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.)