Monday, April 28, 2008

How agile is your company?

We live in times that simultaneously present great opportunities and tremendous challenges as well. Companies need to do multiple things and follow different strategies to stay ahead in this complex environment. Today, one particular strategy that is gaining increasing credence in the corporate world is that of “agility”.

A study conducted by Booz Allen Hamilton amongst CEOs threw up an interesting fact: CEOs had identified “improving corporate agility” as their most important goal, next to topline revenue growth. This made me wonder. Yes, it does seem important and even allows companies who claim competence in this discipline to actually stand out from their competition.

But are companies actually practising what they preach? I know for a fact that my company is not as agile as some of our competitors or even half as agile as it ought to be. That leads me to a question that seems easier to ask than to actually answer. “How agile is your company?” More critically, “Is agility up there on your agenda so that it gets the sort of senior management attention and energy that it so patently deserves.”
What makes for agility?
“It is no longer enough to respond to change; today, organisations must lead change or be left behind,” says leadership expert Pollyanna Pixton. Today, there is growing interest in change and change becomes extremely relevant in the context of agility because being agile means being proficient at change. Agility allows an organisation to do anything it wants to or has to do to remain agile.

An agile enterprise is basically a change proficient organisation. So here is another thought that crosses my mind. Does your organisation talk more about change or is it at the forefront of creating change? Or is it, like most corporations, merely responding to change? Sometimes questions can be uncomfortable, but the smarter organisations address them sooner rather than later.
Innovation at the heart of agility
Innovation is another attribute that companies seem to aspire for. Though innovation seems to be part of the mission statement of most companies, it seems to be revered more in rhetoric than in actual practice. While a few companies like Apple seem to have innovation in their DNA, many others still seem to be coming to terms with the concept or the process to make it an integral part of their thinking and functioning.

Let’s study innovation in a little more detail. Where is it generally found? Innovation is most often found in product design and an innovative product that readily comes to mind is the iPod.

In the Indian context one remembers the Titan Edge, which was the slimmest watch in the world, truly elegant and breakthrough. India too can claim credit for the “single serve” packaging revolution that the sachet brought to Indian consumers and the contribution of brands like Chik to bringing this product to what C. K. Prahalad, the eminent management professor, called the “bottom of the pyramid”.

Innovations could also be in the strategy that companies devise and Titan’s revolutionising of the concept of gifting watches was an innovative strategy that made and continues to make a difference to the brand’s fortunes. Other smart companies innovate in their processes and that helps them gain leadership. Infosys has made the global delivery system a differentiator, while other companies and brands have innovatively positioned themselves to stand out from their competitors. Often , agile companies can discover and lead a paradigm shift and move to a different level of opportunity as the early movers in the Internet space demonstrated. So what is innovative about your company?
How can your organisation be agile?
Let’s take a look at some agile organisations and see what makes them tick or what other aspiring corporations can do to climb onto the agility bandwagon. While enterprises have executives and managers at varying levels, who contribute to the company’s progress, the agile ones have a tremendous amount of healthy debate on critical issues that impact the company and its business.

In case you want your company to be agile, it might not be a bad idea to heighten the quantity and quality of debates within the company. But before that, run a quick reality check on the company culture. Is it conducive to debate? Do people have the freedom to disagree with ideas? Is there a culture of disagreeing without being disagreeable?

It is critical that organisations provide their employees time for learning and self-development. Often enough, many companies have a board of directors who take their functional responsibility more seriously than their role as part of a senior management team that guides and directs the destiny of the company. It is important for directors to play a larger role that cuts across functional specialisations.

Smarter companies also back multiple ideas, much the way a punter would go to a strange race course and back a few horses as he might not know which one will get him the jackpot. Agile companies make more decisions and quickly move from an authoritarian to a collaborative style of management that serves today’s needs better. Technology companies, given the nature of their business and environment, seem to have applied more thought to agility and use methods like extreme programming and Scrum which seem to work for them. It is, perhaps, worthwhile to remember that agility need not be the domain of technology companies only and every company must consider it as a strategic differentiator.
Customer focus the key
Business usually revolves around the customer. Companies need to constantly scan the environment to sense and define meaningful changes in the environment and gear themselves up to respond to these changes so that they can serve their customer needs better. It seems obvious that customer needs are changing frequently and on occasion dramatically, if not unreasonably. It seems obvious that the smart companies will deliver to their customers whilst the more agile companies will deliver it quicker, better and perhaps more cost-effectively. So how well are you monitoring customer needs? And how geared is your organisation to meet their changed needs? Introspection seems to be the need of the hour.The way forward
Running companies is not easy. Often enough, the urgent seems to take precedence over the important. Agility is something that has to be urgently put on the agenda of companies if they have to stay ahead. As the adage goes, “In the future, there will be only two types of companies; those that are quick and those that are dead.”

I am sure we would all much rather live and thrive than be dead. While it is all very nice to want to be agile, it is more critical for companies to have a process in place to improve their agility. Intent is only half the battle, the other half is the discipline of a process that will get you there.

Get there first or be left behind forever.

(The writer is CEO, brand-comm and the author of ‘One land, one billion minds’.)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Is innovation the name of the game?

Where’s the beef?” asked Clara Peller, former manicurist turned TV celebrity in her campaign for Wendy’s, which was one of the most recalled advertising campaigns of all time so much so that it made it into the editorial, the langua ge of the street, jokes and even underwear. Closer home Minute Maid has launched a similar campaign with perhaps far less impact with the line “Where’s the pulp?” Inspired by these thoughts and all the developments in the world of cricket and the competition between ICL and IPL and the weakness that exists genetically in ICC led me to this important question “Where’s the innovation in cricket?”

It seems obvious to me that the BCCI has demonstrated tremendous innovativeness (borrowed as it is from other sports such as basketball and football) in the conceptualisation and marketing of the IPL to various cash-rich franchisees. But for IPL to hold its own and thrive, or for ICL to survive even, one or both of them need to come up with innovations that extend to the game, its audiences and viewers, not only to the advertisers and marketers whose importance cannot be ignored.
Space-seller’s delight
Cricket is not only the number one passion in this country but the one which has witnessed very creative selling. When I was in South Africa in 2003 to watch the World Cup, I was talking to one of the TV technicians covering the event and he said, “You Indians are amazing! Imagine having sponsors for the weather report and the toss!” Yes, those certainly and many more, like the fours and the sixes package and the hunk of the day show, multi-tasking suggestions, SMS contests like naming your favourite player … clearly the demand for advertising time so far has been much more than the supply and the marketers have excelled themselves in innovation.
Of course, there is a quick downside to this. The current test series between South Africa and India has been a revelation in the sense that one actually got to see the batsmen talking to each other in the middle between overs. What? No commercials! You must be joking! Yet, the ICC, greedy as it is, aided and abetted by other boards, is running the risk of killing the real McCoy, which is test cricket. The West Indies has finished playing Sri Lanka at home and New Zealand have just finished a home series against England while the ICL matches were on every day, not to forget the Deodhar trophy and the Challenger series even if we are allowed to forget the Pura Cup, the finals of which were shown here too in India. Was anyone watching? This will be the ultimate challenge and soon there will be less and less test and one-day cricket and more of 20:20 cricket.
The innovation of television
Television coverage of test cricket started (hold your breath) in 1938 when England played Australia at Lord’s. But it has come quite far since then, though one must remember that till 1989 coverage was only from one side of the wicket, the logic being that when you watched a match live, you watched it from the same seat in the stadium.

Innovations have multiplied since the days of Kerry Packer and Channel 9 has led the way. StumpVision’s value was demonstrated by Shane Warne’s ball of the century. Throw in the snickometer, stump microphones (even if they throw up bilge on reproduction), slow motion replays to fractions of frames … all these and more have made it an absolute delight to watch cricket even if in India one’s viewing of the cricket has usually been interrupted by avaricious television channels. I am sure we will continue to watch even more technological innovations, all of which will make us better umpires than Simon Tauffel, the world’s best umpire, even if we give our decision seven replays later!
Necessity the mother of innovation
When Kerry Packer threatened to divide the cricketing world in two he came up with some outstanding innovations not only in the marketing of the game but in its running. Coloured clothing still rules the roost, though teams such as ICL’s Chennai Superstars hurt your eyes with the colour of their uniforms. Today most of the cricket is played under lights especially the shorter version of the game. Replays on the big screen that had the audience sweating…all these and more have been there for ages. The wonders that we experienced twenty years ago when we first watched World Series cricket are there, perhaps not too much new has been added. The ICL is doing many things that have been done before even if getting item number starlets to perform in between innings might be termed as an innovation by them, even if it seems pretty boring stuff to me, more so since my wife always seems to be around when that particular item comes on!
Where’s the innovation?
Let’s take two of the most hyped cricketing formats that are currently on view for us in India - ICL and IPL.
ICL already has eight teams and IPL will have a further eight. Let us look at some of the names as the name is perhaps the most visible part of a brand, even a sports brand. If you ignore the prefixes of the places, which are inevitable, you will find lions, superstars, heroes, champs, rockets, kings, challengers, chargers and royals. All the franchisees want to build brands around their respective franchisees but they seemed to have missed the first chance to be different or innovative.

All the franchisees have announced their teams with tremendous fanfare though some clearly have been lukewarm both in the composition of the teams and the way they have gone about announcing them to the media. Of the lot, I must mention that the King Khan’s launch of his team Knight Riders probably stole the thunder. We had him exposing his teams, his mascot the golden helmet, his commercials (ad infinitum on the channel as publicity) and even the team’s anthem.

While an anthem per se is an interesting idea, at the risk of sounding cynical, I must tell you that the Aussie chant “C’mon Aussie C’mon” is at least 20 years old as an idea. Having said that I am not even sure how ready the other teams are with their merchandise and promotions given the fact that the tournament starts on April 18.
The challenge of the future
Twenty-twenty is a phenomenal concept and our winning of the world 20:20 competition in South Africa will not be forgotten by us in a hurry. In fact, the ICL, which has much older players who retired some time ago like Ian Harvey and Stuart Law, to name just two, has had its fair share of exciting games and I just got a mailer from ICL saying that one particular game had a TVR of 2.6. When I used to live in Chennai, I used to find people stopping to watch a fourth division league match being played at the Madras Medical College grounds. So people will watch ICL, IPL, just about any L provided the cricketers perform.

Unfortunately, the BCCI and the franchisees have built too much hype around the generic interest of the 20:20 format. The recent ad for IPL saying it is more than a dharmayudh, it is a karmayudh. Wow! Adam Gilchrist slogging it out with Shane Warne promises to be certainly a war of karma! Speak about “mere puffery” that advertising specialises in! We do know that whenever any brand over promises and does not deliver on expectation it falls flat on its face. The IPL has to deliver on the consumer experience both in the stadium and in front of the TV screens. Getting skimpily dressed foreign models as cheerleaders is hardly the most innovative thing that one can think of. When Australia played England in a 20:20 game last year at the SCG I think it was, the commentator spoke to Gilchrist even as he was belting sixes and when the commentator asked Michael Vaughan what his strategy was, he very candidly said that he was only thinking of getting out of the hard hit ball’s way! Those to my mind were innovations as they gave the viewer something he had not been getting earlier and they had nothing to do with another meaningless contest or another opportunity to sell space.

My advice to both the franchisees and the IPL is to look for ways to engage the spectator in his team, the game and cricket, not at the meaningless things that go by the way of entertainment. The real entertainment for cricket has to happen within 22 yards and the game has enough entertainers and characters to hold the attention of a billion people even.

Yet, why should I, living in Bangalore, support Jacques Kallis or my cousin in Hyderabad chant slogans for Andrew Symonds? That is the challenge of the modern game and I guess traditionalists like me are going to watch less of their favourite sport test cricket. But we have an open mind to change; we still watch one-day cricket and 20:20 cricket. But please do something different around the game of cricket that will engage, enthrall and make me loyal.

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

Friday, April 4, 2008

A time to reflect

Conventions, fests and industry gatherings are not only a wonderful time to network and catch up on gossip as much as a time to consider larger issues like the state of the industry that has given us everything that we have. In my 25th year in thisindustry (God, has it been so long, it hardly seems like that though!) many things have changed, while many others have not. Clients continue to be what they are, creative and account management cannot see eye to eye and there is never enough money to give the campaign the money it so desperately needs, we are not paid half of what we deserve… Having cleared the air of all these obvious generalities let us spend a little time on the industry and the way forward.

The very essence of the agency business
Sometimes we tend to forget the basics or the obvious things in our quest for unreasonable goals. Brands need a raison d’etre, a basis for existence. Like Starbucks came into existence because the average American needed a “third place” in his life after his home and his place of work. In the same context, what does advertising bring to the table? Or if we were to borrow a concept from C. K. Prahalad, the renowned management guru, “What is the core competence of the advertising agency business?” It is creativity; pure and simple. We can talk of global networks, integration of allied services, media optimisation and indeed we must. But at the end of the day nothing much has changed since the days of Claude Hopkins. Clients still come to agencies because they have a need. They wish to sell their products and services and they expect outstanding creative that will make that happen.

Leaders or followers?
The agency business believes in understanding the consumer and pushing buttons to make her act in a particular way. In short, our understanding of insights that motivate the consumer to act in a particular way are reflected in our creative, whether it is for insurance or detergents or shampoos. Yet to me it seems passive and represents more of an efficient follower of trends. Films, for instance, however bad they may be on occasion, have tended to lead change while the advertising industry has been content to follow the trends that someone else seems to represent. Yes, it is true when we say that advertising reflects the times we live in. But does that mean we lose the capability to lead change? One of my clients had an interesting thought. He said, “You agency guys are pretty good at following clients. You do the things we want, open offices if we ask you to which is all fine. But I have a suggestion for you. Why don’t you follow the consumer and her trends rather than follow clients?” Interesting question! I wish I had the answer to that one.

East or West the Indian way is the best
The way I looked at the world when I was 21 is different from the way my children who are around that age look at it. I was diffident, looking to the rest of the world for guidance, inspiration and approval if not for recognition. Today my children and their peers are confident, sometimes, I feel, to the point of arrogance. They do not need the approval of the rest of the world and that, sadly, includes their parents.

The environment, mood and overall outlook has metamorphosed, to put it mildly. If I were to look at this change from the advertising industry’s perspective we were in awe of Madison Avenue and looked to them for inspiration. Today I guess we still look at Madison Avenue for the approval of our budgets but there is a definite reliance on Indian thoughts, insights and ideas even if that has meant that scripts are conceptualised with a turn of phrase that is essentially Hindi that challenges the likes of me.

But what I am proposing is perhaps slightly different. Let me borrow from two sports, hockey and cricket though I must confess that my knowledge of the former is sketchy at best. When I was young Indian hockey was supreme on the world stage and then we lost our way as we were unable to find a style that worked for us in the face of the strength and the different styles followed by teams from Europe and Australia and we were left behind. In cricket we have found a new dominance, which, one hopes, will last. The reason for our success is because our batsmen continue to be essentially wristy and stylish while our fast bowlers have suddenly discovered pace, bounce and swing that we were usually subjected to. In a sense this is the best of two worlds as we have built on something that we already have, and acquired something that was lacking. The Western advertising world has believed in the power of the single-minded idea which, to my mind, is still the most compelling way of producing advertising. Couple that with an ability to create for our consumers and you will have a winner. I think a lot of Indian advertising is good and what prevents it from becoming great is the preoccupation with a Hindi turn of phrase and not so much the power of the idea and its long-term value.

Integration! What it is?
Agencies have been talking about integration for almost two decades now and their understanding of it is becoming hazier by the moment. For too long agencies have said “One voice” when they actually meant “One invoice”. Integration is a powerful concept that has delivered wonderfully for brands. Take a brand like Britannia’s 50-50 which has used this concept wonderfully, even sponsoring the third umpire’s decision in cricket matches where the audience waited tensely for the decision. Was the batsman in the crease or outside? Fifty-fifty! 100 per cent for integration! One of the reasons for the poor execution of this concept of integration by others has been the limited understanding of some of the communication disciplines by the people concerned. Take public relations … for instance, the advertising agency thinks that PR is getting its commercial reviewed while the PR company is clueless about the power of advertising or the strategy behind its own client’s campaign. The onus on integration, therefore, is squarely with the client. How many hats will the poor client wear, however gifted?

Is positioning only for clients and her brands?
Agencies have been brilliant in differentiating their client’s products for over 150 years. Remember the “bottles washed in steam?” Agencies too have been responsible for brands owning words in the consumer’s mind. Volvo has owned the word ‘safety’, Volkswagen has stood for ‘reliability’ and Nike has stood for ‘attitude’. Let us not forget that agencies have created this differentiation and helped position these brands uniquely. Sadly the agencies have failed to position themselves clearly. They continue to be ‘full service’, ‘creative boutique’ or ‘ideas’. What word does the agency own in client’s minds? They need to think about this. Charity, after all, begins at home.

A few good men and women
The economy is booming, if what one reads and sees in the media is any indication, and advertising cannot be left behind in an economy like ours. Yet we are constrained by the lack of people. In the Eighties we had people from top flight management schools coming to advertising. Several of the MDs of India’s leading agencies are from one top flight management school or the other. Today advertising agencies are going to smaller, less reputed and inferior schools to recruit. Advertising has lost out and become a low-involvement career option if at all it is an option. Clients who complain about the size of the agency retainers are also critical about the sort of people who are handling their business. This is the biggest challenge for the advertising industry. How does it package itself better with clients so that they see the value they are providing and hence get paid better? How to position the agency business as a destination for young men and women?

Do better ads
In 1987 when I was being interviewed by Mr. A. G. Krishnamurthy, the then CMD of Mudra, he asked me the usual question, “Why do you want to join Mudra?” I looked at the pin-up board in his cabin and said “I want to be involved with work like your agency is doing”. The work for Vimal and Rasna in those days, to me, at least, was path-breaking. I think the long term solution for the agency business is to produce work that people notice, talk about and love. Young people will want to be a part of this fascinating process of creativity. The Benton and Bowles agency used to have this philosophy: “If it doesn’t sell it isn’t creative’.

My advice to the advertising industry is simple “If we don’t sell ourselves to young people, we will no longer be creative.”

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