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Brainstorming on PSAs: When agencies and brands sought to find a common cause

BestMediaInfo and New York Festivals joined hands to bring to the fore the power of Public Service Advertising in their very first event in Mumbai. Some fascinating ideas and difference of opinions came through as the best minds grappled with the subject 

BestMediaInfo Bureau | Mumbai | December 20, 2016

(L-R) Kalyan Kar, Siddharth Banerjee, Swati Bhattacharya, KV Sridhar, Santosh Padhi & Michael O’Rourke (L-R) Kalyan Kar, Siddharth Banerjee, Swati Bhattacharya, KV Sridhar, Santosh Padhi & Michael O’Rourke

Some of India’s brightest creative minds converged at the ‘Think Big’ event highlighting ‘The Creative Power of PSAs’, organised by BestMediaInfo and New York Festivals, and engaged in a high-power panel discussion on Public Service Advertising.

The panellists included Michael O’Rourke, President, New York Festivals; KV Sridhar, Founder, Hyper Collective Creative Technologies; Santosh Padhi, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Taproot Dentsu; Swati Bhattacharya, Chief Creative Officer, FCB Ulka; and Siddharth Banerjee, Senior Vice-President, Marketing, Vodafone India. The discussion was moderated by Kalyan Kar, Editor-in-chief, Best Media Info.

Kar kicked off the discussion saying, “It is true that advertising is all about selling but at the core, advertising is actually about establishing a thought proposition for a brand or a service or a social cause. And many advertising veterans feel that succeeding with public service advertising is often a difficult task vis-à-vis brand advertising because it deals with changing deep-seated habits.”

Referring to a recent article on PSAs by, Kar highlighted the broad conclusion that creating a PSA is tougher than creating a brand centric ad. Opening the debate on issues such as ‘what drives PSAs in India’ and ‘is the perception about PSAs correct that they offer agencies more creative freedom’, Kar handed over the mike to O’Rourke to trigger the discussion.

O’Rourke said that as an award organiser what he loves about PSAs is the creative power of solving larger social and environmental issues irrespective of the fact that content or ideas are reproduced in different ways to tackle them.

Asked if agencies actively seek out assignment on PSAs, Pops firmly said no. “No agency is committed to a cause or an issue. It’s an individual within an agency who is committed to a certain issue and they go on to do that because there is a common greed between the individual and agency and that is winning an award. Have you ever heard about any agency adopting a cause and working for it and spending money on it year after year? They find an opportunity in some creative person doing something and then cash in on that rather than having a long-term commitment to an issue. We know a few companies committed to a cause but not an agency,” he explained.

According to Pops, “We do PSAs for two reasons. One is we do it because we have to do it with the government pushing corporates for CSR budgets, and other is that we do them because we really want to do. It makes a difference to society when it comes from within. There is a difference between people taking up the cause close to their heart and those trying to find a brief on PSAs backed by research data. The later doesn’t work.”

Countering Kar’s initial comment that advertising is all about selling, Pops said, “Advertising is not about selling. It is an art of persuasion that can change people’s behaviour and mindset and to that you need very deep rooted insight and understanding. Empty words mean nothing.”

When Bhattacharya was asked if she agreed with Pops, she replied, “I get where Pops is coming from. I guess between agencies and NGOs, it’s more like a great summer romance and never a marriage. But yes, we are not committed to a cause for the long term. We do have a long-term relationship with paid clients, they are like long-standing clients of agencies but proactively, pro bono doing something for a cause year after year, I don’t know such a story and if there was one, it will be a really brave one.”

Santosh Padhi, who likes often takes a different view on most issues, was of the opinion that it is important for people to give back to society.

“Why can’t each agency adopt one issue and work on it? Why can’t we make it a compulsion that every agency should take up an issue at least for a year? Taproot is one of the agencies that have been working with The Times of India for the last seven-eight years and we have taken on bigger issues each year, whether it is ‘Aman ki asha’ or ‘Teach India’. In fact, when we came across the insight that every half an hour one farmer is committing suicide in India, we went to TOI and told them this is a huge problem, can we do something about it and they said we could. So, I think each should take a lead in contributing to the society,” said Padhi.

At this point, Kar drew everyone’s attention to the most pertinent question: “Who funds the work?”

Padhi, the optimist, believes that people have a soul and heart, “We are a huge community. You contribute an idea and there will be a producer who will do it for free, a channel that will air it and newspaper that will carry it. We are all human beings at the end of the day and if it is a really moving idea, people will come and do it.”

Pointing out the glaring difference in producing a good ad film and the cost one needs to bear to enter it in any of the prestigious awards, Pops said, “The cost of producing a decent film which can communicate what needs to be communicated should not be more than Rs 5 lakh. But the cost of one entry in any of the top 15 awards of the world is Rs 30 lakh!”

Giving voice to the brand side of the story and when is it that a brand comes in, Siddharth Banerjee said, “We are all in the business of ideas. Whether it is PSAs or commercial advertising that sells products, the best ideas are the ones that tend to have the best impact and hopefully the best outcomes. From a brand point of view, it is very important for the brand to know why that brand exists in the world. Of course, the brand can go and take up many different causes but the base rule of anything we create is authenticity. So, brands need to have a very firm point of view on what will they support in the world. If someone were to approach a brand Lifebuoy about hygiene among young children in the slums why would Lifebuoy not be ready to hear out a great idea and lend scale to it? That is also where perhaps brands come in, some part of it is sponsorship and the other part is scale. So, according to me, what brand owners and custodians are looking for is a great partnership that complements what the brand stands for and lends authenticity to its place in the world.”

Pops believes that money never was a problem. “I believe that it takes a lot of money to do bad work but very little or no money at all to do really great work. So, money never was an issue. What matters is your intent, insights and you belief, if you go against your DNA you will never be able to sustain the work.”

Highlighting the importance of ‘brand purpose’ Banerjee said, “The word ‘brand purpose’ goes beyond the often abused term CSR. Finding purpose and defining it and laying it down means you are then committed to it. It is not a one-year plan, it is sort of like putting your stake on the table and saying this is what the brand stands for and this is what it will embrace for the time to come. The best part about putting out a brand purpose is that when you start to attract like-minded partners, people start rallying around for the purpose and then money is not a constraint or a roadblock.”

When asked which issue would they like to do a sustained campaign on, Bhattacharya was quick to take up the cause of animal conservation. “My friend Subhash Kamath, many years ago, had proposed this idea to me that so many brands have animals as their logos, why can’t these brands take up the cause of conserving each of these animals?”

She also wanted brands that take so much pride in their women users to come together and take up and talk about a woman-centric cause.

When asked the same question, Pops had a rather painful story to tell. “I had sleepless nights when I was selling a soap that had milk proteins in it in 1994 and at the same time I was working with KEM Hospital in Mumbai’s Sion where newborn babies were deprived of mother’s milk because the young mother couldn’t lactate. It was heart-breaking to see babies dying or not getting the required nourishment because of lack of milk while selling soap that had milk properties. It was not easy. There are millions of issues in this country and it is very difficult to live with this duality. So my wish really is that if I can take over the Department of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) and take care of every healthcare ad the government of India brings out, I will be glad to leave everything and take care of that,” he said.

Padhi also shared his crazy dream for the country, “Millions of people in the world die of hunger. I have had this crazy idea since childhood that if seawater got converted to milk then nobody would die of hunger.”

O’Rourke had a message for the American people that they should not divide themselves between two political parties. Another issue he felt strongly about is animals in captivity. “I have not seen an animal in captivity in nine years and will not see ever again. That is something that is important to me.”

The full video of panel discussion on 'The Creative Power of PSAs':


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