Imagine the split in the continent of Europe of 1945, after Fascists have been decisively banished. The countries allotted to the Western allies becoming mammoth industrial powers while the Eastern bloc remaining blissfully static, inward-oriented in intent and outcome. Pristinely metaphorically, this became the state of the once-mighty advertising industry post the creative-media split — no awards for guessing which side the creative agencies veered towards. The first evidence of the silent betrayal was indeed this functional isolation, however sensible and inspired it seemed at that point.
Truthfully and unfairly, the media departments were considered to be secondary cousins in the creative eco system — a valuable department but a department none the less. In 2001, it was unimaginable that a CEO of an agency could emerge from the media cadre, however accomplished the lady could be. This was a genuine caste system practised by every agency I knew, the suit and creative nexus ensuring a left-brain ceiling even at the branch head level. While Hiren Pandit or Indrani Sen, my earliest accomplished media influences, were way ahead of the curve as leadership of modern integrated agencies. It was thus strangely poetic justice when the perceived-lesser separated, eventually engulfing the erstwhile- superior.
At a time when data was rapidly becoming the business superpower, the creative agency lost its proprietary grip on this secret sauce, resorting to unreliable ‘external-internal’ sources. While seemingly a part of the same family, a statistical validation from a floor colleague was not quite the same as an emailer from a Mindshare employee. An equation made sinister by the monetisation culture of WPP, where ‘what’s in it for me’ needed to be answered decisively before any helping hand was extended. Almost overnight, our presentations changed in their primary texture, concluding romantically at the creative idea missing the much-desired accountability. To many of us, media planners became the ‘Gunga Din’ of the piece, a better man than me no longer a part of us.
The early years of the 21st century was duly transformed by the Mac, a magic wand for every flowing soul to easily conjure a professional campaign. Unlike the comfortable days recently departed, when ideation to execution was an assembly-line protocol inconceivable without legacy set-ups. Quite suddenly, the full-service agency was now cynically reduced to an undifferentiated layout supplier, competing vigorously with garage outfits, grappling daily to justify its ticket size. When viewed in tandem with the media divorce, a clear pattern does emerge in the perception of value. The creative agency was rapidly self-destructing in its ability to justify meaningful influence, the divide-and-rule strategy of the holding company arguably the culprit.
To understand this fully, one must duly note that change in client cultures around this period, Advertising India transitioning from the Western MNC and the Indian superpower to the indigenous entrepreneur and the Asian dynamos. It was captured most aptly by the mobile phone license, a dynamic industry demanding decisive performance marketing — gone were the days of ample seasons between strategy and execution. It was captured equally ruthlessly by the Korean and Japanese — a relentless obsession for results underwriting every seemingly-creative ask unlike the easy-going Westerners. If the creative agency still possessed the media power this transition would have been reasonably seamless — the skills in media management moving effortlessly to data analytics. Unhappily though, the conversations got restricted to campaigns and insights, when the world was moving to engagements and outcomes.
During my latter years in JWT, I noted the Denominator Management culture, plaudits defined by the laundry rating of the profit margin and not the boisterousness of the topline. Not entirely evil, it ensured that agencies clean up their sometimes-frivolous act, dishonesties and inefficiencies grounded with military precision. However, by any conceivable benchmark, this was surely a necessary and not sufficient quality for a P&L manager. Word soon got around that the secret ingredient for career growth was accuracy and not acquisition, lapped up eagerly by smart folks who built entire careers by navigating this path. As far as the agency business was concerned, it fell further in its ambitions, test match orthodoxy preferred over T20 flair.
The media separation and the holding company culture thus led to a major irrecoverable casualty — value creation for organisation and the employee. Truthfully, there was no scalable formula for enhancing client remuneration, the constant spectre of the cheaper other forcing the big guy to be unduly modest. This became a fatal fallacy of the creative agency business model — diminished value proposition (sans media) in tune with diminishing business culture leading to a dangerous status quo — where retainership levels grew at a Nehruvian and liberal rate of growth. Even the hospitality business arguably even more customer-obsessed than ours had a growth model driven by defensible points of negotiation. Quite futile to raise the reference of the Consulting companies, whose proprietary process IP is responsible for exceptional profit.
Needless to say, the main casualty was the faithful, the lady and gentleman who invested a career in this charismatic profession. In 1995, the agency formerly known as Lintas was paying almost at par with HLL, P&G and MNC banks in IIM-A campus placement. In 2020, the agency has long ceased to be an entry-level premium hirer, not the fault of current managements but rather historical malpractices. While the holding company does dole out generous employee shares, salaries unless superbly endowed remain dangerously sub-optimal — a phenomenal entry barrier for the talent that used to be ours. If this is not betrayal, then what is.
By the middle of 2004, my tenure in JWT had reached its logical conclusion. I was hungry for a tenure in a progressive business environment, unshackled by the fences of the unfathomable. This led me to Rediffusion Y&R, an agency of nominal WPP affiliation but defiant autonomous leanings. More on those learnings, in the very next chapter, to follow tomorrow.
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