In 2009 it was clear that I did mean business but increasingly unsure about the business I was in. So before venturing to the Contract stories, it is tempting to dwell on the definition of the advertising business — then, now and tomorrow. On how the prescriptions we write for our clients could easily be applied to us—both as bariatric and cosmetic surgeries.
Many would have read ‘Marketing Myopia’ by Theodore Levitt, the seminal piece of thought leadership that urged management to embrace customer centricity in defining role. You will also be aware of Spencer Johnson’s ‘Who moved my cheese’ — a bewildered quest to locate the relocated source of value — AWOL. In each case and so many newer evidences of autonomous thinking, a simple but compelling message does emerge. If we continue to act with the ignorance or arrogance of the manufacturer, the client will soon stop responding.
Which explains why Kodak got stuck in the click-and-mortar business oblivious to the digital age and how Microsoft and Apple are constantly reimagining the future to stay boldly relevant. As electric cars become a scalable reality, Tesla and not the legacy automakers may reign and it takes the chronic innovation of Virgin to concoct the moon flight, not Lufthansa. In services, closer home, it is notable how consulting firms are rapidly infusing creative competencies, the Droga 5 acquisition as significant as white label capacity building. Amazon moved effortlessly from books to everything, milking the platform-based customer access, a pattern emulated by many in the tech space including the admirable Truecaller.
Truth be told, Advertising was always and squarely the business of Branded Marketing Content, please do note the three words most caringly. Branded, as in the paid placement of an institutional and not individual message. Marketing, as in for the purpose of accelerating a business or organisational outcome. Content, as in the conception and execution of any piece of communication. One thing that advertising was not in the business of was surely advertising, a much narrower construct than the real johnnie. Especially the even more stunted barriers of print, TV and radio — the triumvirate that earned us fame but equally caused our downfall.
Till a certain point in time, all was well, as the industry moved seamlessly from print to TV, extending the foundation skill sets to an emerging medium —the 1950s in America and the 1980s in India. It does become bewildering why then this accomplished eco system became so wary of the digital world — instead of being an organic offshoot a much-feared foreign cousin. I have witnessed this journey ever since the days of HTA Digital in 2001 and can vouch for a possible cause. Being imaginative generalists at the core, we were plainly frightened of the technology — when in actuality the task was simply to create communication in interactive formats. Now imagine if our predecessors got mired in broadcast engineering instead of simply writing fabulous TVC scripts, this saga would have been shattered many decades earlier. The inability to interpret digital as an opportunistic medium and not an obliterating science remains a colossal blunder of the managements of that period.
Now, for a moment, press pause on this narrative and focus on the kinds of clients we and I were dealing with then and now, in a basic culture segmentation format. The first was certainly the MNC culture, ITC and Pepsi fine stalwarts of this legacy genre. The second was the traditional Indian behemoth, Tata Steel an enlightening part of this exploration, the erudite Rajiv Soni a learned and willing accomplice. The third was the post-liberalisation Indian powerhouse — Airtel for whom we handled the regional piece and Spencer’s Retail — marshalled by the seamlessly charismatic Samar Singh Sheikhawat. The fourth was the Indian entrepreneur, both regional and national in footprint — Dey’s Medical of Keo Karpin fame, Century Ply led by the visionary Sanjay Agarwal and Shrachi Real Estate anchored by the imaginative Rahul Todi. Each one of them had a different take on Branded Marketing Content — indeed leading to differing expectations from the advertising agency, a pattern valid for every region in India.
The first and third most clearly sought the classical strategic creative product and it was plainly apparent why — the premium marketing cadre staffing the first moved to the third and thus defined their culture. While the second was hungry for a surrogate marketing partnership — leaning on the agency for hearsay wisdom till the internal processes were securely established. The fourth was my most precious dominion — we were usually the first MNC advisory hire and expectations were nothing short of the Big Four. It was delightful for me personally to bond and bridge with the passionate founders on fundamental business asks — the mutually rewarding personal muse alas could not be the organisational business model.
The Advertising industry is most definitely in the business of Branded Marketing Content — any attempt at deviation both delusional and dangerous. Whether this is digital, experiential, subversive, immersive or conventional is a subject of inconsequential detail. We have the skills, the pedigree and the acumen to make this work in every possible business universe — what we sadly sometimes do not possess is the self-imagery to make this a SOP. Being bullied by the technocrats for digital content or confused by the production houses for execution panache are unhappy decoys — belittling the fiery worth of this magical constructive craft.
I must end this piece on the abdication of production — no earthly logic why the agency could not hang on to film execution by enlisting the finest DOP and director. The surreal margins would have been ours and ownership of the creative outcome not divested to worthy but avoidable outsiders. My next chapter will talk about some exceptional opportunities but let me conclude this on a phenomenal miss.
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