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Messaging needs to be context-specific and delivery platform agnostic, says McCann’s Jitender Dabas

Dabas talks about how creative agencies are gearing up to tackle the ever-changing consumer behaviour and the pressure of reaching out to consumers in a cluttered digital environment. He says retaining talent is the biggest challenge for a creative agency

Jitender Dabas

As brands are increasingly searching for alternative and more credible means to reach out to their TG, Jitender Dabas, Chief Strategy Officer, McCann Worldgroup India, feels that the messaging now needs to become context-specific and delivery platform agnostic.

“It is about brands playing a meaningful role in people’s lives and getting that right is what they need to invest more in. I believe that creative agencies still are the best partners for brands to do that,” said Dabas in an exclusive interview with BestMediaInfo.com.

Calling ‘undivided attention’ the most expensive currency today, Dabas suggested that creative agencies should not overemphasise the importance of attention because grabbing eyeballs alone will not do. “Brands need to target to get a larger share of conversations in their favour and that takes more than just great campaigns,” he added.

While the world is talking about the new reality of ‘Content marketing will be the next big thing', Dabas thinks that there is a long way to go and the agencies are thinking in that direction and helping brands partner with content creators for the brand messages to reach the consumers.

While talent retention is becoming tougher in communication business, another big challenge according to Dabas is competition with Facebook, Netflix and Amazon at one end and the content platforms at the other.

Excerpts:

As a strategic planning head, what is your answer to brands who think the consumer is not paying desired attention to ads?

If a brand is asking that question, it is assuming that it has the right to the consumer’s attention. Earlier, when television was the only medium and there were fewer channels one could assume that everybody is watching the ad that you put out. Today, it is a choice that consumers make and it is not just advertising but everyone, from music industry to cinema, is facing that challenge. If we want them to ‘pay’ with their attention then we have to ‘earn’ that ‘payment’.

Doesn’t the onus lie with creative agencies to create work that holds the attention?

When you say work that ‘holds the attention’, you are wanting ‘undivided attention’, which is where the challenge is. Today, consumers’ attention is divided between multiple screens and therefore ‘undivided attention’ has become the most expensive currency. Consumers have moved to a ‘snacking’ behaviour in consuming content of any kind, including advertising and therefore it is difficult to get them to have a full meal ever.

There was a time when you waited for the consumer to come home in the evening to the TV screen where you could get his undivided attention and perhaps the job was easy. The good thing is that you can reach him throughout the day but you are competing for attention against a WhatsAapp joke or interesting Facebook post or a bizarre YouTube video. So your competition is not the other ads. Therefore, the pressure surely is there.

So, what are creative agencies doing to help brands search for alternative and more credible means to reach out to their TG?

We are realizing that it is not about being able to improve our ability to reach out to our TG anymore but ‘what’ do you reach out with. It is about brands playing a meaningful role in people’s lives and getting that right is what they need to invest more in. I believe that creative agencies still are the best partners for brands to do that.

And to improve the ‘reaching out’ bit, the messaging now needs to become context-specific and delivery platform agnostic.

Hasn't it made life tougher for creative agencies?

That depends on what the creative agency sees as its output. If you want to see creative agencies as producers of creative stimulus that can be delivered through the old world or new age mediums, then life will get tougher. However, if the creative agencies see themselves as companies that use creativity to solve problems in a consumer’s or a brand’s lives then nothing has changed. Take the example of Immunity Charm and Dabba Wala – they are examples of inspiring creativity to solve problems. Dettol’s Banega Swachh India programme is another example of deployment of creativity to solve problems. And that does not exclude instances like Nescafe where it was delivered through a powerful storytelling. These are all the outputs of a creative agency, which are not in the formats that we associate strongly with. We have to become format agnostic.

Content marketing is one of emerging credible means but why is it that the old school of advertising is not ready to embrace it fully?

Most people assume that building in-house capabilities for content creation is the only way advertising agencies can participate in content marketing. Agencies didn’t become production houses for TV commercials to drive advertising through the TV. Right?

I feel that the kind of piece-meal content marketing that is happening right now is not always integrated back to the brand's values directly or indirectly. A lot of content is inconsistent or not in sync with what the brand stands for. That is where agencies need to step in and be the lighthouse. The way forward has to be partnership and stewardship with the content producers.

The problem is not in capabilities or intent. It is also an economic issue. The brands on their end are still figuring out a way to measure the ROI from content marketing and that impacts the scale of the revenue potential of content marketing.

The biggest challenge of the consumer behaviour in today’s time is the short attention time span. How can the brands gain the eyeballs of the consumers as well as maximise the interaction with them in the shortest of the time spent by them on brand experience?

The cumulative time people are spending on their screens has gone up. And I think the share of that attention the brands get has not gone down in absolute terms. The formula will remain the same. You have to be compelling and relevant to your storytelling. Ideas and formats could be different. We only need to think if we are meaningful to the consumer.

Also, we must understand that we shouldn’t overemphasise the importance of attention because grabbing eyeballs alone won’t do. Brands need to target to get a larger share of conversations in their favour and that takes more than just great campaigns.

How much do awards matter for a strategy officer as much as it matters to a core creative director at an agency?

What has changed is that strategy or effectiveness awards have started to matter more to the agencies as well as the clients and that might be the reason why awards have started to matter more to strategy officers than ever before. And if we see, even the nature of campaigns that are winning big at the creative awards like Cannes are not for their craft alone but for their ability to solve big problems in people's lives.

Awards like Effies have gained stature both among agencies as well as marketers because in the age of ‘measurement metrics’ and ‘ROI’ they are a proof of ‘work that works’.

Therefore, being the ‘Agency of the year’ at Effies has become so big over the years.

But while a creative award often can be ascribed to a singular creative person or team, I believe effectiveness or strategy awards are much more an award for the agency and not just the strategic planner on the business.

McCann’s ‘Immunity Charm’ has been a super hit campaign in 2017. What function did strategy play in its success?

It was a classic example of how creativity can solve people’s problems. But what made that an example of inspiring creativity is the fact that it was driven by a deep understanding of a grave problem and the solution was rooted in a cultural practice. Isn’t that what great strategy is all about?

Within the agency, it’s more like the planning strategy team vs the creative team. Creatives have a complaint that for any campaign or a pitch, most of the time is taken by the planning strategy team and less is given to them. Do you have anything to say here?

I was taught by my project guide at IIT Delhi during my graduation that if the problem is defined right, you would take lesser time to solve it. In a pitch, you are usually pitching for a new business/brand about which you don’t know much about. The chances are likely that the client has called for a pitch because some problem has remained unsolved despite the attempts made by their current partners. In such a case, it is far more critical that you spend a lot of time to understand and define the problem right. But that distribution is not valid for an ongoing campaign where creative needs equal or more time.

You are into advertising for more than 20 years now. How has the role of strategic planning evolved over the years?

When I started in planning years back I was given one mantra by someone – that as a planner, be the truest consumer advocate on the table. The other thing I was told was to simplify problems so that solutions become easier to craft. What has changed since then is the fact that technology has created huge disruptions in the business models as well as communication ecosystems and actually brought to the fore the value of those two skills.

From a provider of powerful consumer insights that powered great creative campaigns, now the planners are required to leverage their knowledge of consumers and culture to first be a sort of master conductor as the marketing managers are striving to drive one cohesive brand agenda with multiple stakeholders and second to help brands find ‘solutions’ for consumers before someone else does. So a good strategic planners’ role has expanded in terms of the value they can add to the brands.

Also, there are two new kinds of brands that burst on to the scene in India – the mobile/online tech brands and the small and medium ‘home-grown’ brands. Both these sets of brands need much more shaping and navigation than the established ones and planners’ role in such business is huge.

What are the main learnings from the global strategic community at McCann? How are you able to leverage the learnings from that?

The global strategic community at McCann World Group is perhaps the most powerful and most strongly integrated community I have seen across the global agencies I have worked at. That allows us to build strong knowledge assets like Truth Central and conduct mega studies like Truth about streets when more than 20,000 McCann employees hit the street on one day to gather consumer trends. It allows us to provide more value to our clients by drawing from the best practices from across the McCann world.

What according to you is the pain point for the creative industry in these times and how can one overcome them?

The biggest challenge is talent. As an industry, our biggest and most differentiating asset is our talent. Our ability to attract and retain talent is a big challenge for us. We are competing with more exciting new choices for creative people as well as planners. We are competing with Facebook and Netflix and Amazon at one end and the content platforms on the other. Whether in planning or creative, we need better storytellers.

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