Thursday, October 22, 2009

A tribute to print advertising

Our columnist makes a case for a return to the medium which, he says, allows marketers to “sell rationally”.

Vintage brand, vintage advertising.

When was the last time you saw a great print ad? I know I must scratch my head to get the answer, but given my failing memory and disappearing hairline, I may be excused. But what about you? One of my favourite pastimes is to ask people which adverti sing campaigns they remember. The answers vary from Cadbury’s (these are usually older people with diabetes who are not allowed to have chocolates), Fevicol (perhaps guys who have never fixed anything in their lives), Vodafone (definitely dog lovers married to people who cannot stand dogs), Idea Cellular (obviously guys who have never had a single idea in their lives), Tata Tea (guys who slept through election day) and Titan (perhaps because they have been gifted with so many watches in their lives).

These are seriously good television campaigns. But honestly, does anyone talk about press advertising today, much less remember it? And it is not as though we spend every waking moment in front of the idiot box. We surf the Net, spend half our working day sending forwards that no one reads, continue to read the newspaper in the loo (widely accepted as the best antidote to constipation) and browse through magazines (after all, we want to know who Salman is going around with). Yet, where are the ads that stop us? Ads with arresting headlines, visuals that paint a thousand words, body copy that is as easy to read as the topmost line in the optometrist’s chart and a tagline that is as easy to recall as the six times table (having a name like Ramanujam gives me some inherent numerical ability that sadly stops at this level of multiplication.)

Oh, the disadvantages of remembering the past!

I always wanted to be a copywriter. Maybe the advertising industry had earned some good karma, because I was never allowed anywhere near a typewriter. I returned with a vengeance and became a column writer, but that still does not explain my passion for copywriting. I was completely hooked on to ads. I lived, dreamt, ate and slept ads. And those ads were press ads. Who owned a television set in the Seventies?

I could visualise the pleasure of driving around in a Rolls Royce thanks to David Ogilvy’s much publicised lines “At sixty miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” I still visualise the ride, as my books don’t sell a hundred million copies and I have only seen a Rolls Royce from the outside, most recently on the Bandra-Worli sea link. I was madly in love with the Volkswagen thanks to the “Think small” and the “Lemon” and the hundred other ads for the brand. Maybe one day I will buy a Volkswagen, who knows!
Who can forget the Avis “We try harder … ” ads? I was not a drinker when I saw the Cutty Sark ads that exhorted me to ‘never give up the ship’. If and when the brand is readily available in India I will follow that advice. I remember the Chivas Regal ad for Father’s Day and it still brings tears to my eyes when I read it: “Because I don’t say thank you as often as I should. Because it’s Father’s Day. Because if you don’t deserve Chivas Regal, who does?” says the ad. Clearly my children have not read the ad. In any case they studiously ignore the one day that poor, uncared-for fathers are recognised and blatantly ignore the most overt of reminders from their mother! They too will be fathers one day!

And what about the Absolut ads, arguably the greatest print campaign of all time! I can never forget the ‘Absolut DC’ ad with the bottle draped in oodles of red tape. Pity, the tape in New Delhi would have made that of Washington DC look a weak shade of pink without a shadow of doubt! Yes, those were romantic, heady days. We had some great press ads in India too with people such as Frank Simoes, Kersy Katrak, Kiran Nagarkar, Mohamed Khan, Elsie Nanji and Alok Nanda, to name just a few, who were doing great press work. Agencies such as Trikaya, Rediffusion, Enterprise, Ambience and Nexus produced print work that was comparable with the best in the world. But what happened after that?

Only TV, only TV, it’s only TV!

Even as Delhi struggles to get ready for the Commonwealth Games, it is worthwhile to remember that it was the Asiad in the same city that spawned the growth of colour televisions in the country and, therefore, TV advertising. Agencies realised the potency of this medium and geared themselves to meet the challenge. Many of the Levers brands such as Liril and Surf latched on to the medium. Other agencies, particularly Mudra (as I was familiar with its operations at that time), geared themselves to build competencies in this medium. Brands such as Vimal and Rasna walked into millions of living rooms with their creativity.

There was a point of view that talented film producers were bailing out agencies still trying to create for this medium as a lot of the early TV work was actually attributable to talented film producers who were improving the creative product enormously with their ideas and even their scripts. Be that as it may, agencies started to create for this medium and a new breed of copywriters emerged who understood and thrived in this medium. India has got enormous talent in Bollywood and Kollywood and every other ‘wood’.

The best names in films realised this was a different challenge – final products with a duration of 30 seconds as against three hours, needing its own brand of skills. This did not deter the best music composers, film and art directors from making their mark. It is pertinent to remember that A.R. Rahman started out as a jingle composer. Others such as P. C. Sreeram and Rajiv Menon from the South did outstanding work both in commercial cinema and in TV commercials. Consequently, our skills in this medium are finely-honed and over the years some outstanding work has taken place. When I visit the US and watch the TV commercials there, I am inclined to believe that the average TV commercial in India is much better conceptualised, produced and is a lot more rewarding for the viewer and there are billions. Yes, India has tremendous challenges of language, religion, customs, even dialects, but the advertising industry has conquered these in the medium of TV. But what about print?

So what is the problem?

As always, it is easier to describe the problem than to offer a solution, but problem definition is a good first step to finding a solution. The problem partly lies with the advertising agencies which have recruited, trained and rewarded a whole breed of copywriters who think, breathe and live TV scripts … and it shows. Success is built around the 30-second commercial and “integration” usually means one outstanding piece of work that is created for television and multiple adaptations of the same thought. The print version is usually a poor second cousin. Rarely is print the lead medium. Of course, the numbers justify the importance of the TV medium but print delivers brilliant numbers too, if only we recognise its value and functionality.

Print allows us to sell rationally. But do we have the skills? The old school of copywriters that I worked with was reared on Wren and Martin. (I can almost hear you asking who they are?) If they gave you a piece of writing, you could bet your bottom dollar that while you could argue about the creative approach, you could not utter a word about its correctness. They read The Hindu and The Statesman, did the crossword and could engage you intellectually. Of course, in those days ads were originally conceptualised, written and released in English and then translations followed. Today, the conceptualisation for most brands is created in Hindi. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I wonder if that too is affecting the quality of the creative product as perhaps it is easier to create for TV in Hindi than to write ads in that language.

I think the time is right for the advertising agency to realise that it’s missing a trick. Television has been and perhaps will continue to be the low-hanging fruit. But there needs to be a long-term solution. The increasing literacy levels of the country and the potency of print as a medium cannot be ignored forever. I do know that agency folk listen more to their clients than to their spouses so maybe clients should put their foot down and ask for better print advertising.

Advertising too should highlight the value of print in its awards, forums and discussions. Maybe the newspaper industry should lead the way in this initiative. The industry has its own share of veterans who understand this medium and its nuances. Maybe now is the time to ensure that their talent is recognised. It is time for people like me who have been in the industry for ages to give back to the industry that has given us so much and what better way than to train the talented and yet raw youngsters who are in this industry and have no clue of what they should be doing?
Yes, the time is right to ‘Think Print’.

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

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Keep smiling, things can’t get worse!

The advertising industry is going through tough times. But it’s important to take the mind off the gloom..

Yes, the time is ripe for some cheer. Today I am able to talk about some of my experiences and actually laugh about them. It is time perhaps to recall what my first boss in advertising said: “Keep your sense of humour, otherwise you will go mad in this industry.”

Times are bad! How often have we heard this in recent times? Throw in the media adding their two bit, talk of layoffs, salary cuts, increasing client cribs and reduced retainers, and it seems advertising’s cup of woe is brimming over. I know that other industries too have their own horror stories but let me stay with the advertising industry as I spend so much of my time in this industry and am confronted by so many gloomy faces around me, I thought that I need to try to entertain them and you too, dear reader, for your patience over the years, with a few of the things that have happened to me in my long (there I go again) life in advertising.

It seems now that it is not only the industry that is going through doom and gloom but the whole country! The Indian cricket fan too has joined the depressed bandwagon, for as I write Australia has just scraped past a rampaging Pakistan to throw India out of the champion’s trophy and the TV media is going hammer and tongs at yesterday’s darling, M. S. Dhoni. Yes, the time is ripe for some cheer. Today I am able to talk about some of my experiences and actually laugh about them; as time, they say, heals everything. It is time perhaps to recall what my first boss in advertising said: “Keep your sense of humour, otherwise you will go mad in this industry.” Though lots of people might consider me a bit potty, to put it mildly, I have, I believe, managed to retain my sanity, if not my hair. Today many of the people I am writing about are no longer my clients, which probably explains their prosperity and my penury, but I remember them fondly and thank them for bringing laughter into my life and also teaching me a few lessons in life.

Bring on the music!

When I started the Bangalore office of Mudra in 1987, I used to go around on my TVS Suzuki motorcycle, thereby bringing disrepute to the advertising profession as I must have been the only branch manager of a large agency who was zipping around on a motorcycle, or so I believed. Of course, I need to slip in the reason why I was using it. The reason was simple. I could not afford a car; but more critically I used to handle the account of TVS Suzuki in my earlier agency and to me what David Ogilvy said was gospel truth: “You’d better use your client’s products!” he would thunder. On the lighter side I used to wonder if the agency which handles the client does not use the product then who else will! But less of me and my asides and more of what happened.
The two client service personnel in the agency at that time, my account supervisor and I, would go spinning around on my motorcycle with our bag full of layouts and our hearts full of hope. Business was scarce and we spent a lot of time knocking on doors with scant success. But we did get the odd, small assignment. One such was being asked to do a radio spot for one of our clients — a local cement manufacturer in Bangalore, who belonged to one of the largest business families in India.

The greatest claim to fame of the managing director of the company was that he had married into the illustrious family and I must confess that it was difficult for me and my colleague to keep a straight face as the client briefed us about the project on hand. “The mugic must be good,” he gushed. “People like mugic,” he pronounced “Do you have someone who will compose the mugic?” he asked. Both my colleague (who is today the COO of a large marketing company) and I were IIM products, and we were probably a bit vain about our management qualifications not to mention our English accents. We went down the lift laughing at the poor man’s accent and even as we were getting ready to start our trusted steed our client came down, entourage et al, with two people ready to open the lift door, and the car door of the latest Mercedes Benz of that time! Yes, we learnt an important lesson that day: “It is not your accent that matters as much as the family you marry into!” I would have cheerfully traded my accent for a Benz if anyone wanted it, but life is not always as simple as it seems, is it?

Just play the commercial!

My clients came in all sizes, shapes and hues. Some spoke with clipped British accents to the utterly desi ones whose lack of knowledge of English was more than compensated by their earthy wisdom and unerring knowledge of the consumer and the market. We were to produce a commercial for this client and came out with what I thought was a pretty good commercial.
I was to present the commercial and like all good client service people of that time I got my trusted slide projector out. I need to quickly tell you that in those days we used to rely on the 35 mm slide projector for support (just like the drunkard who leans against the lamppost more for support than illumination). Today, of course, we rely on the PowerPoint for precisely the same reasons, but back to the presentation. I got ready to play my regulation 40 slides with the background, the target audience, the creative strategy ... Sounds familiar? I launched into my pitch with all the eloquence of a passionate account executive who is not allowed to speak at home.

Barely was I on to slide three when the client got up ... “Mr Shiridhar, please stop,” he said. I stopped, confused and bewildered and looked at him, waiting for direction like all good client servicing people do. “Tell me, Mr Shiridhar,” he said, “are you going to stand in front of every television set in the country and make this presentation before our commercial comes on air? Nahi na, so just play the commercial.” He was absolutely right as clients usually are and I saw the wisdom of what he was saying. How often do we get carried away by the power of our own rhetoric and the colour of our slides and forget that it is all about the commercial that the consumer gets to see eventually. Yes, “show and tell’ is the name of the game. Your commercial must entertain and sell without all the bells and whistles that precede it when you are presenting to the client.

Presentation for dessert!

The late Eighties were the days of the great Indian IPO. Everyone and his brother-in-law were going public. The big cons were granite and aquaculture and the hotbed was Hyderabad where rumour had it that the moment the company went public the first capital investment the company would make would be buying a Mercedes for the MD! But back to our own travails! We were chasing one such IPO and the company did not even have an office. So we were asked to present at the client’s house.

Shamelessly we went and the joint family was having dinner. My favourite image of the ad agency is like that of my retriever with its tongue hanging out longingly, so much does new business mean to us agency people! There were only 50 people, children running around, and mayhem, a bit like the Fortune cooking oil commercial that one sees on TV.

Before the dessert we set up our projectors for the entertainment! I got ready to present, only to realise that I was the odd man out as my client probably spoke only a few words of English. The daughter-in-law was the smartest one and she was quietly managing the show and the company. So my colleague, who is the president of one of India’s top three agencies today, bailed me out by presenting our great advertising strategy and the creative in chaste Hindi (or so I presumed as I did not understand a word of what he said). I personally believe the presentation was too good for the client as we did not get the business and boy, was I glad about that as the company went under a little later! Sometimes we do get some things right, even by accident!

I am not sure if you are feeling as good as I am after reading this, but at least I am sure I have gotten your mind off the gloom, and never mind, we will beat Australia 7-0 when they come here!

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