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Is digital advertising merely riding on hype?

Having a low spend compared with other mediums, the question arises whether digital advertising has really come of age in India. Are marketers still skeptical of this medium and see it more as a low-cost option?

Shachi Tapiawala | Mumbai | January 2, 2013

To create awareness about a product or brand, marketers often resort to a multi-media strategy. And in the case of mass media, it is the audience which adopts a medium before advertisers begin to leverage it. With improved infrastructure such as better Internet speeds, better mobile data connections and varied methods of access – mobile, laptop, desktop and tablet – consumption of the digital medium has shown an upward trend. It is perhaps not without reason that the entire industry is talking about digital advertising being the next big thing in promoting a brand. At seminar after seminar, we are reminded of how digital advertising is exploding. But the fact is that digital advertising in India still has the lowest spend compared with other advertising mediums! The question that arises is whether it is more hype than a reality on the virtual ground. BestMediaInfo.com spoke to some leading stakeholders on the subject.

Meghna Godkhindi

Meghna Godkhindi, Business Director- Digital, DDB Mudra Max, said, “For a medium to really take off in terms of advertising growth takes a good amount of time. For TV to become the lead medium, it took over 20 years to really reach there. Secondly, we must not forget that digital as a medium almost completely is controlled by a user. Compared with print, outdoor, radio and TV which are consumed passively, in the case of this medium, the user/audience is actively participating and interacting with it. Therefore, to use this medium for advertising is to some extent more challenging.”

Digital is a medium which is constantly evolving and changes its form very frequently. About a decade ago, a display medium seemed like the rule, and its appeal was enhanced by rich media-led interactions. Then came the era of search engines, and somewhere video advertising started looking like the most ultimate combination of a complete audio-video experience coupled with interactivity. Today, social media looks like the hottest thing with highest user appeal. Its impact and reach has been further enhanced by the smallest screen – the mobile handset. The mobile-enabled digital experience is weaving all aspects of rich media, text content, search, video and social media, and seems all set to take off. However, in their own right, each of these individual components – display, use of rich media, search, video and social media – have been constantly growing, neither has been able to replace another completely.

Godkhindi explained, “Let’s not forget, marketing is very complex, in a sense it is a science and yet it is also an art. Therefore, it is unlikely that in the very near future, say the next six months to one year, suddenly huge chunks of advertising budgets will suddenly move to this medium. Having said that, I must however clarify that clients are very intensely looking at this medium for growth; more and more clients are experimenting fearlessly with digital and gradually arriving at that magic formula.”

Bearing in mind these factors vis-à-vis the time-tested methods of advertising, we can presume that using digital is indeed challenging. And, therefore, it is taking longer to exploit the potential of this medium completely.

Ritesh Singh

Presenting a contrary view, Ritesh Singh, Head of Digital, MEC India, argued, “Firstly, it's incorrect to state that digital has the lowest spend compared to other media. The fact is that at around Rs 2,000 crore in 2012, digital is bigger than radio, outdoor and magazines. Secondly, it's again incorrect to say that digital is 'the next big thing' – those who say that are living in a bubble. The truth is that India is fully immersed into the digital phenomenon – 120 million Internet users! That is almost twice the entire population of the UK, the third largest Facebook population after the USA and Brazil with around 62 million subscribers, and it is the third largest consumer of online video after Japan and China. In the paid-owned-earned framework, digital is as meaningful and relevant as any other medium.”

“The main handicap of the digital medium in India is what I call the 'but-compared-to' syndrome. People are constantly undermining the power of digital by silly comparisons with TV and Print.  Digital and TV or any other medium do not need to be competing media – they can co-exist in perfect harmony. If anything, digital is increasingly becoming the engagement enabler for other media. We have already seen examples of this on TV and Print/Outdoor and retail,” Singh emphasised.

The standard parameters of measurement used for offline media don’t help a marketer measure the impact of this medium, which compounds the problem manifold. It is therefore very imperative to set realistic objectives and constantly device newer and innovative methods to creatively engage the user through this highly interactive medium. Digital does remain an under-leveraged medium. Sadly, while there is a lot of rhetoric and many marketers profess to be digital mavens, very few actually walk the talk when it comes to betting on digital.

Godkhindi claimed that digital medium puts the user in complete control and truly allows a brand to become affable, thus making brand affinity absolutely real. “And over a period of time, in the next two to five years, we expect to see significant changes in the budgetary distribution,” she said.

Kunal Jeswani

Kunal Jeswani, Country Head - India, OgilvyOne, said, “Digital is on everyone's ‘To Do’ list. But it often just gets lip service. While the percentage growth in spends on digital media is well ahead of all other media in the country, the actual volume of money marketers put behind digital leaves a lot to be desired. There is a belief in the marketing community that digital is cheap. That it doesn't need significant investments. This is a trap. Digital offers you greater efficiencies in targeting but when you start believing that you can get away with cheaply produced content or communication and still create substantial influence, you're just fooling yourself.”

“Every marketing campaign starts with an audience you want to reach and influence. It is important to be able to quantify the audience you want to reach in order to determine the financial outlay required to achieve that objective. Just as it is important to qualify the nature of influence to determine the financial outlay required to produce content and communication that will meet that objective,” Jeswani added.

Vivek Srivastava

Taking an agency perspective, Vivek Srivastava, Jt. Managing Director, Innocean Worldwide India, said, “As an agency we believe that all media go through a process of considered evolution. That is why there is a lot of buzz that leads to their adoption. Thereafter, they settle into a groove of steady usage. Digital with all its growth and hype and reality is still in the buzz phase – a phase of experimentation, learning and refinement.”

When brands promote their products through digital media, it comes to fashionable apertures like social media, etc. They are still grappling with how to monetise it or leverage it. This is typical of any cyclical idea’s adoption curve. Hence, the relative lower spending shouldn’t come as a surprise to us all.

MEC India claims that digital media’s intrinsic engagement strengths will make it an inevitable part of our campaigns and engagement efforts. Patience will bear fruit. However, coexistence with ‘frenemy’ media like TV, Print and OOH will help increase its penetration. “A kind of symbiotic existence across media platforms will be the key and that’s precisely how we are guiding our clients across product categories and we are finding traction for this view of ours,” MEC’s Singh said.

Arun Iyer

Speaking whether digital is set to overtake television, Arun Iyer, NCD, Lowe Lintas, said, “Television is currently the biggest platform to promote a brand. Through digital the penetration is less, thus its gets less prominence, but the medium is definitely here to grow.”

Though opinion is divided, it does come through that marketers, barring a few bold ones, still see digital as a low-cost option or simply an add-on in a marketing plan. Buy traction for digital is gradually building.


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