Saturday, January 20, 2007

Fifty not out!

Fifty not out seems to be a significant achievement for any current Indian test batsman if the recent South African tour is any indication! I think it is an achievement several times over for a voluntary professional body like the Advertising Club, Madras. Congratulations and may the Ad Club reach several more milestones.

Dedication the key word
Running a professional body is no walk in the park (unless you liken it to a walk in one of New York’s ‘friendly’ parks). It is a thankless job where people are slow to support and quick to criticise. If today my barber can actually count the strands of hair on my head without breaking into a sweat, that is largely the result of my holding more public offices than I should have. I have organised public functions with an impressive audience of 4 people – one of whom was the video operator and a secretary who wanted to propose the vote of thanks at the beginning of the meeting as he had another engagement later! It is against all this that one values the significant efforts made by the Ad Club Madras in regularly organising tea meetings, major seminars, workshops and annual awards functions. As if that is not enough the club has invested in a prestigious centre with a well-stocked library which must really help the smaller agencies. Nor can we forget the course on advertising which has some of the best minds from industry supporting and guiding impressionable young minds. The Ad Club Madras continues to set the pace for other Ad Clubs to follow with a regularity and an audience that others would be envious of. To do this level of activity regularly, efficiently and quietly, any organisation needs people. Dedicated teams of office bearers. People who do not forget the club once their term is over but who continue to guide, support and help. This enables the club to set high standards that other clubs are not necessarily able to follow.

Shock at Ad Congress
My first association (if you could call it that) with the Advertising Club was in 1982 (if my memory serves me right) and that began with the Ad Congress that happened at the Taj Connemara. And it set me on the back foot as I met Mr. S.R. (Mani) Aiyer for a job at OBM which I did not get. Surely the Ad Club had nothing to do with my rejection! But the Ad Club has been exceedingly kind to me ever since inviting me to speak on more than one occasion. And usually to large audiences! But more importantly the club’s “Future Shock” seminars have been massive affairs with a bevy of international speakers and local luminaries. These have been events that have given tremendous exposure to delegates from the entire South not only Madras. This year’s event too promises to be another interesting, insightful peek into the future.

And what about the Ad Club’s future? Whilst there is no doubting the tremendous future and role that the Ad Club is likely to play. I personally believe it has a far greater role to play. For too long the advertising industry has been Mumbai centric and I am not only talking about media coverage and bias here. Clearly it has been the advertising capital of India. But has advertising in the South been marginalised from a national perspective? That is debatable. But what is not debatable is that the South has certainly not received its share of attention or credit. How can the role of Chennai and the South in advertising in India be established? And the Advertising Club Madras has a significant role to play here. To correct impressions, mould opinion and lead the way for the entire South. And if the Advertising Club Madras does not do it, then who else can?
The author is Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO of Brand-comm.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A hit-and-giggle or a laugh all the way to the bank?

2 p.m. on Tuesday 9th January 2007 is not prime time viewing in India. It was certainly prime time viewing in Sydney (where England and Australia were playing a twenty-twenty international match) and in the rest of Australia as well. It was not prime time viewing in England, 8.30 a.m. on a working day and England was getting thrashed to boot. But not withstanding the time, I sensed that I was seeing something extraordinary. The hit-and-giggle or the blow and guffaw as twenty-twenty cricket has been described seemed an amazingly entertaining thing to me at least. Without knowing too much about forecasting (other than knowing that it is not easy) I am still dumb enough to predict that this form of cricket is going to be an amazing marketing opportunity for the future for those brands that are aligned to cricket and even some of those that are not. While realising the total absurdity of a few forecasts made in the past by people far more illustrious than me, “a world market of about 5 computers,” “rock groups are on the way out” (while rejecting the Beatles) or “that atom bomb will never go off” - I am still going to stick my neck out and say that lots of people want entertainment, they want to have a good time and not spend the whole day at a cricket match. And the answer has to be twenty-twenty cricket.

Roll out the entertainment carpet
Too often cricket is not very entertaining. Certainly not the longer version of the game, at least to younger viewers, who are not die-hard cricket fans. Those fans like me who watch 5 day cricket matches realise that we are a dwindling if not dying breed. Empty grounds are common in the sub continent for test matches, as in countries like South Africa. England and Australia are better placed. But in India test cricket is losing steam and consequently viewership. While one can argue till the cows come home about the value and worth of test cricket, I think it is time for us to keep aside our personal predilections and biases and focus on consumers. They will love the shorter version of the game or should I say the shortest version of the game. And at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Ian Healy the wicket keeper turned commentator was walking around the stadium microphone in hand. He asked a young 8 year old girl who was at the SCG whether she had come for the Ashes test which happened the previous week and she said “Naw, daddy was there”. Is there a lesson? And she was having the time of her life – dancing girls, fireworks, 2 sets of DJs, players having microphones and sharing their views and most importantly a barrage of sixes – 14 in the Australian innings. And while the English fielders dropped 2 catches on the field, the crowd dropped 14 in the stands! An alarming drop in the fielding standards of Aussie crowds are an indication of the fact that twenty-twenty is getting a completely new genre of viewers and spectators. I think India is eminently ready for this new breed of entertainment. We love sixes. We love hoicks. And something tells me we will do well in this format.

Pajama cricket
The legendary Kerry Packer was responsible for revolutionizing cricket – night cricket, coloured clothing, world teams and huge crowds doing Mexican waves. But he got fairly bad press and conservative, traditional cricket fans and critics lambasted him. I can see a similar wave of criticism following twenty-twenty cricket. “It is for those with attention deficiency disorder” says one sarcastically. And this is really where marketers need to be careful. Critics are dime a dozen. They have a point of view. They too have a reader following which is in actual fact far less than they think it is. And they really are clueless about trends and are better at spotting trains! They could easily mistake a trend for a fad. Why is this shortest version a trend? It very simply typifies the times we live in. We live in a time compressed era. The only thing that we can wait for 9 months today is a baby. In contrast to some of us who waited 15 years for a Bajaj scooter!. A whole 20-20 game will take all of 3 hours. Batsmen will have to run out to the crease within 90 seconds. If India did what they did in the last test match when Saurav Ganguly came in place of Tendulkar after 7 minutes we may have been penalized 5 wickets! Players have ear pieces. Batsmen talk to the viewers even as they get ready to face the bowler. You are there with the batsman or the captain in the heat of it. We had an amazing situation in this match that I spoke about earlier where Gilchrist had just clobbered James Anderson for 2 consecutive sixes and the commentators urged him to go for a third one and he did precisely that! If it had been a few years earlier we might have thought that something was fishy. In this case someone merely had to fish the ball from the Bill O’Reilly stand. Yes innovation is the name of the game even if the game in question is a 200 year old game like cricket.

New customers
Everyone wants newer, younger customers. Set Max too in India is trying to do this using Mandira Bedi and other entertainers from Bollywood reminiscing about their childhood tennis ball cricketing days. But is that entertainment? I wonder. India’s win in the 1983 world cup and the world series of cricket in Australia opened up the floodgates of TV viewing in this country as your mother-in-law and mine started watching one day cricket. Some people have been loyal to the game, some have not. Viewership has waxed and waned with our own team’s fortunes. Contrast this with the high Ashes viewership in the recent Ashes series and England’s poorer viewership at home. People want their team to win. Twenty-twenty may give cricket viewership in this country a big shot in the arm as it will get new viewers in. People in India will take to it as enthusiastically as we did with one day cricket. The BCCI’s reluctance to accept this initially demonstrates its inability to spot a trend even if the trend gives it a kick in the butt.

So where’s the action?
2007 is a big year for cricket. India has just returned from a mixed tour of South Africa. Every other team is playing cricket in some part of the world or the other. Eight one dayers with the West Indies and Sri Lanka precede the magnum opus - the World Cup. Companies must be spending a lot of time, effort and money planning to be in this event, which is fair, but I still have a reservation about the timing of the telecast for Indian fans if not about our current form. My suggestion to marketers is this. Ask for a copy of the tape of the 20-20 match played at Sydney. Watch it with your family. You will like me, feel the excitement. You might even think about putting your money in the 20-20 world cup in South Africa in September. After all India may not have lasted 50 overs in a one day match but they will certainly last 20! But seriously think 20-20 if you want a different, younger audience. Think 20-20 if you want family viewing. I somehow think it won’t be a game of chance for marketers!

The author is Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO of Brand-comm.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Those were the days

When I wrote my year end column for this same newspaper I had the benefit of the counsel of a “few good men”. The men whose brains I had picked on are the “movers and shakers” of advertising in today’s India. It was interesting to hear these people who live, think and dream advertising talk not only about the year that was, but also about what the immediate future holds for us – after all the new year is just waiting to receive us fogs et al. And this is something that I need to remember. We are not likely to indulge in crystal ball gazing or talk about some distant future but something that is as imminent and as immediate as the next hangover. So what does next week and the remaining 51 hold for industry in general and advertising in particular? What must the advertising industry do?

Let the good times ring
An ancient Tamil proverb when translated reads something like this. “You need to have a wall to paint a picture”. And if advertising is to continue to paint a success story, it needs the industry to not only be comfortable but boom as well. I am no economist – the only thing I remember from my 5 years study of economics is the statement that there is no such thing as a free lunch! And yet even I can figure out that the Indian economy is on a roll. The sensex is closer to 14000 than to 13000 and the bullish mood is not only restricted to the stock market. And while one can quibble about which version of GDP growth you choose to believe in, there is no arguing the fact that we are a nation on the move. No flash in the pan this. Nor is the bubble likely to burst. And whilst some of the sectors like steel for instance that are booming may not directly impact advertising, others will, more directly. Soaps, detergents, shampoos, confectionery and biscuits continue to be advertised and heavily at that. Young India takes on to mobile phones as a duck might take to water. And in mobile services as in other categories there is a healthy sign. And that is the longevity of the advertising idea and the desire to create properties that the brand can own. Advertising agencies love to “push the envelope” and create new path breaking campaigns. Campaigns that are so different from each other that you need to tell yourself that they are for the same brand, just done by different creative teams. And aiding and abetting change are brand managers who are so sales driven that they can’t think beyond the immediate quarter. That calls for strong creative heads of agencies who are holding on to their brand properties for dear life. Thank heavens for pug dogs and signature tunes. And how do you hold the agency responsible if the advertising delivers and the network doesn’t? Still staying with phones one just hopes that in 2007 at least BSNL will get its advertising act right. After all if LIC can do better advertising who knows what other public sector units can do. If 2006 saw a lot of consumer durable advertising, then one suspects that 2007 will see more as challengers attempt to topple the larger, better established brands. New cars, new bikes, new mobiles, long live consumerism! Let’s just hope that 2007 will see better ads for all of these categories.

Clients and agencies
Whilst agencies complain privately about their clients, they realize now more than ever that they must gear themselves for the demands of the market place. They must realise (if they haven’t already done so) that there is more to their life than a 30 second commercial (or is it 20 seconds?) The client wants the agency to understand his brand and business and gear itself to serve her better. It is not about what agency wants the client to do, but what the brand needs and if that means agencies have to think outside of the box, think beyond mass media advertising, then the agency must do it. And yet there are worrying signs for the agency that refuses to adapt to change forget about creating change. Agencies still seem to rely on their “comfort zone” – mass media advertising. They seem clueless about even major communication disciplines like public relations and internal communications which the client increasingly wants. If the agency is truly a communication partner then it needs to upgrade its skills and open its mind to new windows of opportunity. Is the agency there? I suspect it isn’t there, but will it get there in 2007? It certainly must. And I think this is where the large global networks are at an advantage. They have better access to global trends and more critically, deeper pockets. They are willing to acquire other companies who will supplement their communication deliverables. I also see a major conflict that the agency is going through. Today is the day of specialisation and unbundling of services. And herein lies the rub. Today the agency is unable to view the communication process holistically and is biased towards its own area of competence notwithstanding client needs. This will hurt the brand and inevitably the very nature of the relationship.

Show me the people

I remember the words of a popular song:

“Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
La la la la…
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days”

Many of us prefer the comfort of the past and the nostalgia that it evokes without confronting the challenges of today’s world head on! We talk about Vijay Hazare to a kid with a Dhoni haircut! We still talk about the 1983 cricket world cup even as Australia prepares to win the 2007 cup. The advertising industry runs the same risk. It most definitely has a situation that it must confront. And now. It cannot live by the moment and just hope that business will take case of itself. After all it is growing. And that is the challenge. Business needs people to handle it. At all levels. And just at the time of writing we have someone like Santosh Desai who has spent over a couple of decades in advertising and given a new dimension to the discipline of account planning, leaving the industry. We have enough concerns about people leaving at the middle management levels too. Related to unrelated industries are getting advertising agency types without too much wooing. Marketing communications, below the line, retail…all seem more attractive than advertising. And what about the entry levels? I think for far too long we have resigned ourselves to the fate of getting “second graders” and “also rans” from institutions that are hardly known. We have consoled ourselves by saying that “if you pay peanuts…..” Yes that is a larger issue but the advertising industry seems to forget its core competencies. The industry handles problems. It gets talent for the BPO industry for heaven’s sake. Well charity begins at home mate. If we can design campus recruitment collateral for our clients, we should do it for ourselves. And I think that we are not analysing this people problem seriously enough. There are no quick fixes to this. It has to be a long term solution. It requires new thinking, not tried and failed old ones. The answer is not lying in the past, not in saying “it was good enough for me”. And it is not only the money. We are kidding ourselves. It is the excitement of creating award winning commercials. It is watching your commercial with your family in the middle of an exciting cricket match. It’s getting to do a commercial with Rahul Dravid and Amitabh Bachchan. It is about building brands, companies and businesses. It is about a career.

Sell shamelessly
Many of us in the advertising business are excellent communicators. We can sell people anything. Even campaigns that suck! India is young. How often have we thrown that demographic statistic around? But now is the time to view youth not as a mere audience to sell mobile phones and sun glasses to, but a serious talent option. Talk to them, woo them and recruit them. Speak less at seminars and boring Rotary club meetings with people of your age and more at campuses where people are half your age. Be seen at job fairs. Talk at forums as a representative of advertising. Remember, you and I have to do this. Not someone else. If 2007 is going to be a defining year for advertising, then the answer my friend lies in youth. It lies in the future. It lies in excitement. Not nostalgia. Lets create advertising in 2007 in a way that we can say 20 years later, ‘those were the days’ and that will put advertising back in the reckoning.

The author is Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO of Brand-comm.