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Digital is not a medium, it is consciousness: Anil K Nair of L&K Saatchi & Saatchi

Despite the dissonance surrounding digital, Nair is optimistic about the medium and its future. In an interview with BestMediaInfo.com, Nair, Managing Partner, L&K Saatchi & Saatchi, speaks about what brands can do to combat brand and ad safety issues, why digital is here to stay and his plans for the company

Anil K Nair

These are rocky times for digital. With biggies such as Facebook and Google facing ire over alleged data theft and ad fraud, everyone is a bit wary of the ‘big bad’ world of internet. But Anil K Nair, Managing Partner, L&K Saatchi & Saatchi feels these are minor hiccups that will pass and digital will once again emerge as the enigma that it has always been.

"Digital in India is a giant party waiting to happen," Nair said in an interview with BestMediaInfo.

When asked why global FMCG giants such as P&G were trimming their digital budget, Nair said the dissonance was not with digital overall but with social media channels and accountability matrices.

"Companies are transferring money from one pocket to another. There is also an element of faddishness in this entire space. One day it is display advertising, then the next day it is search and then the third day, it is influencer marketing. Though there is a little dissonance currently with social media channels but something new will come to take its place," he said.

For Nair, the possibilities in digital are endless and, therefore, the fact that brands are still looking at digital from an offline perspective is bothersome.

“You can’t look at digital from the same old optics you used to look at offline brand building. You need a new outlook when you look at digital.”

Nair believes digital is more than just a medium but a way of living. According to him, it is a new form of consumer consciousness and precisely because of that he believes the entire hullabaloo over privacy and data theft on digital will soon tide over.

"Digital is all pervasive. I have a huge problem when people compare digital with television or any other medium. Digital is soon going to be on people’s wrists, connected to their medical reports, it is going to be a part of your car and everything you use," he said.

Speaking on the rising number of digital ad frauds, he said that all big advertisers and digital platforms should have a regular forum to discuss mutually touchy issues.


P&G has slashed its digital spends massively by $200 million. A lot of questions are being raised on brand safety and measurability on digital. What do you think will be the impact of this on digital marketing, especially in the Indian context?

I think that any medium in its life stage of development will go through certain developmental hiccups. This entire digital space is open source and there are various players at play like the government and giant corporations such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. It is quite uniquely placed and for an open source ecosystem like this I believe it is doing remarkably well. These little issues are minor niggles but I think overtly this entire space is moving towards something really giant and I am quite optimistic about it.

Has digital buzz reached its peak as brands have started curtailing the spends on the medium and why?

I don’t agree. I just feel that companies are transferring their advertising spends from one pocket to another. There is also an element of faddishness in this entire space. One day it is display advertising, then the next day it is search and then the third day, it is influencer marketing. There are so many new things hitting the market and there are too many goodies out there enticing brands and marketers. Data shows that there is incremental increase in the exposure on digital. There is a little dissonance currently with social media channels but something new will come to take its place.

Do the budget cuts mean brands are optimising their digital spends?

As it is with any medium, there is a keeping up with the Joneses and a little bit of herd mentality. With maturity, people will understand the medium better and decide to optimise their spends. Unlike television, outdoor or radio, digital is a lot more complex. What you are seeing right now is definitely optimisation coming from increasing digital maturity but we are still on the early part of a giant wave. People are relooking at wasteful expenditure and a lot of vanity digital is being sacrificed.

How can brands and agencies ensure brand safety on digital platforms?

It is a Catch 22 situation to be very honest because for a long time, brands have been used to a sterile, controlled atmosphere in which they have dealt with their consumers. But in the open source world, things are not the same. If I buy my favourite brand and decide to throw the wrapper in a dump or wipe my shoes with it, the brand has no control over what I decide to do with it. Similarly, in the big open world of the internet, brands can attempt to control what happens but at some point they will have to let go of a bit of control because that is the realistic situation in which consumers consume products. Having said that, there can be ethical boundaries that one can lay as parameters that can ensure that brand communication does not go into completely no-go territories. What brands and especially the large advertisers can do is that they can initiate conversations with these big platform players because at the end of the day advertisers do fuel a big aspect of what some of these large guys like Google and Facebook do. There should be a forum where large platforms start engaging with these large brands on some mutually touchy issues.

Brands have to shell out extra money to ensure brand safety online. Do you think this will dissuade brands from going on to digital?

At the end of the day, you pay for the quality of reach you get. It is a demand-supply kind of a thing. If somebody is giving me access to a million of the most prolific consumers on earth and they charge me a premium for ad safety, I would likely pay. But at the end of the day, the choice rests completely with the brand managers. 

Specific to the Indian market, digital is still at a nascent stage and we have been saying this for the last three years. How much more time till the medium comes of age in the country – for it to be competing with the other media platforms – in terms of reach, monetisation and effectiveness?

All I know is that over the last three years my clients have been systematically increasing their share of the digital pie. Four years ago, we were talking about 10% and people refused to invest even that much but now it has grown more than 10%. Over time, I am also seeing portability of medium so it is becoming radio + digital or television + digital in the sense that Amazon Prime Video and other platforms like that already are quasi-television.  If you look at a market like India with a 150 million smartphone penetration, a 300-400-million Jio promise and another 600 million people waiting in the wings, I believe digital immersion is a giant party waiting to happen around the corner. Once you grow demographically, then you can grow psychographically which means get different kinds of people to spend quality time on it. After growing psychographically, there are linguistic and behavioral growth that can be achieved.

For the longest time, connectivity and reach was an issue for digital in India. Do you think things have changed or are at least changing? Do we have better infrastructure in place now?

Absolutely. First thing we have to realise is that digital is not a medium, it is consciousness. I have a huge problem when people compare digital with television or any other medium. Digital is soon going to be on people’s wrists, connected to their medical reports, it is going to be a part of your car and everything you use. Out of all that one aspect is going to be entertainment. Digital today for me is entertainment, convenience, it is my yellow pages, it is the guide to finding me a partner, it is my local marriage broker, it is all of that. These are all opportunities to communicate so that our canvas, which used to fixed slots of outdoor, radio and TV has now become many hours of live streaming consciousness. That is the power of digital. Digital is becoming all pervasive.

A lot of brands today have an in-house team that works on their communication and strategy. Do you think this will have an impact on the advertising industry as a whole?

This is a million-dollar question. Brands that are really doing well on digital ideally should be brands where the brand manager is tweeting or posting pictures on Instagram himself/ herself. Ideally, the person on digital should be the best exponent of the voice of the brand but since big brands can’t do this, they outsource it to third-party agencies or keep it internal. From our perspective, we try and integrate ourselves deeply into the brand’s tonality and philosophy so that we don’t have to leave too much on the client to start communicating on behalf of the brand and if you do that then the relationship becomes sticky where the brands needs you and will not think of in-sourcing it or something.

What are some challenges specific to the Indian market when it comes to digital marketing?

I think the Indian market place has still not fully wrapped its head around the possibilities of the digital ecosystem. It is still looking at digital from an offline comparison perspective. This ecosystem is an open source, control-less ecosystem while India traditionally has had a lot of structures, systems and processes. We will have to learn to let go and be a bit more open source and give control to the masses. Unlike the West, India is a giant melting pot of a million things. You can slice and dice India in a million ways and that brings with it its own complexity of targeting and measurement. The good thing about India is that it is a young country and the fact that Indians have that little bit of ‘jugaad’ mentality which means that Indian consumers will extricate the best out of digital for their convenience.

What are some of the trends that you are seeing when it comes to digital marketing in India?

Data-driven creativity and data-driven marketing will come up in a big way. I am also seeing an audio-driven shift. So, technology like Amazon Echo is just a precursor to voice becoming a big thing. I also see regionalisation becoming big. I am seeing a lot of Made In India ideas. Geography is now history so anybody sitting anywhere can quickly come up with an idea overnight and that can become a blockbuster out there and therefore one need to be alert constantly. Another big this is micro-content – the ability to create quick, cheap and topical content.

Non-metros was a grey area for brands as far as digital was concerned because of issues with data penetration but with lower tariff rates and increasing cell phone penetration, what are the trends that you seeing from non-metros?

I am seeing a big shift coming from the tier II and III cities. For people living in the city, digital is just fancy and vanity but digital means a lot to people living in tier II and III cities. For them, it is a dramatic change in their quality of life. So, it has much deeper meaning and significance there. In India, that is where you will find genuine appreciation and that is where the ecosystem will mature. Also, an Indianised reason to exist will be there. Today, this ecosystem has a lot of Western filter but we will soon see Indian ideas emerging.

What are your plans for  L&K Saatchi & Saatchi for the year 2018?

Our current plans for  L&K Saatchi & Saatchi are that we are creating an integrated digital strategic thinking organisation across the board. We want a digital first and integrated approach across the board. Our second area of focus is creating salient case studies for ourselves across some of our key brands because we believe that there has not been singularly great digital first work in India .So, we want to attempt to break that and we have identified a set of brands on which we can create some kind of integrated/digital first case studies.

Despite the immense potential digital has in the country, why do you think India is not known for creativity in digital?

I think we have a very ‘roti, kapda, makaan’ attitude towards everything. Indians need to learn to ease up a bit and play.


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