Thursday, July 30, 2009

The changing world of advertising

The challenge for today’s leaders is to reposition the industry as a profession to aspire for..

It is always tempting to compare the calibre of today’s leaders with those of the previous generation. A leader is a function of the times he lives in.

Creative leaders have their tasks cut out. Clockwise: Piyush Pandey, Balki and Prasoon Joshi

When you spend a lot of time in a particular industry or in doing a specific activity it is not uncommon to do some soul searching.
It was in June 1983, a small matter of 26 years ago, when I entered the world of advertising. Of course, 1983 was a historic year for India since we won the Cricket World Cup at Lords.
I must quickly add that there was nothing historic about my joining the industry. I am only glad that I have not become history!

Yet, 26 years has seen both the industry and I go through change and I did enter the industry with my heart full of hope and a head full of hair!
As it is easier to talk about the industry let me stay on that track. While it is easy to write some general feel good statements like “the only permanent thing in life is change,” let me take the more difficult road of understanding and mapping some of the changes that have happened in the last two decades and which continue to happen under our collective noses.

Legends in their own life time

When I came to advertising one heard about legends. However, there were legends of a different nature. They could drink you under the table, they had three martini lunches (after all, those were the heady days of 15 per cent commission) and a wag called them “legends in their own lunch time”. But seriously the industry had its fair share of real legends. Legends, as they were respected by their clients and their own people. Real leaders of industry.

People such as R.K. Swamy, Alyque Padamsee, S.R. Ayer, Subhash Ghosal, Mike Khanna, Ranjan Kapur, Mohamed Khan, A.G. Krishnamurthy..
And I am quite sure there were many others of equal eminence who I did not have the privilege of coming into contact with. I think it is quite easy for me to get nostalgic about the leaders of the past because I knew some of them and even had the privilege of working with a few of them.

But some of them had one unique quality. They took on industry causes and if that meant that they had to take on clients on matters of principle, they would and never mind the consequences! I must also mention that we had very limited media covering the industry, unlike today.

Yet, these leaders were recognised, most significantly because they were ‘trusted advisors’ to their clients. They not only gave their time and wisdom to their clients but to the industry as well. They gave back as much as they got and often more than they got.

What about today’s leaders?

It is always tempting to compare the calibre of today’s leaders with those of the previous generation. But I have always resisted the temptation to compare across generations, even cricketers. People who have watched Gavaskar take on the best fast bowlers of his time would certainly rate him higher than Sehwag. People who have watched Border might rate him better than Ponting. But these are mere academic exercises.

A leader is a function of the times he lives in, just as much as a batsman is a function of the opposition that he bats against and the pitches that he bats on.

Be that as it may, the most significant change today in advertising is that many leading agencies have creative people as leaders whether it is a Balki, a Piyush or a Prasoon, all of whom are legends in their own right, visible in media and bringing recognition to themselves and the agencies they lead, not to forget the industry they represent.

Are they ‘trusted advisors’ to their clients? Most certainly they are, otherwise their clients would not swear by them and if one may add, ask for them in most meetings! So what has changed?

I suspect the best of talent does not come to the industry any more. It is no longer “a high involvement’ industry and that is the challenge which today’s leaders have to come to terms with.

In fact the next big challenge for today’s leaders is to reposition advertising as a profession to aspire for. I am sure they have the capability to do it. After all, if they have made so many uninteresting products saleable, then surely they can make the second oldest profession interesting.

Print to pictures to television

We grew up on the printed word. Just see how many of us wear thick spectacles! The people who inspired us were David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach and Claude Hopkins… in India too, the ads by Enterprise and Trikaya were worth reading. Would you believe it? People read “body copy” in those days! A tribute to the writers of those days.

Then we had a breed of art directors who really demonstrated the value of the statement ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. I remember that many of the textile brands of yesteryear demonstrated the value of this axiom.

We used to have a funny system in a few agencies at least. There was no creative department. There was a “copy department” and an “art department’. They used to sit in different cubicles and the copy writer would go with her lines written in her note book to the art director. Then someone broke down that cubicle wall, well if the Berlin wall could be broken down, why not the advertising agency?

This was also the time that cricketers realised that great bowlers hunted in pairs whether it was a Lillee and a Thomson, a Bedi and a Prasanna or even a Warne and a McGrath. Similarly, the best creative teams hunted in pairs of a writer and a visualiser.

Writers sought out art directors and paired themselves. After a time, no one bothered whose line it was or who’s visual it was, they were only concerned about how good the ad was, and it was often very good.

When did the dramatic shift towards television happen?

It is difficult to recall how the shift towards creating for television happened. We need to remember that colour television in India is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was with the Asian Games that were held in 1982 that colour television ownership in the country really burgeoned.

There was just one channel, Doordarshan, and the Hindi feature film and Chitrahaar or Oliyum Oliyum, if you lived in Madras, were the only programmes you watched unless you were a farmer!

I remember too that there used to be a programme called “Rangoli” which played songs from films and whenever a black and white song would come on, my son would shout “daddy’s favourite song” thereby proclaiming my age and (lack of )taste. The Levers brands all used television. Liril and the “girl in the waterfall’ created ripples, not only because it was breakthrough but also as one of my cynical friends said “Indians. So rarely get to see skin”. A far cry from today where one just has to go to page 3 in one’s daily newspaper!

But the wheel changed a full circle and inexorably at that. A new breed of writers who thought “film” soon took over Indian advertising. Today, some of them lead agencies and rightly so. The emergence of cable and satellite television has heightened the importance of the script writer in a big way. The script writer is here to stay, call the shots and get heavier bonuses (oh well, at least when times improve). This has also led to the next major change and that is the media.

Medium is more than a message

Media in India has transformed. From the days of just five mainline papers and one television channel, we have metamorphosised into a maelstrom of choice. I remember that media managers were being evaluated primarily on their ability to get space.

The newspapers were busy saying ‘no space’ and magazines like India Today wished they had multiple “front sections”, so acute was the demand for space and preferred positions. Ad managers of major newspapers were busy asking their agency partners to plan better.

I remember frantically calling the manager of a major newspaper that I cannot name, to ask for space for an ‘obituary ad’ as my client’s father had passed away and the ad manager of the newspaper actually asked me out of force of habit “Why can’t you plan!” Well with competition, the times have changed and how.

The emergence of cable and satellite and the growing literacy of India has lead to vernacular media making its presence felt in more ways than one. Regional media is growing and is no longer the country cousin of English.

People are no longer bashful of reading vernacular newspapers and magazines. And what about the Sun TVs of the world? Try visiting a Tamilian family between 8.00 and 8.30 pm on a weekday and you will understand what I am talking about.

Yes, it is not easy to map 26 years in a mere 1,500 words and I am not even going to try. So dear reader hang in there, like the Ashes, this column is still far from over!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly - Branding on Indian Turf.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Peddling dreams in paradise

Twenty nine years ago on a cloudy day in July, I entered the city of Bangalore by the Brindavan Express, fell in love with the city and never left it, barring a brief moment of madness for six months. I have spent a small matter of 26 years working in different advertising agencies in the city and over the past 11 years run my own communications consulting firm and have watched the advertising industry and its fluctuating fortunes with interest. The advertising industry in Bangalore was at first a poor second to the one at Madras as the city I was born in used to be called in those days. The only business was the public sector business -- the likes of BEL, BHEL, HAL, BEML, with HMT watches being the largest advertiser by far. Every two years or so, they would have a 'swamyamvar' and every agency head would fly down to Bangalore and comment about the sleepiness of the city and its denizens .But, there was some truth in the statement as the city took its time to get its act together. As the wag maintained, even the suprabhatham for Lord Balaji was after 8 am, by which time the local citizens could remove their balaclavas (the woolen cap which covers the ears to protect it from the morning chill).

Changing the face of Bangalore

The mid-'80s saw Bangalore shake off its lethargy, thanks to Hosur. Ind Suzuki motorcycles opened its motorcycle plant in Bangalore. It already had a moped plant in Bangalore, the advertising for which was handled by Clarion Advertising. Some of the clever ads of that time like 'Teacher's pet' featuring young women driving mopeds made waves. Of course, the agency types in Bangalore used to crib in those days about the predilection of a few clients for creative done out of Bombay .Truth be told, advertising in Bangalore in those days, unlike today, was perhaps streets behind the standard set by Bombay. The next big advertising event in Bangalore was the launch of Titan the company and the watch in 1987. Titan changed the way the watch was made, sold and promoted and significantly, O&M which launched the brand with its high-profile advertising campaign, still handles the advertising for the parent brand a small matter of 22 years later. It is a tribute to the wisdom of the client and a reflection of the competence and creativity of the agency that the mutually beneficial relationship is still lasting. Another large client of the '80s was TTK and MAA, an agency founded by Bunty Peerbhoy which dominated the city, handled its flagship brand TTK Prestige. In fact, the brand's line 'Jo biwi se kare pyaar, woh prestige se kaise kare inkar' was a big hit with consumers. I personally felt that it was easier to demonstrate love for the spouse by buying her a prestige pressure cooker, as too did seem lots of others as the brand continues to do extremely well! There is an interesting anecdote about TTK though. It was a time when TTK was coming out with a range of new products and they were working with a number of agencies. Coincidentally, I was sitting in the TTK office one Saturday morning and there were no less than five agency personnel in the TTK office and TT Jaggu stepped out of his cabin for a minute and said in his own inimitable style, "Looks like every bloody agency in town is here"! Trust Jaggu to come up with better lines than the agencies he worked with! At about the same time, another brand from Bangalore was determined to make its presence felt. BPL (British Physical Laboratories), originally a medical equipment company, discovered the potential of colour television in the country and became one of the foremost players, if not the leader, in the category. Having worked with the BPL brand for over a decade across different agencies, I have nothing but the highest regard for the company as my own career grew with the brand. Sadly, the brand lost its pre-eminence over the years .But that is fodder for another story. Bangalore had another first. Direct response first opened its wings here, by another person far more talented than me, but with the same name - R Sridhar, who sadly left the city after doing path-breaking work for O&M in this area.

Brands in the garden city

Meanwhile, Calcutta (that's exactly what it was called those days) was quickly losing favour with advertisers as a city and as a marketing centre as brands like Britannia and later ITC with its foods made their way here. The UB Group in the meanwhile was becoming increasingly aggressive. And its line 'Ella OK, cool drink yaake' represented the city's preference for the frothy brew. Bangalore too had its own share of export apparels who realized the value of the local markets. Brands like Weekender and WearHouse started advertising heavily. A brand like Nutrine which had its plant in Chittoor gave some business to Bangalore. In the meanwhile, Madura Garments made agencies create some path-breaking advertising, none more than Allan Solly with its 'Friday dressing' campaign which is still running. Nor can one forget Van Heusen's 'Underline your Presence'. Brands like Wilman made their presence felt with their ability to buy different creative and it resulted in global recognition on the awards scene in those days. Agency types met at Koshy's and later at Black Cadillac which subsequently wound up. Every day there was an excuse to celebrate! The biggest shift in Bangalore's history was its own emergence as a global brand. This was a function of the emergence of software services. Global recognition followed for the city and companies like Infosys and Wipro made waves globally. Every other company followed these giants as the city was the centre for recruiting talent. Sadly, the industry that put India on the global map had no clue about advertising or its value. It used public relations, which was a cheaper alternative but largely ignored advertising, so the IT revolution largely bypassed advertising.

So, what of the future?

Bangalore has overtaken Chennai, Kolkata and Hyderabad as a centre in the advertising game. Clearly, Mumbai and even Delhi, are ahead in terms of size and importance. But, Bangalore has its own special place in the sun and its creative product is not to be sneered at. The city that pushed Narayana Murthy and Nandan Nilekani to global recognition is waiting for the advertising spark. It is yet to make its mark on the Indian advertising scene. It is not top-of-mind as it is in IT and IT Enabled Services. Who knows what the future might throw up? The advertising industry needs its own Narayana Murthy to bring it into global pre-eminence. Maybe someone from the advertising industry will put Bangalore on the global advertising map. I am an eternal optmist. Like this wonderful city that has given me so much and continues to give so much to so many others. Its time in advertising will come, sooner rather than later.

(The author is CEO of brand-comm and mad about Bangalore)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

It’s showtime, folks!

Some of the advertisements that cut through the clutter on TV, and make life less of a grudge...

Tata Indicom: Leveraging on the power of a simple ‘hello’.

The ICC T20 World Cup is over. India followed Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, England and several other losers out of the United Kingdom. Simultaneously, a nation of a billion people shifted their attention to other crucial and intelligence enhancing activities like watching K serials. A few others realised there was a recession on and they had to actually work while the rest of them went back to doing what they had been doing for quite some time – nothing.

I too was at a loose end given the fact that for a few days there was actually no cricket match on TV. (Miracles do happen!). So I went back to doing what I do, which is watching commercials on TV.

I realise that producing commercials that “reward” viewers and actually “work” at the marketplace is increasingly hard to come by, given the fact that we live in recessionary (there’s that popular word again) times. Clients tend to look for advertising that is more hard-working (read boring) with the brand name repeated in every possible manner and shown a zillion times. Yet a few commercials still pass muster. Let me share the reasons why I liked a few out of the several that passed me by. A few that I watched without flipping the channels and the few that motivated me to write about.

Hello Dada, hello off side!

I am not a Tata Indicom user so I have no idea how good their network or coverage is. They too could be like my service provider whose ads are much better than their coverage. But let me give their coverage the benefit of the doubt and stay with the advertising that I can safely comment about.
Saurav Ganguly is not my favourite cricketer, not that my opinion should matter to anybody. But there is one aspect of him that must be mentioned. Ganguly is someone whom you can love or hate, but someone whom you can never ignore. Not surprisingly, this is the guiding principle for creating ads. You can either love them or hate them but you can never ignore them. Neither can you ignore the Tata Indicom ad that is built around a strong proposition and yet built around Saurav Ganguly the toast of Bengal.

The commercial is set in a bus, presumably in Kolkata. There is a Sardarji reading the newspaper who says gloatingly ‘Dada ka innings katham’. The guy in the left presumably a Dada fan (is there any other type in Kolkata?) is indignant. He raises his voice and talks about Dada’s offside strokes, his strike rate, how he is a tiger and some such stuff. But one’s imagination has to work overtime to figure out the words as the animated Bengali gentleman says “hello, hello” after every other word, a reference to the network of other service providers. The commercial goes on to say that Tata Indicom users would not be subjected to the same tension thanks to the advanced digital network which it provides.

Very often powerful advertising ideas are a function of observation of consumers and their problems. How often have we watched people in trains or buses shouting at the top of their voices and sharing their intimate family or business problems to whoever cares to listen even as they keep shouting “hello, hello!” thanks to the iffy network that they are presently using.
Nor is this all. There is another commercial set in a restaurant. When giving the menu to a young family the waiter is fittingly turned out in a costume with strong oriental overtones. The menu presumably includes some dishes like shrimp, lobster and some other fried stuff, all of which is interspersed with ‘hellos’ to the bemusement of the wife and the complete confusion of the young kid who asks for a ‘fried hello’. To add to the confusion, the phone rings and the waiter breaks into a fresh flurry of ‘hellos’. The commercial ends with the statement that Tata Indicom users do not go through the same heartache thanks to the advanced digital network that the service provider claims.

Advertising is essentially cutting through the clutter and this commercial does that simply by the use of the word ‘hello’. I read somewhere that the word most used in the world is ‘hello”. Why wouldn’t it be indeed, if networks are so pathetic!

Hey it’s about me!

The other commercial I like is one where there is a middle-aged lady who is very tense because her husband has not come home on time (A situation I can relate to). The husband comes home sheepishly and gets it from his wife (been there done that). She tells him about how he left the house and said he would go for a cup of coffee and then how he had gone for a spin in his friend’s new car (of course, one hardly needs to mention that the spin was from Lucknow to Kanpur) and would he ever mature?

The unrepentant husband to whom promises are like buttercups swears that from the next day he would show her how he would be a reformed character.
The product window talks about Max New York Life which inspires ‘awara gardi’ like this. I can already imagine my retired life as the male character seems to think and behave so much like me! Nor does the commercial end, when the son gloats over the father getting it from the mother, the father reminds him about how he has to go to work and do boring stuff!

The next commercial in the series talks about the father telling his wife that they would be going all the way to Kolkata for a wedding. Whose? A friend of a friend of a friend who comes with our hero for his morning walk! Once again the confidence of the retirement plan and money under his belt leads our retired hero to a path of ‘awara gardi’. As someone who hopes to join the club I have nothing but the highest regard for the inspirational hero that I hope to be one day!

Yet, I have a problem. While I had seen these commercials several times over and laughed at my friend’s travails, I could not recall the brand name.
In fact, when I wanted to retrieve the commercial from YouTube to see it once again, the technophobe that I am, I kept telling my tech-savvy young colleague to look for a commercial of Kotak Mahindra. Many years ago, I used to idolise my uncle who was a movie expert. So in one of our conversations, I referred to a film, I knew the scene sequence even, but could not remember the title of the film though I kept insisting that it was a great film and he promptly told me, “It can’t be a great film if you can’t remember the name.” For some strange reason I remembered him now.

To continue the analogy, the script would have served any pension fund admirably though all credit to Max New York life for thinking of it first. But still a worrying thought – are we merely doing a great ad or are we appropriating the idea exclusively for ourselves?

Come to me I’m the real McCoy

The last commercial that finds a place in this piece has a wailing baby and the mother is busy getting her hands ‘mehendied’ – if such a word exists in the lexicon. So the child is passed from one unwilling handler to the other as the baby’s wailing increases in volume. The situation seems to be almost unmanageable as none of the people who are asked to hold the baby are in control of the baby or the situation! But thankfully the mother has finished what she has do and picks up the baby which instantly stops crying and starts gurgling happily. The commercial ends with the voice over exhorting the viewer to bring his Maruti to the authorised Maruti outlet.

What a simple and yet powerful analogy! I got some hidden meanings. The car is something very precious to the owner, like the child is to the parent, how others cannot handle it with the same love and affection… a whole host of things that were never said in the commercial . But an endearing commercial to my mind at least.

Yes, there is hope for the human race yet. There may not be cricket on my telly just now, but at least advertising like this makes life less of a drudge.
Hello, you still there?

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

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A brand in public life

As Nandan Nilekani takes up his assignment with the Government, our columnist recounts the many positive qualities that this Infosys leader brings to his new role..

Nandan Nilekani: A personal brand that could ensure success for the new project.

One of the most profound statements that I have heard in recent times is by Nandan Nilekani, when I went to interview him for my first book One land, one billion minds.
He said, “You become a brand not when you talk about yourself, but when others talk about you.”

Today the whole of India and one suspects other parts of the world too will be talking about Nandan as he takes charge of the prestigious project on giving every Indian a unique number.

When we were young the joke used to be, “Yes you may know Richard Nixon, but does he know you?”
I can say with a fair degree of confidence that not only do I know Nandan but he too knows me! (If I may add along with a thousand others I am sure). For, not only is Bangalore a “one horse town” where everybody knows everyone else, but also because Nandan by nature is an extremely friendly person.
One of our common friends describes him as a “role model in networking”. I know that the word networking does sound a bit suspicious, but not in the case of Nandan.
He has referred me to several of his friends very, very graciously as “an expert on brands in India”. Now how can anyone be critical of a person who links you with friends and prospects in this manner?

Disagree without being disagreeable

Today many corporate leaders in India are brands in their own right. Media loves them or hates them even, on occasion. They do not hold back on the Government or the bureaucracy. They criticise the poor infrastructure or the Government’s policies, sometimes unfairly.

Fairly or unfairly they certainly raise the hackles of a few people. I am sure successful people are entitled to their opinion and media too would much rather publish the views of celebrities than those of ordinary people like you and me.
Nandan has a point of view, he feels strongly about the country and the need for its development and yet his views have never been really controversial or headline grabbing, a philosophy that others who might have ambitions in public life would do well to remember and even try to emulate.

When I was young, I used to be more hot blooded than I presently am but I always remember my uncle’s words, “You can disagree, but don’t be disagreeable!”

Only when you give will you get

The poet Kannadasan who represented all my literary knowledge at one stage of life, wrote “there are crores of people who are worse off than you, take heart from that”.
But people like Nandan have quietly turned that around by not merely feeling glad that they are better off, but by actually giving back to society by way of contributing time, money and tremendous guidance to a number of causes that are close to their hearts.

I know of enough organisations that are doing noble work which have benefited from his largesse and, as always with the founders of Infosys, all of whom have large hearts, they have donated generously as individuals while the company has got the mileage.

Courtesy demands acknowledgement

I have worked with several busy executives who seem to be caught up in their own tangles of time management.
They never answer their mobile phones, are almost always in meetings and never acknowledge mails.
Of course, being the polite individual that I am, I do not let it pass and keep telling them that it is easier to get through to Dr Manmohan Singh.
They grin sheepishly but continue in their self-centred, inconsiderate ways.
Nandan is a wonderful exception and serves as an example, responding promptly to mails and calls.

I wonder if there is something that we who claim to be busy all the time can learn from the likes of Nandan.

No personal agenda

A few from corporate India have made it to public office.
They are visible in the media and often talk about serving the country and how India needs more talented people from the corporate world.
I agree wholeheartedly with this principle. India has a paucity of talent, particularly young talent, where it matters, in public life.
Yet I wonder if some of these self-styled leaders have anything other than the interest of the industries they serve or the companies they still own.
Half the time they are lobbying on behalf of their own industry category.

Nandan’s prompt resignation from the board of Infosys, a company that he helped found, led and guided for several years is indication that he has a larger agenda, the development of India.Challenge, opportunity or both While it is a tremendous honour, there is no denying that this job will be no bed of roses. India is steeped in red tape. The red tape in other countries may only be a pale pink in comparison. It will require patience, man management and the ability to get people on to one’s side. Many in Government could have personal agendas that conflict with the general good. Nandan has the qualities to succeed in this environment and demonstrate that running a project in government can be as successful as running it in the private sector. I am sure that the personal brand that is Nandan will ensure that brand India succeeds in this ambitious project.

(The writer is CEO of brand-comm and the author of Googly — Branding on Indian turf.)