Alcatel and Airtel, one brand has (or is it ‘had’?) the name of Orange. Clearly a stand-out. In India when most newspapers had some chronicle or times to their name a newspaper has the name Mint. Clearly there is a point of difference in one element of the brand at least.
Some brands have their packaging as an element that is different. In India, we are familiar with the sachet, a completely different packaging form that has now become a way of life for the category of shampoos and now for other products as well. Packaging in the case of the newspaper could be important as well. Newspaper brands too are continually upgrading their look and feel, type styles and page layout. It is perhaps worthwhile for newspapers to remember that while they keep upgrading themselves and modernising themselves in an attempt to contemporise and get new readers, they run two risks. The first is that in their quest for younger, newer readers, they might be alienating their longstanding older readers who have been reading the same newspaper for years. The second risk is that they end up becoming exactly like their competitors, ape them and finally end up confusing the consumer. A number of newspapers that I read have similar Page 3 type offerings. Yes, I suppose I am not the target audience! But still …
But at a more basic level, what makes brands successful?
Very often we get carried away by the emotional aspects of branding and the imageries conveyed by advertising. The risk with an approach like that is that it underplays the basic importance of the product or service. Having a high-quality product or service is the bare minimum or hygiene factor in today’s crowded, competitive, cluttered world. While it is perhaps easier to determine what makes a good product or service in the world of consumer products or services, I wonder if it is as easy to figure out what makes for a successful media brand.
One can recognise a wonderful media brand like The Economist which one admires, but how do you figure out the causes of success? A true media brand, in my view at least, stands for something. Editorial integrity, for instance. The essence of a brand or its raison d’etre is often ignored. It becomes even more crucial in the case of a media brand where the interplay of editorial and marketing and their relative importance to each other become crucial factors. How many of today’s media brands have a point of view? How many actually stand for something?
Advertising… does it really matter?
People in marketing believe in the power of advertising, as they should. While agreeing with that, one must also mention in the same breath that advertising is, perhaps, less critical in the case of the media brand, as lots would depend on the product itself and the reactions of consumers to the product. In India and perhaps, one must mention, in the rest of the world as well, there is a tremendous reliance on giving the paper away at a ridiculous price, if not for free. How will the consumer value a brand that is given to him free? Yes, the Indian market is perhaps very different from other Western markets. We are growing and the regional newspapers are growing quite significantly compared to the Western world which has mature markets that are at best constant if not declining. So the strategies that work in the West may not work with equal success here. Yet, it is perhaps worthwhile to ask a few questions to owners of media brands. After all, it is certainly easier to ask questions than to find answers.
Are you trying to address ‘eight to eighty-eight’?
How good is your online offering?
Are you ready to reinvent yourself on the net?
Are you ready for personal, proactive media?
Do the people that trust us and value us want to buy other things from us?
Are you as Rupert Murdoch said, “remarkably, unaccountably complacent?”
That in fact leads me to the final point that I wish to make. These are exciting times for media in India. The markets are growing, the consumer’s literacy is improving dramatically, as is the affluence of the average Indian if such a person exists. Media brands can, as they are probably trying to, ride the momentum, give away free copies, try hard to be like their competition and still get away with it in a booming economy. But it is decision time as well. The right decision is to think long-term. It is to carefully evaluate their current position. Is there an opportunity to fine tune their offering? Is there a difference in the product now or can it be built in? Yes, it is a wonderful time to be in business in India. A wonderful time to be in media. But the time to think about tomorrow is today. How many of today’s Indian media brands are ready?
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Umpires better managed than hounded

Umpiring is hot in India. Certainly as a topic for discussion if not as a career option! Just look at the ICC elite panel! But the ICC’s elite panel which has no Indians in it still continues to make Indians fume. “God, give me a break” is the title of the caption in the story which has an anguished Sachin Tendulkar on page 1 of the Times of India in Bangalore and quite possibly in other editions of the newspaper as well in other centres like Mumbai and Delhi. The umpires involved in, what the newspaper describes as shocking decisions against the little blaster are none other than Steve Bucknor, Simon Taufel, Ian Gould and the latest and perhaps the most visible offender? Aleem Dar! Not too many people left in the panel are there? In fact if the ferocious straight drive of M.S.Dhoni had carted the dapper Dar to the sightscreen along with the speeding ball the reaction of a few Indians at least, callous though it may seem, could well have been “He deserved it”. Why is it that we get the worst of the rub of the green? Is the whole world, match referees included, out to get us? Is there something that we are doing wrong?

So what’s new?
Contrary to what the young Indian believes, umpiring controversies are not a phenomenon specially designed to stop Tendulkar in his tracks but something that is as old as the willow itself. Of course the ire it created was more pronounced and perhaps even more violent when the umpires were from the same country that was waging battle. Some of the major achievements of post war Australian batsmen were looked at with a jaundiced eye by English supporters. Not even the great Don Bradman was spared. Remember Jack Ikin? As for umpires from Pakistan it might be worthwhile to remember what touring players like Ian Botham and Mike Gatting had to say about umpiring in Pakistan and visiting cricketers had their own choice description of our Indian umpires as well. However aggrieved we may be at the current rash of appalling umpiring decisions, it is perhaps worthwhile to remember that things sort of even themselves out in the long run though Indians might remember what J.M.Keynes said about all of us being dead in the long run!

Are Australians a favoured lot?
I have watched a lot of cricket over the last several years, not to forget the highlights, the reruns and the rereruns and something seems apparent to me. Australians seem to be more fortunate in the interpretation of the umpiring laws though one must say that they got the short end of the umpiring stick in 2005 when the Ashes changed hands. I am not sure how many front pages of Australian news papers carried Billy Bowden’s gaffes crooked finger et al! But otherwise it seems apparent to everyone but the officiating umpires that Hayden, Ponting and Langer seem to be struck on the pads more in front of the stumps than other less fortunate batsmen and live to smite the ball to all parts of the field. Shane Warne and Glenn Mcgrath have more appeals sanctioned than bowlers from other parts of the world. Warne has taken appealing to a new artistic level. Just last night I watched Warne spin a huge leg break in the Pro 40 final that was clearly missing off stump. The verdict? Out! Maybe our bowlers can learn to appeal better. Show more passion. Focus on the ones likely to get a nod rather than fritter away energies and success rates on iffy appeals. Let us not make such a hue and cry about umpiring errors. I did not see too much of a hue and cry about Robin Uthappa getting the benefit of an edge. Nor did anyone mind when Steve Bucknor did not give Sreesanth out in the first test match. He seemed lbw, thanks to the replays which make all of us such wonderful critics! Well we drew the match didn’t we? I wonder if any country humiliates umpires the way we do when they make an error. The poor umpires are grilled in front of television cameras and even made to apologize! Someone would think that they have fixed the game, the way our media treats them. I think our desire to tell the world how important we are I think works counterproductively against us. I think more mistakes are made against Indians not because the world dislikes us but because we put more pressure on the umpires. Like our cricketers carry the burden of a billion Indians one wonders if the umpires carry the fear of failure like the sword of Damocles whenever they officiate in an India match.

Better losers and winners
Winning is a rare phenomenon for us, so I guess we overreact when we are thwarted either by the opposition or the umpires, usually the latter. The umpire is doing his job. Often enough poorly it would seem, because we have the benefit of a squeaky snickometer or a faulty stumpvision. The solution is not technology. It is well accepted that it is still not perfect. Nor can you use technology selectively when it suits us. Just as we want players to sledge less, be more honest, let us also try to be more balanced. That way we would perhaps drink less, argue and fight less and waste less newsprint!
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Friday, September 7, 2007

Good times, bad times…

We, Indians are a philosophical bunch. We believe in Karma. If something goes wrong with our lives, health or jobs we check our horoscopes to see if our time is bad. I think Rahul Dravid’s time is good,[ though I have no access to his horoscope, assuming I had the capability to read it], simply because India won an astonishing game at the Oval on Wednesday which, if our past record is any indication, we should have normally lost. Where does the good time come in? In my opinion Rahul Dravid did quite a few things that defied logic{ though Rahul makes the most bizarre of captaincy decisions sound so logical and well thought out in his post match media conferences] and if his time had not been okay India would have lost by a mile and he could quite easily have taken all the flak. Yesterday’s match and this entire one-day series make me wonder if he is the best choice to be India’s one day captain. Before I get lynched let me explain. To my mind Rahul Dravid is India’s best-equipped batsman, who excels in different conditions and against the best of bowling attacks. He is a wonderful person, a great advertisement for a game that is getting increasingly unruly; wonderful with the media and a great role model for youth, but with great reluctance I must say that as a one day captain I find him increasingly wanting.

Batsman or captain?

A lot of Dravid’s ills stem from his basic, nice nature. An element of selfishness is not necessarily a bad quality in international cricket at least. Let me explain. Rahul Dravid has been the person most used {or is the right word abused} by Indian cricket and not often fairly. He has been asked to keep wicket, open the batting and also captain the test team half an hour before an important match with Australia simply because Sourav Ganguly opted out, whatever the official version for his not playing the game. But I think Rahul Dravid has realized that it is his lot to serve Indian cricket even if it works against his own and the team’s interests as well. But Indian cricket would be better served by him batting at the position he should be batting and where he can make a difference to the team as a top-flight batsman. He cannot be either performing as a batsman or as a captain. Floating up or down the order can work for Robin Uthappa but not for Rahul. Indian cricket still seems to suffer from the legacy of Greg Chappell and his penchant for experimentation and seems to be forever experimenting without ever settling on a course of action. This to my mind leads me to believe that Rahul Dravid is better off being told what to do. He is a wonderful follower and the ideal guy to have in the team. The wall that you can fall back on.

Back to the good times

But to return to the match … India won the match, admirably. Despite Rahul Dravid tossing the ball to Yuvaraj for the fiftieth over, despite persisting with Agarkar who has no business to be anywhere near the Indian team, despite batting poorly and losing his wicket at a crucial point in the chase and despite handing the advantage earlier to England by letting them bat first on two earlier occasions Dravid and the Indian cricket team has been handed a lease of life. It is Rahul’s good fortune that Sachin has batted like a dream over the last couple of games, Robin Uthappa played an outstanding innings that belied his youth, India actually fielded passably and Robin actually hit the stumps directly, Sourav again demonstrated his increasing value to the team.
Different captains for different versions of the team
Australia first demonstrated that there could be two different captains for the test and one day and Steve Waugh, unthinkable as it seemed, was shown the door in the one-day version of the game. England is realizing that Collingwood can actually make the normally ragged English one-day outfit competitive. Of course his job has been made easier by India’s own incompetence and Rahul Dravid’s uninspiring captaincy {Rahul forgive me}. Thankfully we will have a chance to see how Dhoni shapes up in the “hit and giggle” version of the game in South Africa soon. India should seriously consider an alternate one day captain. Let me make one thing clear. Rahul Dravid should be an integral and important part of the Indian cricket team. He should continue to captain the Indian test team as the Indian test team has done significantly well under his leadership. He has demonstrated tremendous capabilities as a one day batsman too and should be there to guide the team and be its most important batsman as long as he wishes to.
For too long Indian cricket has suffered from its inability to take hard decisions. We don’t drop players; even if they are out of form we “rest” them! It will not be easy to take this decision I am sure. But that to my mind will be one more step to help build the future of Indian cricket and see that its senior most, trusted cricketers are used in their right capacities. Rahul Dravid, the wonderful man he is, will be disappointed but I am sure he will take it on his chin and continue to serve Indian cricket with the same determination and distinction that has marked his long and illustrious career so far.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Monday, September 3, 2007

One day, some day…

We love watching one day cricket and notwithstanding the recent aberrations where we have won important test matches abroad, one suspects that our players too prefer the shortened version of the game, whatever they may say to media. God knows that our test cricketers have played more one day internationals than players from any other country in the world. Despite the predilection of our administrators and cricketers for the shortened version of the game it must be mentioned that our skills leave a lot to be desired. Teams like Australia have moved to a different orbit, if one may use the word. The first major match{to my mind at least} of the enormously long world cup of 2007 was the much awaited game between Australia and South Africa when the two top teams crossed swords in the small ground at St.Kitts. That game showed up the difference between Australia and on occasion South Africa and the rest of the one day cricketing world. Also one needed to have watched the India England match at the Rose Bowl on Tuesday evening to understand that while India may be a fantastic one day team on some day or the other in the future it is certainly far from that today. At the time of writing this India is 1-3 down to England who is hardly an ideal one day side!
Aussie Aussie Aussie !

It is difficult to talk about one day cricket without talking about the Australians and their fantastic record in this aspect of the game and in others as well. It might be worthwhile to look at a few key aspects behind their success and maybe see where we are with reference to some of these proven success formulae. .Win the toss and? Australia would invariably bat first and put on runs on the board, choke up the opposition for 15 overs and then the asking rate would climb, the opposing team would commit hara-kiri. You get the picture. Contrast this with what Rahul Dravid has been doing in England recently. We bowled and badly at that, particularly at the Rose Bowl. And as England piled up the runs, we were on the back foot and continued to be there till we lost the match by a mile. A margin of defeat over 100 runs is equal to a defeat by an innings in a test match. Of course we can say that the conditions looked deceptive and Collingwood played along by saying that he too would have bowled. How often do captains demonstrate charity to their counterparts? Quite often in press conferences at least!! More than the conditions I think the Indians believe they can chase pretty well and our mind must go back to Srilanka when they visited here and our own success with the West Indies. Well the artificial lights in England are different and the English bowling at home is a different kettle of fish. In fact England’s few wins in the past including the much vaunted Commonwealth Bank tri –series win in the finals in Australia have had the same formula. I think the learning for India at least has to be not to be guided by the past but by the conditions. Here too I would be guided by Steve Waugh’s laconic view that the conditions cannot change dramatically in one hundred overs so the toss should not be too important though in India all of us agonise over every decision or non-decision of Rahul Dravid! The Australians play at a frenetic pace so even when wickets are falling the run rate stays at 6- 7 in the first 20 overs at least. The power plays are made to count. But I suppose it helps if you have Hayden, Gilchrist and Ponting batting in the first three slots with Clarke, Symonds and Hussey to follow. But Sachin and Sourav are no slouches except when it comes to running between the wickets. We often talk about why we do not need a coach. I wonder who will tell Sourav off after his appalling running between the wickets .Will it be the young Chandu Borde? The fact that Greg Chappell made a hash of his coaching stint should not make us believe that all coaches are bad or that we are great enough to play for ever without a coach. We need a coach who can teach running between the wickets definitely!

Demons in the mind or in the dressing room?

Another distressing habit that we have developed over the last few years in Indian one day cricket has been the frequent, unnecessary {in my view at least} changes that our batting order is subjected to. I cannot remember an occasion in recent times when Ricky Ponting has not batted at no.3.He will come in whether Gilchrist is out first ball or the score is 150 at the fall of the first wicket. Why does Dinesh Karthik have to shield Dravid who is arguably the best batsman we have? Dravid should theoretically get the best opportunity to score 150.He can do that only by getting at the top of the innings .Captaincy can play havoc over your thinking .Rahul Dravid has to remember that the greatest captaincy he can do is by playing a great innings first. The only game we have won on this tour in one dayers has been due to his fantastic batting at Bristol. I wish he has the same confidence in his batting that we have! Or is there something else that we do not know about?

Fielding, oh what a bore!

When we were at school and college, all of us would practice batting and bowling assiduously but by the time we had to do fielding it would be dark and we would all heave a sigh of relief. The Indian team sadly seems to suffer from the same malady. Romesh Powar who reminds me of Erapalli Prasanna in the way he tweaks his off spinners rivals the great man when it comes to immobility. How can young cricketers like him, Munaf Patel and even Gautam Gambhir be allowed to play a one day game with this level of fielding? The South Africans have demonstrated to us from the days of Jack Cheetham that fielding can and will make a difference to your team’s results. We all know that fielding is something that can be practiced and perfected even over a period of time. Even Monty Panesar is a far cry from his stumbling, bumbling efforts in Australia .Remember his well-flighted and yet accurate throw to get rid of Sourav Ganguly? It is really difficult to think of India winning close games if our fielders continue to let the ball rush for four through their feet, hands and bodies and dropping catches left, right and centre. Let us just get better fielders in like Suresh Raina even if he have some other cricketers whose batting reputations are better .That will improve our overall competitiveness which is now shakily resting on a few individual stars

Let us start at the bottom

India is close to the bottom of the one day cricketing pecking order or will soon be if we continue to field like this and run like headless chicken between the wickets. Soon three of our all time greats will no longer be able to play international cricket whatever the sponsors say .Let us blood more youngsters, give them more opportunities .Let us not expect anything from our team for the next 3-4 years. God knows that our expectations only puts unnecessary pressure on our players .Let us get a coach who is good. I remember the sad state of Australian cricket in the mid eighties and the difference that Bobby Simpson made to them .And let us not; even if we manage to win the remaining one dayers lose sight of one important fact. We have serious problems in one day cricket and the solution has to be long term not a quick fix that we are famous for. Let us be patient. For one day we shall rule the world!
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The ICC drops the World Cup!

The 13th of June 1999 was a pleasant day at Headingley and it ended up being a memorable one. In a crucial match the pugnacious Steve Waugh who was battling bravely to keep Australia in the World Cup hit a ball in the air to Herschelle Gibbs, who in his anxiety to celebrate the catch, dropped the ball to the mortification of his teammates and the anguish of the South Africans in the crowd and at home. Steve Waugh is supposed to have made his since immortalised statement “You’ve just dropped the World Cup, son.” I can’t claim to have heard what he said from the stands, but I can definitely make the proud claim “I was there”. And yet 8 years later sitting unhappily in the Caribbean watching another World Cup, I can say with certainty if not with pride that ICC has taken its eyes off the ball and if the handling of the World Cup is any indication, it can certainly teach Herschelle Gibbs a thing or two about dropping the World Cup. To date and as I write this {SriLanka have just beaten New Zealand in another one sided encounter in the semi-finals} this has been one of the longest, most predictable, arguably the dullest and most certainly the worst organised World Cup that one has been part of. I know that it is perhaps unfair to blame the ICC for many of the ills of the current World Cup, but then there is an attendant risk to seeking publicity and credit for events and things that go right. Because when they do go wrong they seem to go horribly wrong and the ICC must stand up and take responsibility like Rahul Dravid instead of talking about the positives that are to be taken out of this event.

Cricket, lovely cricket
Cricket in the Caribbean is more than a mere game or so we were led to believe. It is the very fibre of life there. The land of Sir Garfield Sobers, the three W’s, the land of calypso magic….And it was with stars in my eyes that I went half way around the world-Bangalore to Frankfurt to Miami to St. Lucia to Barbados {Easily the most convoluted way of reaching there as I discovered later} We landed at St. Lucia ready for a scheduled 3 hour wait for a connecting flight to Barbados. A smiling Air Jamaica attendant tells us, even as we scowl, that the flight will be a mere five hours late!!! I am sure the ICC is hardly to blame for the airline’s ills!! But what followed was even more bizarre! It was a match day and I thought to myself that at least let me have the consolation of watching a match on TV as we waited. Imagine my consternation when I discovered that in an airport which is plastered with posters of the ICC cricket World Cup, at a venue where the second semi-final is to be held today, all the TV screens were blank on a match day! To me it seemed like home again where the cable operators are always asserting their independence! Of course I complained. Only to be told by a smiling attendant {these guys are smiling all the time} that I must mention it to the person in charge of tourism! Of course what one saw on TV wasn’t very heartening either and it must have been sadder for all those sponsors who had sunk in so much money on this non-starter of an event. Empty, silent stadia {Remember no musical instruments and just a few locals}.The cost of the match ticket, or so one heard, was higher than the weekly wage of the average West Indian. Food and drink were expensive and two of the matches that I saw finished by lunch which probably explained the pricing of the beverages!! There were no bell boys or ground attendants in sight!! Adam Gilchrist said it was unnerving to play to empty stands in the World Cup. Not that it deterred him from hoisting a few into the stands empty or otherwise. And for someone from India it was really strange to see this in Grenada. The ball was hit into the stands by one more Australian batsman and the Srilankan fielder had to jump over the pickets and dive under the benches to fetch it himself! Reminded me of my school games!! No one to watch and no one to fetch and even if you wanted to travel to watch the games, there was no transport. A fitting tribute to the world’s greatest, most hyped, most marketed and most heavily sponsored cricketing event!!

Why can’t the rest compete?
“Why can’t a woman be more like a man” is a song that many of us love to sing even if no one is listening. And to anyone watching cricket the question seems to be “Why can’t anyone beat Australia in the World Cup”. Though the ICC is certainly not responsible for this, the rest of the cricketing nations are to blame I suspect not the least of them the two “fancied” teams from the sub-continent India and Pakistan who did not even qualify to play them. The last time Australia lost a World Cup game was to Pakistan in 1999, which is a sad indictment of the way the rest of the world is playing but it certainly robs the game of its charm and to a certain extent the viewership. Of course Australia seems to have certain unfair advantages. The rest of the teams seem to have bats while they have given Mathew Hayden a bludgeon. The other teams struggle to make 150 while they make 300 without breaking into a sweat. Teams like England play test cricket in the power plays while Australia plays twenty-twenty. My disillusioned friend threatened to carry this banner to St. Lucia. “Every team I have supported so far has lost…C’mon Australia”. Yes only Australia can save this World Cup. By losing at St. Lucia or at the wonderful new Kensington Oval at Barbados!!

The entertainment is on
By the time the matches in Barbados started the ICC realised a few of its errors. It allowed food and musical instruments; it let locals in free after 11 am. One got the flavour of watching cricket in the Caribbean. The steel bands and the trumpets were cheery even if the big ticket game between Ireland and Bangladesh was not. The locals were friendly, the Barmy Army was there in huge numbers and actually booed their team politely after their humiliating defeat to South Africa! Looks like there are still a few things we can learn from our erstwhile rulers! Indians had become reconciled to their team’s absence and the banners changed from “India rocks, team sucks” to “Come back India all is forgiven”. The ICC continued to insist on “Park and Ride’ which meant that your car was parked miles away and you would actually drive past the stadium in the bus so that you walked back a mile before you saw the game! The announcers continued to struggle with the pronunciation of Jayasuriya’s name and insisted on announcing that Simon Taufel was officiating in the game when it was Billy Bowden!! Things like these are unacceptable and speak of poor organisation. And yet the bands, the dancing girls, the constant flow of liquour in the stands, the party stands where people at the end of the day did not know who won the game, were all high points for those who had other interests in life! But to the cricket fan and more worryingly for the sponsors this has been a damp squib, so far and we have just two matches to go before it comes to a sorry end.

Post match analysis
I am sure some of the sponsors have been here and gone through what some of us have experienced and while we can joke about it, I think there are serious issues to be addressed before going forward. If you made your decision to sponsor based on the hype then you would be in the same boat as us, who made the decision to watch live based on nostalgia for the game. Execution on the ground, literally, is critical in an event of this nature. And here for instance I saw one of the sponsors, IOC, playing a Hindi commercial in Grenada in an Australia, Srilanka game where the ground was full of Aussies wearing green and yellow! When one can spend millions on a sponsorship, does it make sense to play the same commercial on the big screen in the West Indies that you play in ‘Kyunki? ‘Will sponsors do a serious cost benefit analysis of this entire exercise and admit they have egg on their faces? Instead of asking the channels for their money back can they do a more stringent probability analysis of our own team’s performance before they put in their not so hard-earned money on events like this? And can the ICC realise and accept that it is quickly killing the golden goose by having long, boring tournaments like this one?

P.S. Maybe Herschelle Gibbs will exorcise the ghosts of the past and single-handedly beat the Aussies tonight and save the ICC!

P.P.S. Tough luck Herschelle! Come on Murali, do something!

Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO of brand-comm.