By now, it is amply clear that the silent betrayal was caused by institutional and not individual actions — although it is often unfeasible to separate the two. At critical moments in the evolution of advertising the leaders failed the believers – to protect the interests of imperialist masters or perhaps due to visionary deficiencies. The future is brighter than it seems, but before crystal-ball gazing, let me encapsulate the tale of betrayal and the casualties galore.
The emergence of the holding company and its denominator management philosophies, curating a culture of passive maintenance and not aggressive dominance. Separating us from the media business as if that was a cancerous tumour, when in truth it was a critical agent of value, leaving advertising hanging precariously. An intellectual and operational inability to redefine or recraft our business as Branded Marketing Content, by owning the digital and new-age content space and definitely not abrogating the profitable production function.
Most controversially, the brown ceiling or the network jam that thwarted the global career paths of many eligible folks and created an arterial blockage beyond the purview of the finest surgeons. The insistence on behaving like commission agents in the newly-minted retainership world, a lowered perception of value leading to static remunerations with no defensible path for enhancing billing. Equally, in the quest to be a corporate equal, the systematic elimination of fraternal cultural codes, intrinsic to employee delight.
Suffering the most was the believer – the lady and gentleman who devoted an entire life to this tempting craft, only to realise in middle-corporate age that neither progress nor U-turn was possible – a miserable no-man’s land the fate for many. Except the few who were both competent and lucky to get the few top jobs – quite understandably hanging on till retirement, the second-in-line derailed forever. Some moved to marketing jobs (often sub-optimal, while others valiantly chose entrepreneurship (rarely successful) while others moved on completely to academic or innovative avenues – mostly abrupt course corrections and not a planned scenario. Advertising thus providing only an A-track career path, if CXO could be achieved all secondary tracks were halted at suburban stations, Bombay Central a notional terminus. Very rarely does a mid-level person retire happily at 60 – by the time he is deemed non-star at 45, promotions and increments are frozen, and goaded to seek the respectful elsewhere.
In 2017, I felt that this scenario was non-reversible but in 2020, there is a glimmer of definite optimism. Right-sized nimble networks with a genuine integration ensemble, thus able and willing to infuse the advertising agency with a newer definition of value, often liberated from the tyranny of the giant holding company. The agency able to thus provide top-notch content, including the digital showpiece work and delve into IP as well – a newer kind of client facilitating this overdue transition. Clients who are not legacy marketers with a preconceived notion of worth but instead entrepreneurs of the VC age who demand unified and exceptional value. Pleasingly, such examples are usually blessed with new-age leadership virtues – a desirable mélange of business, craft and culture.
In my estimated hunch, the future organization will certainly not emerge from the gargantuan WPP, a comparable legacy holding company or even the seemingly spacious Dentsu – horizontal multiplicity of companies does not lead to actionable integration. There are shades of possibility in Cheil and Publicis – most definitely Havas, from first-hand experience, is well poised to redefine the new-age agency model. The winning formula must be accomplished specialists with no agency baggage (not upgraded generalists seeking salvation) uniting under well-defined leadership to offer a sensible set of services – data analytics, IP and allied specialised skills propelling the creative product. Which must be packaged and presented in a manner that is valuable to the client, deserving remuneration will logically follow.
The first and foremost task is to present the offering as a performance tool, a word we use often in our prescriptions but scarcely for ourselves. Client organisations of the present day are ruthlessly outcome oriented – they have no choice really. The outcome for media agencies, today’s communication poster boy, is still restricted to efficiencies of the medium and not market impressionability – the rational link between the two incidental and not seamless. New-age advertising agencies, in the business of Branded Marketing Content, are frontline artillery, especially in the digital world, data tools enabling easy assessment of impact.
Then to culturally and structurally reorient our craft as Intellectual Property and not mass communication – an emphasis on recommendation overriding the abundance of choice. This is an extremely challenging movement but in the new-age nimble integrated structures, this culture can be borrowed from the specialised digital or design or design outfits who have been brought up on an IP culture. Even the rank and file must be retrained for this transition, fresh minds requisitioned to enable this shift. The IP we develop for communication must quickly be translated to other experiential properties, deeply revenue worthy.
Critically, to take operational ownership of the last mile implementation, digital creative agencies are loath to sublet media to the media house and this is a valuable lesson. Thus, the production process must be ours – in fact the entire industry must converge to make this a SOP, the famed directors and DOP’s operating freelance under the agency banners while production competencies are built in-house. As must event execution and audio-visual property building, easily executable via the accomplished alliance partners – the plain point I make is that that not a single rupee of traceable revenue must be allowed to exit the P&L – a sure-fire formula for both ownership and wealth.
Equally necessary, this industry must now attract a new kind of Indian entrepreneur – just as once upon a time Mudra was forged by Reliance as a creative business venture. This is today an imminent probability as business owners are hungry for a pie in the Digital Marketing space – skills in this domain leading to invaluable learnings in incubating unicorn ventures. A new kind of professionalism will possibly emerge, as opposed to the baggage trail of the holding company, with a relentlessness to adhere to the new rules mentioned above. Just as Lowe was once the in-house gig of Levers, even an OYO or Sequoia Capital, can incubate the new-age agency, leasing it soon to the world at large.
Finally, we must recognise that advertising has always been a significant CEO agenda, unlike say media planning or buying. Advertising agencies have always enjoyed disproportionate boardroom access and this a licence we do not leverage sufficiently, bolstered even further in the digital era. So, we must resume alignment with CEO by reappearing as a business accomplice and not remain constricted to the CMO as a communication source. Navigating this equilibrium between CEO and CMO is both necessary and tricky – smart relationship management skills we know so well will surely make this achievable – a mirror strategy will be sufficient. If we are rightfully perceived as a business performance enhancer, courtesy Branded Marketing Content, we will become the value-seeking voice of the customer in the meaningful chambers of the corporation.
The world that will emerge after the corona crisis will be a brand-new world – seeking a feasible equilibrium between the rational and the emotional. Businesses will be demanding and sensitive, aggressive yet sustainable, creative while accountable, rewarding when successful. Advertising agencies are well poised to commence the journey from betrayal to trust – here’s hoping that the managements of the day will live up to the opportunity.
Read all the chapters here:
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of BestMediaInfo.com and we do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)