Friday, December 12, 2008

So, how has your experience been?

As consumers get more savvy and demanding, marketers have no choice but get their customer touch points right..

A few weeks ago, I got a call from my friend’s son. This 16-year old, who was studying in Bishop Cotton School, in Bangalore, was at the forefront of the organising committee of his school and was organising an inter-school competition. “Uncle,” he said, “I would like you to be a judge for one of our competitions. It is called “brand value”, and you have to judge the ads that teams are creating for brands.” I agreed reluctantly, even as I experienced mixed, if somewhat familiar emotions. The first, of course, was a sense of happiness at the fact that even youngsters today are thinking of concepts like brand value and the second was a sense of regret, that like most of the people around me, my young friend was equating branding with advertising. I realised soon that I had actually maligned the young man, because his detailed mail which followed, clarified that the task was that teams had to convert a technology product into a brand (the school is in Bangalore after all), also producing a short advertisement as part of the process. Clearly, I was wrong about my young friend who seems to know more about branding than several people running businesses, and who suffer from a few misconceptions about branding.

A brand is not only its elements

The brand name is often the most important and frequently the most recalled element of a brand. And yet, however important the brand name is in the overall scheme of a brand’s success, a name alone is not a brand. This is not to discount the fact that brands need to be different with everything they do, if they have to stand apart in a crowded and cluttered world, and that includes naming the brand. A name like Pampers that immediately proclaims its offering or a name like Fifty-Fifty from Brittania that offers so much creative scope immediately spring to mind. Another point of difference that brands often use to telling effect is their identity. Today, brands spend considerable time, money and effort on designing their visual identities and that is probably justified as people remember shapes, colours and symbols more than they do words. Not for nothing do people say ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. This assumes greater importance in a country like India where every second person you see on the road is likely to be illiterate! People do not have to be aided with the brand name Nike, when they are shown the swoosh as they instantly recall it; so strongly is that brand associated with that visual symbol. But there is more to Nike than the symbol, which leads me to the point I am making that a brand is not merely a logo or an identity. Let me quickly clarify that I am not for an instant suggesting that a strong visual identity is not important for a brand. It gives a brand one more opportunity to differentiate itself from its host of competitors and the myriads of imitators that every brand seems to be confronted with today. Nor can one afford to forget tag lines that some brands have used consistently over the years and appropriated as properties for themselves. One remembers GE’s “We bring good things to life”. But at the risk of sounding repetitive, I must say that a brand is not a mere tag line. It is much more. And what about the packaging? The pack is what the customer is closest to and she decides to either pick it up or give it a miss in the supermarket shelves depending on how attractive it is, and how successfully it stands out from the thousands of other products on the shelf. And yet, despite whatever packaging specialists may tell you, the pack is not the brand.

Advertising makes the world go around

We dream merchants have an exaggerated view of the importance of advertising in building brands and creating consumer preference. While there is no denying the relevance and importance of advertising, it needs to be borne in mind that, as in the examples mentioned earlier, branding encompasses far more than strategic positioning and clever execution. We have enough examples of advertising that has made the consumer sit up and take notice and also open her purse strings. Cola, for instance, has always been a category driven by advertising. Who can forget Pepsi’s advertising targeted at the young and “young at heart”? Some of the greatest advertising campaigns have been for categories such as automobiles, which though not completely advertising driven, still influence the consumer. The Volkswagen “think small” campaign was voted by Advertising Age as the ‘campaign of the last century’. Categories such as, liquor have had their imagery enhanced by advertising, and one can instantly recall the memorable advertising for brands such as Absolut Vodka even if one continues to be a confirmed whisky diehard! But a brand is not only advertising as my young friend in Bishop Cotton knew. To sum up, a brand is not just a name, a logo, colours, a tag line, a positioning statement or an advertising campaign even. Yes, the significant shift in thinking has been the increasing importance of the “brand experience” provided by various consumer touch points, which are making her form impressions about it. As Jack Mackey, Vice- President, Service Management Group, said “You can say what you want about whom you [think] are, but people believe what they experience”. Customer experience! Yes that is the key word today and it must be mentioned that more and more brands are struggling to meet expectations on this front, living as they do in a flattened world that uses outsourcing.So, what’s your experience like?

Poor customer experiences seem to open up feelings, emotions and tongues just the way liquor does. Just imagine these few situations. You have a great image of a company, you think it is a great brand and make the mistake of calling it. You get through after several attempts and are greeted (!) by a brusque and harassed voice, whose tone seems to suggest “why are you disturbing me”? Will you be thinking about their lyrical advertising at that point in time or still feel it is a great brand? You go to a branded apparel outlet to buy a shirt and are met by a surly salesman (who has no intention of selling to you even if you are very keen to buy) and your immediate reaction is to leave the place of your humiliation, without spending a moment thinking of the brand that you had originally wanted. You have checked out the Web site, seen the ads, studied the brochures and go to the car outlet to take a test drive, only to be insulted by the salesman. Would you still want the car? Your bank releases wonderful ads that probably wins every award in town and eulogises its customers and its commitment to it. You go to the bank on a Saturday to get your statement done and the counter clerk glares at you with so much “affection” that you wonder if it is the same bank that has released the ads making you out to be their very reason for being. You and your team work day and night to keep your client happy, you go that extra mile and believe you are part of their team. And yet you overhear an accountant saying this when you follow up for payment — “let them wait for their money”. You admire a corporation enormously and yet when you visit them their reception is manned by a security guard! I once had the good fortune (!) of being greeted with the admirable brand name of Doberman!Experience the key
Many of us handle the easy parts of branding, the look, the feel, the advertising, the Web site, the brochure… This is what is normally referred to as the brand’s identity. Identity is what we send out to the market. That can be controlled by us and usually is. We have brand manuals and guidelines. But what the market takes out or receives, of what we send out, can and often is substantially different. This is because of their own perceptions, expectations and most critically their own experiences with the brand. This is the difficult part for marketers. This calls for a long, hard look at their own offering when it comes to experience and the honesty to accept the truth. This calls for looking at all the aspects that add to experience, whether it is physical, the setting, the functional aspects, the technical aspects and so on. It calls for a change in priorities and increased investment in training and that includes outsourced service providers. A lot of heartburn is caused to consumers by outsourced services who continue to damage the hard earned equity of brands with desperate ease. Today, as consumers get more savvy, more demanding and compare and share experiences, marketers have no choice to get their consumer touch points right. The sooner they do it, the better, for consumers are not going to wait endlessly for them to get their act right.

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

Friday, November 28, 2008

You win some, you lose some

Handing over a passion does not come easy..
What happens when you lose a client?
You feel bad.
What happens when you lose an important, large client?
You feel worse.

What happens when you lose a client for whom you have worked for over four decades, done work that has pushed the brand to the next level of visibility and won every conceivable award for the work done for the brand?

A part of you dies.

I guess that is how BBDO must be feeling as it has lost the Pepsi account in North America to TBWA / Chiat Day which is part of the same Omnicom network. I am not going to sit here in India and make conjectures about what happened or make inane statements such as “You win clients with great creative and lose it by poor servicing”. But I am definitely going to talk about some of the outstanding work done for Pepsi over the years and relive the pleasure I got watching it not so much as a consumer but as an advertising professional who observed the work, always with a sense of wonder and at times with a touch of envy.

I spent five years in RK Swamy BBDO which was a part of the Omnicom group and six years with Mudra, also part of the Omnicom group, and whatever else I did in these two agencies I got to see some of the finest work produced for two brands – Pepsi by BBDO and Volkswagen by DDB Needham, both of which left a profound impression on me. But it’s Pepsi time right now.

The line for a generation

If you were to characterise Pepsi advertising over the years, it would be pretty simple. It is for the young and the young at heart. Way back in 1964, when Bobby Simpson’s Australians were retaining the Ashes, the Pepsi line was ‘Come alive, you’re in the Pepsi generation’. The famous line ‘Pepsi. The choice of a new generation’ came in 1984. It would return in 1990. A few years later came ‘Generation Next’. But whatever the tag line the brand featured some of the most memorable ads targeted at youth that I have seen and I know that I probably am not being objective about it as I am neither young nor a Pepsi drinker, but what the heck, even I am entitled to my view.

While there were several commercials that I can remember and will write about, the one I liked most was created specifically for the Super Bowl. It featured an archaeology professor explaining to his students how people lived in an earlier generation and age. He describes a baseball as a “spherical object that they used to hurl at each other while others watched” and an electric guitar as something that “produced excruciatingly loud noises” and when one of the students unearths a dusty Coke bottle and asks him what it is, the foxed professor has a blank expression on his face and says “I have no idea”. It was cheeky, irreverent, in your face if you will, but Pepsi all the way.

So you like celebrities?

Many brands use celebrities. Some, such as Pepsi, have used it to great effect and while there are several that I can recall let me mention a few. Perhaps the one I recall most was the one in an apartment where a beautiful woman knocks and asks for a diet Pepsi leading Michael J. Fox to climb down the fire escape, vault over cars, move heaven and earth to get a bottle of diet Pepsi only to find another beautiful woman coming into the apartment and asking for a diet Pepsi too. In case you recall, the same commercial was done in India with Aamir Khan, who later switched camps and bottles. But even this paled in comparison with the commercial for Michael Jackson, who was top of the pops then. The commercial, based on his own hit song Billie Jean was another smash hit, featuring more of his $10,000 diamond-studded glove and glares than it did his face! But boy, did it work! Another personal favourite was Cindy Crawford’s ‘Pepsi deprivation test’ where she grandiosely claims that she will do anything for science! She goes into isolation camp for a month and is deprived of her favourite Pepsi, comes out a month later asking for a Pepsi. The only difference is that the person who comes out of deprivation is the portly comedian Rodney Dangerfield!

Life comes full circle

Chiat Day, the agency which later became TBWA, is probably familiar with losing business despite doing great work for clients. Their ‘1984’ commercial for Apple was a landmark one, perhaps setting the trend for blockbuster commercials created specifically for the huge event in American sporting and viewing history. And ironically when John Sculley took over Apple computers from Steve Jobs he moved the account to BBDO, an agency that had done pathbreaking work in Sculley’s Pepsi days. When Chiat Day lost the business it had reason to be shattered and yet had the grace to release an ad with the headline, ‘Thanks Apple, seriously’. I wonder how many advertising agencies would have the courage to actually release an ad thanking the client who sacked them, for having given them an opportunity to produce great work. Most of them, I suspect, would quietly bury themselves in the sand.

Head to head with Coke

Some of the greatest ads that Pepsi did, in my opinion, at least, were those that cheekily knocked its rival Coke. The first one that I remember featured the famous singer MC Hammer who is belting away his fast numbers to a packed, raving audience when someone changes his Pepsi for a Coke. The singer resumes the performance and starts singing Frank Sinatra-style music. His audience is stunned till a kid has the presence of mind to hand him a glass of Pepsi which he guzzles thankfully and says “proper”. He goes back to his normal style of singing and the audience goes berserk. India too had a version of this featuring Akshay Kumar, in the days when the actor was neither as rich nor as famous as he is today.

Another comparison commercial features chimps, one of which keeps drinking Pepsi and another which thrives on Coke. The Coke-drinking chimp is predictable, boring even. At the end of the same experiment the Pepsi chimp is missing and is later found on the beach with a bevy of girls having a whale of time, clearly suggesting that while the Coke drinker is older and more staid, if not wiser, it is the Pepsi drinker who is having all the fun and is young and ‘with it’.

A more recent commercial featured two salesmen, one selling Coke and the other selling Pepsi who bump into each other at a restaurant, to the bemusement of the stewardesses. They make polite conversation, talk about how good the song which is playing is, till the big moment arrives. The Coke salesman pushes his can to the Pepsi salesman who has a swig surreptitiously and then slides his own can of Pepsi to him. Then the fun starts as the Coke salesman refuses to return the Pepsi can – so much does he like it!

Handing over

Now as one agency prepares to hand over the ownership and passion to another agency, it is perhaps time to recall a few things. The agency which has handled the business for over four decades must be complimented (what a weak word) for carefully maintaining a tone of voice that represents what the brand essentially is — youthful, irreverent and continuing to be contemporary to generations of cola drinkers. And it is time to remember the client too who approved great work not just once but time and again. As they say it takes two to tango. Maybe BBDO could release an ad saying ‘Thank you Pepsi, seriously’.

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

Friday, November 14, 2008

An Emperor in China

Our columnist comes away wowed by the consumer service in China, though his delight is tempered by a few other concerns..

Customer delight: Following the growth of foreign brands in China, one of the obvious things seen in the country is that as a consumer you are always welcome.

Till recently I had no direct exposure to China. Maybe my only exposure to China was to its cuisine and restaurants such as Mainland China and Memories of China which, though they tickled my palate, certainly pinched my wallet. Many of my friends had stolen a march over me and visited China and extolled its virtues to the extent that I went to China with a mind conditioned to not going overboard about the tremendous progress. But all that went through the window when I saw the roads, the huge buildings, the colossal Beijing airport and the Olympic stadium, all of which got me into a deep depression about our own lack of progress. This piece is not about infrastructure as I am hardly an expert in that, but about my experiences as a consumer in a country where one did not know the language but was still able to observe and experience the keenness to treat consumers as kings.

Of course, we all use the statement “consumer is king” without bothering to understand its implications and are often content to merely pay lip service to it. Here are a few impressions gathered over a week in Shanghai and Beijing. I must quickly clarify that I do not know the Chinese language and had great difficulty in communicating with the world at large, as very few people, however modern their appearance, speak even pidgin English.

Closing a sale

As people in business we all agonise about closing sales whatever the size of the transaction. We have theories on how to do it and on occasion have even experienced it. But the commitment of the young salespeople in China, even in small establishments, was something to be seen and admired. While I experienced it in many small outlets, I felt the full force of it in the golf shop where I was trying to buy a driver. I need to tell you that I belong to that breed of golfers who are looking for magical improvements in their golf game just by buying “new and improved” equipment. Of course, bargaining in China is an art which would put to shame the bargaining that one might do in Karol Bagh or Sarojini Nagar market in Delhi. Nor is it a feature only of street shops but something that happens in large establishments as well.

And yet, even if you offer a price that is one-tenth of what she might have offered you initially she still smiles at you because she is passionate about closing the deal. Their intensity in closing the sale makes us wonder how even young, junior sales people behave like owners of the establishment. Of course, I behaved like a veteran shopper and kept wandering to other shops in the same mall to check the prices and that threw her into a tizzy. And finally, since there was a delay in getting the clubs from the warehouse I offered to come back later but was amazed at the way she held on to me for dear life and even volunteered to give me a massage (an offer that I was unable to take up as I was travelling under the eagle eye of my spouse)!

It leads me to wonder about how people are trained, or how they are instilled with a sense of commitment that links their commitment to sales and how they are empowered to take decisions. It might be worthwhile for anyone who has anything to do with selling to study the selling skills of people such as these. I am sure such skills exist in other countries too and probably in small establishments in India too. But I wonder if the same skills exist or are allowed to flourish in larger organisations, or are they lost in transit?

Show the customer you value her

One of the obvious things about China is the fact that as a consumer you are made welcome. You can find malls opening at 10 a.m. and on Saturday there were already people waiting to enter. The gates opened exactly at ten, like clockwork as one would expect, and one could observe salespeople standing in wait, bowed in welcome, chanting something which sounded like good morning. Contrast this with our own set-ups where after the officially announced opening times, one can still see people cleaning and mopping the floors and empty counters where the attendants are yet to come even as consumers like you and me wait.

On another occasion, when eight of us entered an ice-cream outlet in the middle of the afternoon we were greeted with loud cheers of welcome. Clearly they valued our presence. When I said it was the birthday of my friend (a privilege we bestowed on him as he was paying the bill) they promptly sang “Happy Birthday” to his obvious embarrassment and our collective delight. Used as we are to surly salespeople who are wondering what you are doing in their outlet, one was pleasantly surprised to put it mildly.

Attention to detail

Marketing and management is all about attention to detail. As we often say, we all know what is to be done, but it is only that we often do not do what we know we must do to keep our customer happy. We all know that we must treat our consumers as individuals and look at opportunities to delight her and yet how often do we do it? I saw evidence of this in the train from Shanghai to Beijing when we travelled as a group. While it was no MAGLEV (magnetic levitation) which travels at over 400 km per hour, which operates in Shanghai, it was certainly a classy train which travels at a fair clip. But this is not about speed as much as it is about individualised attention.

Let me explain. The cubicle in which we travelled had four berths and as it was an overnight train which would reach Beijing early in the morning there was a toothbrush with a tiny tube of paste for each passenger which was fine, along with a pair of bathroom slippers for each one of the occupants, which was perhaps to be expected too. But what was unexpected was that each one of the slippers had a slightly different colour so that each one of the occupants knew exactly which was theirs! Simple you say, delight I say!

And yet …

While there are many things that I can talk about, it is only fair to talk about some of the issues facing the growing China as well. The biggest issue in my opinion is the prevalence of organised fake brands and precious little seems to be done to check that. People roam the streets of Beijing offering Omegas and Rolexes. I bought one each for Rs 120 a piece and one would be hard pressed to spot the difference. All the big brands, whether it is Gucci or any of the famous watch brands, all have replicas. There is also no denying the fact that the ‘Made in China’ label still carries its own perceptual problems and while China is working on it, one feels the problem and the perceptions are too deep-rooted to wish them away.

One also believes that China’s lack of proficiency in the English language could certainly hurt its aspirations in the long term, although one must mention in the same breath that China has just accepted Western customs and brands like a duck takes to water. In fact, one finds cities like Beijing and Shanghai are teeming with McDonald’s and KFCs just as Bangalore seems to be overflowing with Dharshinis (stand-and-eat restaurants). This, to my mind, is a big difference between China and India which has not adopted Western styles and eating habits with the same zeal and thank heavens for that! I read somewhere too that China does not have strong local brands which could hurt it in the long run.

Sum and substance

China clearly has a lot to offer the world in general and India in particular. It would be dangerous to blame all our ills on the democratic process and attribute all of China’s progress to the fact that it is ruled with an iron fist. I think China has realised the value of the fact that whatever the mode of governance you may have, it will be market economics that will determine long-term success. It will boil down to simple things that are not so easy to achieve, such as execution and attention to detail, not so much about strategy that many of us spend so much time talking about. And this is where China scores.

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

Monday, November 3, 2008

‘Class of 2009’ think zhara hatke!

As the placements season looms, some thoughts on expectations in changed times.

Do any of you remember the recent Virgin mobile commercial? Let me refresh your memory. A pretty young thing is talking to her parents and telling them that boys put her off and she just cannot handle them. Her parents are completely flustered and their imagination runs riot thinking about all the horrific implications of her statement. At which point of time a boy rings and the girl tells him brusquely that she cannot come to Goa. When the parents ask who is calling, she says it is Tensing, her MBA classmate who wants her to go to Goa with him, and her parents immediately pile on and tell her how she has to socialise and meet boys and she reluctantly agrees. Tensing calls back when she is alone and she tells him triumphantly that the Goa trip is on. The commercial ends with a cheeky line “think zhara hatke”. For those who do not share my prowess in Hindi (!), it simply means “think differently” which incidentally is an old Apple Computers line. No, this piece is not about advertising, but about the value of thinking differently for the class of 2009 which is probably looking at the placement scene with some sense of foreboding, given the overall sense of doom and gloom that seems to be top of mind for the economy and corporate India and indeed for the whole world at this particular point in time. Here are a few thoughts worth considering.

Don’t live in the past

Management students have a heritage which is guided by the experience of the institute whose portals they pass through and the jobs that their seniors have got, particularly over the last few boom years. There was a time when companies would come in and pick up students in hordes and if there were not a few weeks left for the completion of the course, I am quite sure they would have bundled all the recruits into a tempo and taken them away for induction! Those days are not likely to come back in a hurry and this is the first sobering realisation that youngsters must understand, accept and get ready to deal with.

The same applies to compensation packages as well, which may not have the same heady ring as in earlier years. It might not be a bad idea to read the business papers, to get a feel for the market and tone down expectations and maybe placement cells will have to cast their net much wider than ever before.

I was pleasantly surprised to get a placement brochure from IIM Ahmedabad, which has never happened in our company’s 10-year existence even though we have a reasonable track record and a team of 80 people. Maybe it is an indication of the times that we live in rather than any special achievement by us.

Be a versatilist

Management school often has debates about being a specialist or a generalist and that is not something to be sneered at. I remember that when we passed out of management school we did specialise in two streams, I personally specialised in both finance and marketing and ended up in advertising because I was passionate about the profession. I know for a fact that more and more students over the last few years have been looking at finance as a profession and some of them have achieved phenomenal success and earnings in a very short period in time. The reality, however, is that students cannot afford to strait-jacket themselves into particular disciplines in this era of uncertainty. They need the flexibility and the courage to look at their own skill sets differently and look at it also from the company’s point of view. It could also mean that they need to look at companies that are perhaps smaller and whose needs from MBAs could be very different from that of large well-established and well structured companies that usually come to campus.

You are the brand

Youngsters in general and young MBAs in particular place a great importance on the brand. The schools they go to, the college that they pass out of and the management institution that they graduate out of, all have value. Yet despite my preoccupation with brands, both as a profession and as an interest, I must caution youngsters, particularly those who pass out of institutes that are rated less by employers, to neither devalue themselves nor their institutes... Each and every one of us has the capability to become a brand and the tag of the institution that we pass through is just one aspect, albeit an important one, of the overall brand that each one of us ultimately becomes.

I have seen enough of life to know that the institution generally is important only for the first job, after that most management graduates move on based on their performance in the job. So don’t be disheartened if you are from a less reputed school, or become cocky just because you are from a famous school. You are the difference. And branding is all about being different even as you are relevant to your prospective employer.

Arrogance is out, humility is in

I know for a fact that institutes and placement cells have the capability to behave arrogantly towards employers and have done it in the past. We too have experienced this is in the recent past. I know of big companies too who have been treated badly at placement time. But remember this is all a question of demand and supply.

In 2009 I suspect the supply of good management students is far more than the jobs that are likely to be on offer. Even large corporations are contemplating a recruitment freeze and sectors such as financial services, investment banking, and equity research are all likely to be recruiting only at their peril. Individually students too need to scan the net and look for wider opportunities than the institutes have been hitherto looking at.

Think long-term

Managers and management education is preoccupied with quarterly performance and the immediate short-term. I have a sobering thought for the class of 2009. They have to work for a small matter of 35 years more at least, so why worry unduly about the first one. Remember a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush so just take the job that comes your way and work your way upwards. Remember that neither good times nor bad times last for ever. And finally remember the words of Rudyard Kipling:

“If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too…

If you can still fill the unforgiving sixty seconds worth of distance run -

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And which is more - you’ll be a Man my son”

I am sure the class of 2009 will have a fair share of men and women who will take Indian business to new heights and I wish each and every one of them the very best of luck.

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

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A week in the life of Jet Airways

The efficient airline’s image has taken a beating with the events of the past fortnight..

The media-savvy employees protested, politicians took up their cause and Jet Airways reversed the decision to lay off a portion of its workforce.

I have a confession to make. Jet Airways is my favourite service brand. I have been a raving fan of the brand ever since it commenced operations and have been part of its frequent flier programme for as long as I can remember. I make a reference to t he brand at every forum where I am invited to speak and do so with even greater pride when the audience has foreigners in it. My usual statement introducing the concept of service and Jet Airways is “We Indians have to be pretty good at service as we have a long track record of service. After all we served the British for a small matter of 200 years!”

While that sounds pretty funny when it is said, I must hasten to add that despite our experience, Indians and Indian service providers probably more often than not are more likely to be classified as “unacceptable” or “below average” rather than “world class”, with Jet Airways being one of the few which might classify for the “world class” tag. And yet the same brand has been going through a fairly traumatic time over the last few days and in my own estimation the brand’s image has definitely been dented in the eyes of the general public and consumers of media if not in the eyes of the actual consumers such as me who still continue to patronise the brand come layoff or pink slip.

Sorry, we don’t need you

October 15 was a normal day for most Indians, but for 1,100 Jet Airways employees it was going to be an unforgettable day for all the wrong reasons as they were asked to leave the company immediately as the company was performing badly. The media went to town, breaking news and giving different counts of the number of employees who had been asked to leave. The unwanted employees seem to be ‘last in’ into the company and are probably feeling the brunt of the global downturn and have been ‘first out’ of the company’s rolls.

However, one must give credit to the beleaguered employees who did not take all this lying down and took to the streets, albeit in an orderly way, and demonstrated in front of every television camera and media reporter in the country shouting slogans and asking for their jobs back. The obliging media recorded every slogan and every interview, had a field day and ensured that the agitation was in the news for the entire 24 hours of the day. To add fuel to the fire every politician got into the act, every political party in the country (and we know the acute shortage of them at present) joined its voice in support, trade unions found one more cause to rally around all, adding to the overall media mayhem. I am not getting into the rumour that many Indian politicians own stock in Jet Airways as that is irrelevant to the piece. Coincidentally, a group of us were travelling to Thiruvananthapuram on October 16 for a customer service seminar being organised by Custommerce, a day after all this drama. So I politely told the (still) smiling girl at the Jet Airways counter that I would pray for her job’s safety at the Padmanabhaswamy temple when I went to Thiruvananthapuram. She in turn asked me to pray for her colleagues who had lost their jobs. The service on the flight was exemplary despite the obvious turmoil in the cabin crew’s hearts and Jet Airways and its employees went up one notch in my esteem.

Conscience over commerce

However, when I went into my room and switched on the TV set (normally my first act when I enter hotel rooms) the airline had done a U-turn. Naresh Goyal in a hastily convened press conference announced that he was taking back the entire lot of displaced staffers as his conscience was bothering him, he had been unable to sleep and his senior management (sic) had taken the decision without consulting him! The staffers were jubilant, just as the rest of India was a day later when Sachin Tendulkar broke Brian Lara’s record.
Lots of people claimed credit for the ‘conscience’ of Goyal and it is really great news for India that we have so many Good Samaritans in the political system, some of whom pioneered the ‘conscience vote’ in Parliament and continue to selflessly work for the nation’s progress without claiming the slightest credit! The trade unions in Bengal were cock-a-hoop and continued their celebrations as Saurav Ganguly scored a century and promptly changed their slogan to “Dada don’t go”.

But to my mind amidst all this tamasha and happiness of the staffers, Jet Airways suffered as more reports came in of its cutting routes and entering into a strategic alliance with Kingfisher, its arch rival, even as the atmosphere was rife with stories of bail-out packages. In the midst of all this life was going on as usual for the airline and its staff. I took two more flights in the same airline over the next two days and was relieved and delighted to see that the brand was renewing its commitment to service and taking the reverses to its image and the bad press in its stride, pampering ill-tempered and demanding customers like me, replacing my warm cup of tea with a piping hot one as the lemon slice that I asked for was delayed and continuing to smile at the spoilt and ill-behaved children who come on their flights.

The most significant part was that last week when I was returning from Mumbai, the flight had a really rough landing, frightening some of the chicken-hearted travellers like me who promptly remembered God in their hour of need! As we were preparing to leave the aircraft the pilot promptly apologised for the bad landing! Honesty in accepting one’s own sins of omission and commission gladden the hearts of consumers.
So why do I like Jet Airways? I think it is because of real, live, committed people who are serving me. Contrast this with Airtel which, in my eyes at least, has moved from a human, customer-friendly organisation to an automated , unconcerned corporation which hides behind technology. Can someone tell me how I can speak to a human being at Airtel? Maybe I should try Sunil Mittal!

So where does Jet go from here?

I am no expert on business strategy, least of all on the business of aviation which seems to be going through troubled times, to put it mildly. But I do know that customer satisfaction positively impacts stock prices, even if the stock market is currently chaotic. Take Amazon, whose CEO Jeffrey Bezos says with great conviction: “I’m so obsessed with the drivers of the consumer experience; I believe that the success we have had over the past 12 years has been driven exclusively by the customer experience.” In the Custommerce seminar that I mentioned, Geet Sethi, the renowned billiards player, described “passion” as a very weak word and spoke about “obsession” as crucial to success. Yes, a passion for customers should well be replaced by an obsession with customers and their needs.

It is also at times like these that companies are riddled with self-doubt, a bit like the Australian team that has just been handed its heaviest defeat in recent years, and start worrying about what they are doing. They resort to short-term measures such as cost control and give the customer and her service less importance than they deserve. They tend to forget the reason for their original success and pre-eminence over the years in the current preoccupation with economic turbulence. Stick to the basics, be obsessive about your customer, lobby with the government if you must and soon there could be a break in the current threatening clouds that are hovering so worryingly.

Strong brands will continue to prevail because of their customer centricity and Jet is one such brand. And what about the Australian cricket team to which some reference has been made and which has been a dominant brand for the last 13 years? It has competed with Jet Airways in the same period in the sort of media coverage that it has got, mostly unfavourable and maybe they need a bailout more urgently than the troubled airline! I do hope that Jet Airways will ride this crisis, in the interests of customers such as me who are just discovering what it is to be pampered!

(The author is a CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What's stopping you from a career in advertising?

Imagine you are sitting at home with your family and friends watching a T20 match and just at that time a commercial comes on air. The people around you love it and spontaneously say 'This ad is just great'. Imagine how delighted you would be feeling if you were to be actually involved in the making of the ad.

Such a scenario is not only plausible but possible if you enter the arena of advertising, which leads one to ask what the possible career options in advertising are.

But before I get into that let me quickly tell you that advertising, while it may not currently be “top of the pops” in the career sweepstakes, is certainly not an option to be sneezed at. Before I go into the specifics of career opportunities in advertising I need to talk about some basic skill sets that equip people not only for entry into the profession but also for success in it. The first is the ability to get along with people and that skill is perhaps much more important here than in other industries. The second most important skill is the ability to communicate well particularly for those who get into client management or client servicing as it is often referred to and that is the first area we will be talking about.

Manage clients

This is an important department of the agency. It has men and women who manage relationships with clients. Very simply put they meet the clients of the agency, understand their requirements, come back to the agency, brief the creative team and are responsible for releasing the ads, maintaining the relationship, getting new business in, collecting money. The job involves coordination, management and ability to handle stress. In fact client service is the key to an agency’s success and growth and many successful client service people have grown from management trainees to the level of heading large agency operations.

To enter the client service area, you need a degree definitely and it is preferable to have an MBA from one of the second line management schools at least, though in the eighties we had people from the IIMs joining the agency business. Today two year post-graduate courses in communication are also on offer and these too offer an opportunity to enter the profession to youngsters who pass out of these institutions.

Creative, the core competence

What sets apart one agency from the other is its creative ability. Advertising, it would help us to remember is the business of producing ads and TV commercials. To produce ads and TV commercials the agency needs copy writers and visualisers. Agencies have teams of copywriters and visualisers who come together to create advertising. Just like fast bowlers in cricket good creative people hunt in pairs.The copywriter is the one who writes the print ads and thinks up the script for those television commercials that we see on air. Many young copywriters have basic degrees in English or communication. Some of them have prior experience in writing and may have written for their school or college magazine.Of course it is important to remember that writing to sell products is very different from the literary writing that some of us have done in our youth. Copywriters are not writing to impress readers but actually persuading them to buy products, which they may not even need. This calls for a different set of skills and the usage of words and phrases that people can remember , like the Nike’s ‘Just do it’ campaign that was one of the most memorable advertising campaigns of all time.

Designing the ads

‘A picture paints a thousand words’ is perhaps a statement depicting the importance of the visual in communication. People remember strong, eye catching visuals and even more so today as people are getting busier and spending lesser time reading.

People want to get to the point faster and do not want to spend too much time thinking about what you are trying to say. Visualisers usually do courses in art for 5 years from reputed institutions like Sophias in Mumbai or Chitra Kala Parishad in Bangalore.

The difference over the years to today is that today’s aspiring young visualisers need to be more than merely computer literate but actually experts at creating on the computer. Both visualisers and copy writers must have a strong desire to think differently and stand out from the crowd so that their work is noticed.

It is also pertinent to remember that creative people are paid extremely well and at times are the highest paid within the agency's structure. So, if you think you are creative, maybe the agency business is the place for you to get into.

Media, the other unit

There was a time when the media department of the agency was known as the ‘back room boys’ as it was the creative and the servicing types that were hogging the limelight. Not any longer. Because of the emergence of stand alone media buying houses and their increasing importance, agencies are realising the value of media personnel.

Within media the less glamourous role is that of the buyer who is in charge of negotiating with media houses and television channels on rates. They work out special deals, preferred positions and bulk discounts for their clients. The more exalted role is that of the media planner who very simply decides how much to put in where, which newspapers to advertise in, which serials to buy.All of this is through analysis of various data that is available with the agency, monitoring of television rating points of popular programs, using sophisticated computer programming models to help optimize the client’s budget so that he/she gets the maximum “bang for the media buck”. Media planning too is becoming increasingly important as a career option and most media planners have management degrees with a strong liking for numbers and have the capability to understand and interpret research.

The greatest perk

One of the greatest perks of working in the advertising business is not money or incentives but the challenge of working on so many diverse products and services so that one never gets bored. If you are a salesman you are selling only one product or groups of products. If you are in marketing you are a specialist in only one category soaps or detergents. But in advertising you have to know about soaps, shampoos, clothes, shoes, computers… you name it. So there’s never a dull moment if you are in advertising. In fact it has been described as the industry where you have the maximum fun with your clothes on! Get ready to have fun!

Ramanujam Sridhar is the CEO of brand-comm and the author of “One land, one billion minds”.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Brands in trouble

Some of the most iconic brands have taken a thorough beating with the recent meltdown in the global markets..

Neither brands nor businesses are immortal. Successful brands are relevant to their consumers and different from their competition.

“Buildings age and become dilapidated. Machines wear out. Cars rust. People die. But what lives on are the brands.”
- Hector Liang, Chairman, United Biscuits

This is a statement that is often made at brand management conferences, reproduced in articles such as these and spouted at brand management classes by teachers like me. The brand is like a God, or so some of us say, and if you keep propitiating it,pay respects to it and invest in it, it will remain forever, long after us. I sincerely believed in the power of the brand and still do, but my unqualified and unquestioning belief in this statement has taken a severe beating as an aftermath of the meltdown in the US financial markets.
I am no expert on finance as my current portfolio demonstrates. (Portfolio! What a wonderfully packaged term for what are essentially pieces of paper that are fast attaining scrap status.) So I will not even tread the murky area of finance but stay with the more familiar if less risky area of brands and branding and see if there are learnings from the current imbroglio that has thrown the world into a tizzy, causing bankruptcies, destruction and even the death of an Indian’s entire family that was living in the US.

Brands under scrutiny

Let us take a look at some of the brands that have come under public scrutiny and been found sadly wanting. First and foremost is brand USA .The foremost nation brand for years, if Western media is to be believed. Let’s not forget that the US was the brand that eulogised the spirit of free enterprise and told the world that this was the only way to do business and run the world, if not the way to live life and use credit cards! To my mind the brand that has taken the most severe beating in recent days is this brand.

My mind goes back to the Seventies and my days at college. My friends from IIT Madras who entered IIT with the objective of going to America considered themselves failures if they did not make it to the land of apple pie.(In fact, some of my friends knew more about apple pie than kheer.) From where to where has this brand sunk? And the US brand sinks into a deeper quagmire as media abounds with stories of its bailouts protecting bonuses of overpaid finance executives from poor taxpayers’ money! Merrill Lynch might be “bullish on America’ but I wonder if the rest of the world shares that same sentiment!

Another brand that is facing a real crisis of confidence is Wall Street which, for years, has been the premium financial market of the world and is more than what Madison Avenue is to the advertising world.

I am not sure how many of you remember Harshad Mehta, the man behind those heady days of a bull run in India. One significant thing happened for Dalal Street and the Bombay Stock Exchange as our rates were flashed along with those of other major stock indices of the world, for the first time. We thought that we had arrived, so big were the other world brands.

Now let’s get to the companies that have been on intensive care. One of them, Lehman Brothers, has been pronounced dead. Last year Lehman brothers were valued at $4 billion by a consulting company and it is a high-profile company that has been making a profit every quarter! The company’s profit growth has been dramatic, as was its stock price performance, almost doubling from $44 at the start of 2005 to around $80 in 2007. And what is its value now?

Brands such as AIG, Lehman, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley have been on the list of the top 50 brands of the world and have been day zero recruiters at business schools. There seems to be a cloud on many of these brands now. This reminds me of a Tamil proverb that when translated, means, “Who knows which snake will come out of which pit?” Remember that the carnage is not over yet. All of this makes me believe that brands are certainly not immortal as we believed and need a lot more nurturing than we had imagined.

Answers to the future

Many of us are brilliant in hindsight and yours truly is no exception. We can all climb on the criticism bandwagon which anyone who follows cricket in India is familiar with or we can learn from this once in a generation happening. There is no doubt that a cataclysmic event of this nature is like a tsunami leaving financial death and destruction in its wake. But what can brands do?

I think the first realisation is that neither brands nor businesses are immortal. Brands that were on top of the heap a few years ago have been consigned to history in a heap. So the first point one would like to make is that the life cycle of brands is very, very different from the life cycle of people that we are familiar with.

We no longer live in the days of Shakespeare and the seven stages of man. Just as we have only the stages of childhood, youth and old age today, I think brands too have very compressed lives. How many of us are aware of this? And how does our strategy reflect this? As Jack Welch said, any fool can make money in the short run and any fool can make money in the long run, but it calls for real ability to make money in both the short run and the long run! So preoccupied were the finance whiz kids with the short run that they have ignored the long run and see where some of them are now!

It is not only the cosmetics

Successful brands are relevant to their consumers and different from their competition. While this is not rocket science it does seem that brands tend to forget or ignore this important aspect.

Many of the brands that are under siege today have their cosmetic part of the brand right. The look and feel, the colours, lofty mission statements are all in place. But how different have they been from each other as all have chased dubious financial instruments and short-term profitability? They seem to have focused on the product category of financial services rather than on their own brand differential which is probably why many of them are in trouble and being tarred with the same brush quite easily.

The team matters

Given the similarity of the range of product offerings of many of these competing brands, what really sets one company apart from the other? It could well be the teams that are guiding the destinies of these firms, the board of directors and their ability to add value to the firm and its operations. Not to be forgotten is their ability to keep tabs on deviations from accepted practices, though what is acceptable in the finance industry in the US seems to be shifting just a little bit today. Bank of America picked up Merrill because it had a better team and clearly a better brand than Lehman which had no such luck.

In the long run we all drink Coke

Amidst all the uncertainty, confusion and chaos it is perhaps relevant to think that some things don’t change, and thank heavens for that! I speak of Coke which has been the most valuable brand in the world for several years now. It continues to enjoy the franchise of young and old in every part of the world and has been passed down from generation to generation like a family heirloom. Leadership is all about clarity, consistency and cohesion and the ubiquitous bottle of cola has demonstrated these qualities in no small measure, which is why millions of bottles of the fluid continue to be consumed.

Build a fund of goodwill

Many of us are great in good times at handling things. We also tend to forget that things can change around dramatically. How often do people go to temples when everything is fine and how quickly they rediscover the road to the temple the moment something goes wrong! Why wait for a rainy day or for trouble to strike?

Companies would do well to prepare for troubled times by investing in social causes that are close to their heart and try to build a corpus of public goodwill, so that they have some recall with the public at large and are not seen as just another large corporation maximising its profits.

Times like these are not easy to handle. But they serve as reminders to companies to focus on their basics, getting closer to their customers, constantly monitoring their own performance and letting their performance and service build value.

Easier said than done?

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Horn, ok, please...

A few years ago I was to do a review of the “yes sir” commercial for fastrack watches. In case you do not remember the commercial, it is set in a class room, which could be St Stephen’s in Delhi or St Xavier’s at Mumbai and it is roll-call time. (What a relief to parents like me that things like this still happen in college).

As students keep saying “yes sir” with varying degrees of disinterest, it is observed that one of the young gentlemen is wearing a groovy fastrack watch and all the girls in the class keep drooling and saying “yes sir” when his name is called out, to the embarrassment of the young man and the merriment of the rest of the class.

The commercial seemed interesting enough though I am not sure if I got the commercial in its entirety. Of course, I am not the target audience for the commercial or the brand, so I asked my second son who was 19 then, as to what he thought of the ad. His response was instantaneous. “Pa, it is kickass!” he said. If I had spoken like that to my dad, then I would not be sitting here writing this column, but that is not the point I am trying to make.

The point is that India is a young country with close to 57% of the population below the age of 24. But in the same country we have marketing managers in their forties and managing directors in their fifties who are trying to woo these twenty some things. If that is not a marketing and a communication challenge then I wonder what is!

What works, what doesn’t?

So what do we know about India’s youth? Not very much I am afraid but I think we need to feel our way through this generation as it is very important to understand this emerging segment of the market who could soon be leading it in terms of importance and size.
The obvious thing we need to remember is that this generation is relaxed if not spaced out. It can laugh at itself and others in stark contrast to dour middle aged professionals like me. So advertising like the ads for Mentos or Sprite works for young people, while people of my age may look at it with distaste.

Try to talk the language of the young however...

complex it is, which first means that you have to understand what they are saying and if they are your consumers, you better figure it out fast, in your own self interest.

Don’t lecture

My son, labels me as a dangerous combination as I am both a parent and a teacher. He says parents advise while teachers lecture and I do both! So as marketers, for God’s sake, do not lecture.

We do not have a captive audience out there, waiting to be converted. These sophisticated young things have a potent weapon in their hand, the remote control and so can easily shut out our message and our brand if it does not entertain at least, even if it does not engage this demanding set of consumers.

Surprise the key

I think we need to remember one important thing about today’s youth, particularly the urban youth. It has been there, done that, seen it all and is on the verge of being cynical.
You need to spring your brand message in a manner that is surprising to say the least and completely unexpected. Brands like Levi’s in India and Nike world over seem to understand the potency of this segment and have a better feel for what makes them tick.

A brand is a brand

This generation understands the need for and value of brands. Look at the importance it assigns to education at IIT, IIM or now the National Law School. It waits for sales to buy brands that it aspires to own whether it is Levis, Nike or Reebok.

My marketing professor called India’s young as the MTV generation, which is multiple processing, time compressed, value seekers. Seek them out for your own good!

Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO brand-comm and the author of “One land, one billion minds”

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Never give up on the idea!

Celebrity value: Disgraced cricketer Shane Warne’s story lent credibility to Nike’s campaign.

Shane Warne was the ultimate celebrity of my time. He exhilarated fans and exasperated authorities and sponsors with the same ease with which he bowled the flipper. Like the great tennis player John McEnroe who was arguably Nike’s greatest flag bearer, Warne, another endorser of the brand, challenged the establishment and yet was a champion, which was the individuality that the brand portrayed and valued in its endorsers. After Warne’s phenomenal performance in the unforgettable 1999 World Cup in England, Nike produced an ad titled “Never give up”.

It was my favourite, as it showed Warne facing a number of challenges that might have seemed insurmountable to ordinary mortals, some of whom competed with him — his shoulder injury, the betting scandal, separation from his family and the ultimate insult — being dropped from the team that he was such an integral and important part of; and then the commercial ends with him making a brilliant comeback in the finals at Lords against a hapless Pakistan, which Australia won in a canter.

Like to all great work the response was extreme and not middle-of-the-road. As per Michael Simon, creative director of the Advertising agency Foot Cone Belding: “Blokes punched the air and went “Come on”. Women said I don’t care how good he is, he’s a nob.” As for me, the commercial made a profound impression on me, not only because Shane Warne was one of my favourite cricketers, but also because the idea was powerful. Warne was in the news for all the wrong reasons and had come out of the depths to the pinnacle as only he can do, and this commercial had captured that. Once again a clever scriptwriter had an idea that the celebrity had taken to the next level with his real-life story and rather than use the celebrity to prop up a weak idea as we see so often.

Reel life or real life

All of us are voyeurs in some sense of the term and love to peek into the lives of celebrities. The importance index of socialites seems to be directly proportionate to the gossip that they have access to about the celebrities that we all admire and yet we must concede that these same celebrities constantly provide grist to the gossip mill with their errors of omission and commission. Thank God for that, otherwise we would all be so bored! Of course, some of these are facts and not gossip as celebrity lives are open books.

It is common knowledge that M. S. Dhoni, India’s one-day and T20 captain (and at this point of time the hottest celebrity when it comes to sponsorships), was an indifferent student at best and has just now enrolled for a graduate course years after leaving school. Of course, one can be defensive about one’s lack of education or flaunt it. Or better still, let that be the idea of a television commercial for one of the myriad brands that one is endorsing.

Dhoni and Pepsi have done just that in the new “Youngistan” commercial. Although it is likely that you would have seen the commercial too, as it has got wide exposure, the script is still worth recounting. The commercial begins with Dhoni in an unlikely setting, the classroom, where he is clearly ill at ease. The teacher seems to revel in his role of increasing the young sportsman’s discomfiture and asks him his marks in Mathematics.

I am sure there will soon be another maxim that says that like you do not ask a man his salary and a woman her age, people must remember not to ask youngsters their marks in Maths! Dhoni sheepishly says 41, reminding me of my rank in class X, but back to the script!

The film gets into monologue mode where he says he realises he did not spend much time studying in school though he did spend time studying pitches and opposition bowlers’ minds as he examines someone who at close quarters looks surprisingly like Brett Lee. But he is mortal enough to concede that he has been unable to read the mind of Sreesanth who is gyrating in the background. He ends the commercial by saying that thanks to all his studies he has already won a world cup and the secret is to have a thirst for success.

Why do I like this commercial? Is it because it is true to Pepsi’s character of being for the young and young at heart? Is it because it appeals to the popular sentiment that my children seem to reflect that you do not have to study to be successful? Is it because the brand promise of quenching thirst is so deftly woven into the script? Is it because it is the story of the lad from Ranchi who is so far from us geographically and yet so close to our hearts? Is it because of the power of the idea that builds real life into a commercial that is endearing? Yes. Once again my submission to writers is: “Never give up on the power of the idea”. That and not the celebrity will make your commercial striking.

Clever writers too know the value of the presence and charisma that someone such as Dhoni brings to the script and table. He seems to have the same poise behind and in front of the wicket as he has in front of the camera. I wish I could say the same for some of our other cricketers who seem to be as nervous in front of the camera as they have been in their nineties.

Rejection is not the name of the game

There was a time when actors used to reject film scripts that were not challenging or interesting. Or so out-of-work actors claimed.

Looks like actors do not exercise the same level of restraint or judgment when it comes to choosing scripts for products that they endorse. It seems like they are guided by considerations of a quick buck. I recently had the misfortune of seeing another celebrity commercial featuring Preity Zinta of BSNL fame and you must forgive me if I do not get the script right, as the commercial made for agonising watching, much less for remembering. The action happens on a film set and we have a distraught actor saying that she is unable to concentrate on the lines of the film as her washing machine is not working. I am sure out-of-work actors do their own laundry and those that own cricket teams must do the team’s laundry as well, which explains her confusion. Preity Zinta seems to pick real losers when it comes to endorsement scripts. Given the increasing importance of actors in this entire celebrity environment one hopes that actors, who may have a limited understanding of branding, will at least have a better feel for the audience and exercise one level of quality control in the script. Well, there is no harm in hoping, is there?

Cricketers, actors, who else?

Our marketers and advertising agencies, despite all the hype about thinking differently and out of the box, end up being surprisingly predictable in their thinking and execution. Cricket and (hold your breath) films or entertainment seem to be the only two genres in their horizon. Dhoni endorses 12 brands at last count. Giving him a run for his money is Saif Ali Khan. Ads which were featuring Saif appeared for about 45 lakh seconds last year leaving behind Shah Rukh Khan with 42 lakh seconds and Big B with a mere 32 lakh seconds.

Younger actors are replacing the older actors. TVS, Sonata, Titan, Brylcreem, Lays, Taj Mahal Tea, Royal Stag, Pepsi, Toshiba, Videocon are all using celebrities. Surely our agencies, marketers and communication experts are taking the easy way out. Yet, there is no denying the fact that celebrities bring instant awareness to the brands they endorse, but yet the question must be asked: How many of these celebrities are part of the long-term strategy of the brand, like the Nike brand that this piece started with?

Never give up

Let me end with my familiar refrain. More and more companies are joining the celebrity bandwagon as they seem to be following the herd or getting satisfied with the awareness which is just one part of the whole buying equation. At the risk of sounding nostalgic one can only remember some long-term strategies like a continuing character that Surf Excel created in Lalitaji, Onida’s creation of the devil or Amul’s little moppet that still continues to be the longest running campaign. Maybe there is learning from the life and times of Shane Warne. In cricket and branding there can be no pain without gain.
Are you ready for the pain of the long term?

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

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Main aur meri director, kya team hai!

Successful ad men and their teams: Adding value to the creative product

Great bowlers, they say, hunt in pairs. Lillee and Thomson, Trueman and Statham, Bedi and Prasanna, McGrath and Warne have swept all before them and won matches and series, if not hearts. England, which has been at the receiving end of a lot of these bowlers, has always had the capability to laugh at its own travails and this famous rhyme probably says it all: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if Lillee doesn’t get you then Thommo must”. Much as I would like to go on about the glorious game of cricket, I realise that it is perhaps insensitive to talk about it right now as India has just lost another overseas series at Colombo where probably another new potent pair is emerging in the form of Murali and Mendis. So let me move on to advertising, as having been married for long, I know when I should change to a topic that is less likely to cause heartburn and the sensible and prudent male stays with neutral topics such as these in the interest of his own safety and the inherent desire for self-preservation.

Art and copy, the old marriage

I came to advertising because I was fascinated by the power of the printed word and its ability to thrill and sell. Ads such as those of Volkswagen and Avis are classics even today simply because they were crafted by wordsmiths who took persuasion to a new level. They were followed by a breed of outstanding art directors who gave us the Marlboro man and the Absolut Vodka campaign, to name just two.

Let us look here at our own country. There was a time in India when art directors and copywriters used to sit in different parts and different departments of the same agency and the copywriter would hammer her lines on her trusted typewriter and hand it over to the art director, at times, without even entering the room, and he would scribble on his notebook before giving it to the studio where the waiting artists would physically finish the rough layout.

Thankfully, realisation struck and smart creative types teamed up. Art directors and copywriters came together to produce campaigns that won awards and sold volumes. The key to this whole success was the fact that they worked so closely together that no one knew whose idea it was and therein lay the success of the advertising. The copywriter often gave the rough scribble which the art director then embellished to give us a finished product that both of them and the agency could be justifiably proud of. Art directors too were known to think up lines when allowed to. This was all fine in the Eighties when Indian advertising only thought print. This was before the days of the Asiad in 1982, the entry of colour televisions in a big way and the emergence of cable and satellite homes as the only homes fit to live in.
Today all that has changed at the advertising agency and we have a new breed of creative directors that live, eat, sleep, think and dream television scripts (which probably explains some of the nightmarish scripts that one gets to see on television). But on a more serious note, there is no denying the fact that some of our work on television is truly outstanding, and in no small measure, the credit for this should go to the producer who gives life and meaning to the script that a young and often inexperienced copywriter comes up with. I remember some of the ‘Only Vimal’ films that were made in the late Eighties which were done by Kailash Surendranath, who understood the brand’s personality and gave it a creative edge. I am sure that famous creative directors of leading agencies in India such as Balki, Piyush Pandey and Prasoon Joshi (in pictures above) all have their own set of directors who they work closely with and who add enormous value to the creative product because they are able to understand the expectations, give life and meaning to a script and work as team players. Today more than ever, the agency needs a director who understands the brand and can work consistently over multiple executions at different points in time, without diluting the brand’s values that have been so carefully and assiduously built over film for years on end.

Internationally, one remembers and recalls the celebrated commercial director Joe Pytka, whose consistently successful work for brands such as Pepsi – remember the “Uh- huh’ and the Cindy Crawford commercials - have not only won recognition but awards and accolades for the brand.

The professional producer

I was speaking to my friend who is a creative director at a large multinational agency network (is there any other type of agency?) and he was commenting on the increasing professionalisation of the new breed of producers, who are so ready to discuss the script idea at a formative stage, and their capability to add cinematic value to the same. Nor does it stop there. The pre-production documentation and detailing are all valuable aids to the agency which has its fair share of disorganised and yet creative minds. The same level of comfort and ease which the art director had with the copywriter of old has now become the comfortable acceptance and co-existence of the creative director and the producer.

It could well be the most important partnership for the all important medium of television on which most brands are won or lost. Significantly at the Lowe awards, which they called the “true awards”, they thought it fit to reward these unsung heroes and placed the credit for a lot of the agency’s outstanding creative work with the director, music composer and the editor.

The ‘three quotation’ phenomenon

While one can talk at length about the partnership and synergy that a producer can bring to the table, the system often does not reward something like this. I am sure one can find enough criticism for working with the same people, even within the agency. And some clients, particularly the public sector variety, thanks to the history of unsavoury practices, insist on three quotations, whether it is to buy paper clips or to produce a television commercial! While enterprising client servicing people usually find a way out of this, it certainly comes in the way of consistency and creativity.

I remember someone asking Neil Armstrong if he was nervous while landing on the moon and he is supposed to have confirmed asking who wouldn’t be, as he was sitting on 99,999 parts made by the cheapest supplier! Business should be run on trust and creative directors can and must trust the producer who delivers the creative product that they want. They should be in a position to work with them on an ongoing basis on projects. I am glad it is happening in India and quite regularly too.

Advertising reflects the times we live in

Let me end this piece with something that has been happening for some time but yet struck me with renewed clarity. Advertising has always influenced the world around it and got it to use its creativity. A line like Kalakkarey Chandru had become a way of speech in Tamil Nadu and I need to clarify here that this line was the translation of the “Sunil babu” line in the Asian paints commercial when it was translated into Tamil. This probably had as much potency as the lines of Rajinikanth that Tamil Nadu seems to reverberate with. Earlier the lines like “Yeh dil mange more” of Pepsi have cheerfully been used by newspaper editors as they seem to be so readily available to them. Today, thanks to the power of an advertising line, Kerala is almost invariably referred to as “God’s own country” in articles about it.

Last week I saw one newspaper carrying the line “What an idea”’ to the feature that had a huge write-up on some public service stuff that was happening in Bangalore and a feature in the metro section of another newspaper on young people had the caption “youngistan”. Often creative people place an almost unreasonable importance on awards and recognition. But my friend, if your line assuming universal appeal is not recognition, I wonder what is. Let us create more ideas and captions like these that India can take to and that more than anything else will demonstrate the importance of our profession to the lives of people around us.

(The author is CEO, brand-comm and the author of `One Land, One Billion Minds'.)