Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ten thoughts for 2008

Today is the 10th of January, it is still the beginning of the year and coincidentally I wondered if we could think of ten things that the advertising industry and people in communication can do to make the year better for themselves, the respective industries they belong to and their clients. Here too I rely on the wisdom of my peers who have given me their ideas and suggestions and all I am doing is packaging it, hopefully in a manner that makes sense to you, dear reader. In a sense you could view this as a sequel to my year end column on the year that was that was published in this supplement a fortnight ago which read “Rewind. Reflect. Rejuvenate”.

1. Lead don’t follow
The advertising industry faithfully portrays society in all its changing hues and looking at today’s advertising one can see that the agency’s insights are drawn from its understanding and observation of the changing Indian consumer and full credit to them for that. And yet rarely, if ever, does the advertising industry portray the future or lead the way. The entertainment industry, whatever its failings, has shown the way and led consumer aspiration. People seem to be looking to entertainment for more than mere entertainment. So my first question to the advertising industry is this: “Why can’t we be leaders instead of followers? Why can’t we show the way for consumers instead of following them?” Why not create trends instead of merely following them?”

2. Follow consumers not clients
Agencies historically have been brilliant in staying with their clients and following them geographically and aspirationally. And yet as a prominent client told me, agencies have a larger role to play that they are currently playing now. They seem to be preoccupied with their clients which is acceptable but that still may be woefully inadequate in today’s world. And that is in understanding end consumers, their aspirations and expectations. Where is the time or the bandwidth for the agency to do it today? And where is the guarantee that they are going to be compensated for this?

3. Stop living in the past, get to the future
The entire generation of current creative greats in the Indian context at least has been reared on the picture tube and the thirty second commercial. Their very creative reputations have been built around this medium observing today’s youth, particularly metropolitan youth and young adults who have taken to technology so easily leads me to place great emphasis on the digital medium. Prospective buyers of cars for instance look at the net as their first source of information and at the risk of repeating myself I have to say that the agency may be living in the past if it has not harnessed the digital medium and learned to create for this medium. Have agencies crossed the digital divide or are they still wedded to the picture tube?

4. Don’t go overboard on celebrities
The agency and client still seem to be in love with celebrities who seem to come in all sizes, shapes and hues. More often than not the indiscriminate use of celebrities seems to smack of poor strategy and one wonders whether both client and agency seem to rely on the celebrity when all else fails or when they are completely bereft of ideas. One hopes that the agency will be just a little more selective in 2008 if it has to use celebrities. There is no harm in hoping is there?

5. Understand retail and create for it
The advertising for retail still seems to be pretty sad and here I speak of what I am seeing as a consumer. They are all about some “Sale” or the other. Let me go back in time to catalogue advertising. Some of us may remember the catalogues that Sears and Roebuck used to bring out with such great effect and success. It was clearly communication that worked as the consumer was ordering the merchandise based on the catalogues that he got by mail. This called for communication that is effective not glitzy. I am not sure if today’s advertising agency is geared for effective creation of communication that is produced quickly within a limited budget. They must rely less and less on building image, eschew creativity for its own sake and focus on delivering footfalls and sales at the lowest cost. Is the agency ready?

6. Be a consultant, not a mere order taker.
For as long as I can remember agencies have clamoured for respectability and have asked to be treated as anything other than order takers that the rest of the world views them as and yet if one has to be brutally honest about it, agencies have done precious little to correct that impression. They need the client’s business and are afraid of upsetting the apple cart of an already shaky relationship and are eager to agree with what the client says however quixotic it may be. Very often brands don’t get what they need but usually end up getting what the client wants and the agency continues to do this even while chafing at the bit about not being treated as a consultant. So while the agency might want to be viewed as a consultant, it needs to do some honest soul-searching as well and figure out whether it is equal to the task and understand what is keeping it from being a consultant.

7. Find the people

Yet it is obvious why clients do not give us the respect we deserve, the fees that are so rightly due to us. It is simply because we do not have the people to deliver value to clients. And why is that? It is obviously because we cannot pay them what they are worth or at least what other industries are paying. So if we get the poorer crop it is equally likely that this set of people cannot deliver the value that clients want and the quality that makes us justify the tag of consultants that we so desperately want.

8. Train the people
Advertising agencies are going to inferior business schools to pick up their management trainees and compounding the problem by not training these people lest they leave. People will leave, other industries have mind boggling attrition rates, but if you train chances are that you may luck out with a couple of people at least from a batch that justifies the investment .And maybe there is an opportunity for the smaller agencies to actually train people and market them a year later! After all crazy times need crazy solutions!

9. Educate your clients
Clients, particularly who use services like public relations are clueless about the discipline or how to use their agency. For the long term future of the industry it is critical that clients be educated on what this entire business of public relations can and cannot do. So desperate are we to get the business that we start out as order takers who will ensure column centimeters of coverage and thus begins an unhappy relationship.

10. Integrate. Integrate. Integrate.
All the various communication vehicles are being used by clients and agencies, but sadly they seem to be working in a manner that is anything but integrated. I had the mortification of being asked by the communication head of a large multi national as to why I needed to know their advertising position to do public relations for him? By the time I explained what integration was to him, I had lost the few hairs that I had at the beginning of the meeting!

A new beginning
The beginning of the year is a great time not only for resolutions but also a time to think about our own industry, our professions, our clients and figure out a way forward. None of the ideas that I have suggested are completely new or earth shattering, nor have they suddenly surfaced this week. The business has been in existence for ages now, the problems too have persisted and perhaps now is the time to implement these ideas. Remember that ideas are dime a dozen and are of no use if not implemented. Let 2008 be the year of implementation of ideas that will make the industry get noticed and give it the place that it rightfully deserves under the sun! Here is hoping that 2008 for us will be a year like no other!

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