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.)