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Has advertising wasted the coronavirus opportunity?

Shivaji Dasgupta, Managing Director, Inexgro Brand Advisory, explains how the ad industry could have used the global pandemic to resurrect itself

Shivaji Dasgupta

At the very outset, deepest apologies for the opportunistic headline as this is certainly no laughing matter. Yet for an industry that is arguably on life support, the global pandemic could well have been a live supporter. In India, most certainly, the chances are rapidly evaporating but still much can be salvaged.

For a profession labouring to resurrect its premiumisation, the shot-at-home films can well become a biting Frankenstein. Not because the quality was bad but actually because the quality was very good with quaint stalwarts doing voice recordings from walk-in-closets and other such charming innovations. Quite naturally, these films cost way lower than normal full-fledged productions and most prudent clients would demand encores to maximise their budgets and minimise creative payouts. Agencies will naturally protest but the ultimate alibi of quality being compromised has already been compromised, especially by the lovingly-crafted PR amplifications of these projects. These garage innovations were surely necessary but the applause-hungry creative leadership, sorely deprived of Cannes daiquiris, failed to smartly curb their projective instincts. Unhappily, this will affect production houses equally and many may move talent to the content creation business.

During my industry tenure, we used to yearn for the challenge to invoke genuine behaviour change and looked longingly at peers who did the same. Now this pandemic is a genuine battleground for multiple forms of this narrative, from wearing masks to social distancing to home equality and so much more. Brands could have been goaded to create content and while a few certainly did, most focussed on transactional communication influenced certainly by the business realities. But this industry thrives on relationships and if the case was proffered earnestly to board rooms, then surely a few large corporations would have bitten the bullet. Not the usual corporate film drama but a genuine attempt to positively influence behaviour change, and not just resisting social media for woke influences. Industry body IAA is running ads but to directly provoke spends from advertisers and not sincerely impact the lives of customers.

The good news is that a lot more can still be done as through a disruptive contrarian logic, the emotional circumstances of society can actually rescue the advertising business. Brands are rapidly losing their well-entrenched relationships with customers as we are all becoming rigidly transactional, a pattern that was uncovered during the pandemic. A disappearance from the shelves due to supply deficiencies led to a rapid adoption of the next best thing and loyalties suddenly evaporated in the face of survival. While brands get their distribution act sorted through online commerce and partnerships, a renewal in storytelling will be what the doctor soon orders, whether on TV or digital media. This will demand craft at its finest best, building tales of bonding afresh and reconnecting customers with the legends they once adored. Incidentally, this has a societal benefit as well in the ability to help folks become a lot more warm and human.

On a short-term behavioural note, both clients and agencies must reinforce direct demonstrations, especially the wearing of the mask and social distancing. However unglamorous ads may look, this will actively aid public-private efforts in addressing the crisis and will most certainly influence those still not convinced. Messages of embracing Covid warriors are already live and they must continue while brands or media networks must form consortia against this scourge. Just as everybody with capacity and intent is manufacturing a mask, advertising must have a symbolic peer which I can suggest to be the five-second corona window. Every commercial more than 30 seconds in length must have an end section, which will talk about one important public service message while the haat and mela mechanism must turn into live action stations against the pandemic. In digital media, the possibilities are even more startling and exquisite engagements can uphold the opinion of the brands and the necessities of our times. When viewed objectively, this can well be the platform of integration that the entire industry was yearning for, now presented on a platter that is genuinely yet disturbingly immediate and urgent.

For this opportunity to be fruitfully realised, the creative departments must stop behaving like legacy creative departments, pandering to diktats of usually obsolete supremos. Just as Tendulkar & co voluntarily stepped away from M S Dhoni’s T20 winning teams, younger and fitter players must be allowed to collaborate seamlessly with digital knowhow and customer insight to conjure lifesaving solutions for both planet and industry. Media platforms will be effortlessly co-opted as will the OTT conduits with the unification of popular culture stimuli. Suits and strategy will cease to be departments but co-warriors for the same cause as enforced hierarchies, both vertical and horizontal, break free with startling alacrity. Clients will soon lose the motivation to cut fees and the much-desired equilibrium of sustainability may well be achieved.

As a strange twist, the debilitating global disorder has given the advertising industry a chance to help craft the new normal. For societies, for individuals and indeed the industry that is the source. To be successful the metallic deadwood must be restrained and that is a challenge tougher than the recently airborne virus.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authr. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of and we do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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