Earlier, there was a creative courage to be roughly right, rather than precisely wrong: CII The Big Picture Summit 2022

Earlier, there was a creative courage to be roughly right, rather than precisely wrong: CII The Big Picture Summit 2022

Advertising industry veterans threw light upon the changed face of advertising.


Mumbai: The Big Picture Summit 2022, organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) on 16 & 17 November saw the presence of various senior executives and officials from the advertising, film, TV, marketing, and OTT fraternities.

On a panel discussion on 17 November, Madison World chairman and managing director Sam Balsara brought to the fore that advertising has been through a lot of changes. Opening the conversation, he said, "I started work in 1972, and advertising was a few thousand crores, and there was a time advertising was merely about announcing product availability and making a manufacturer’s statement – that I am the best – this was considered a good advertising approach probably for decades."

He added that everything has changed, but on another level, you can argue that not much has changed. He looks back at his favourite definition of advertising, which was given by a humorist – called Stephen Leacock – "Advertising is the science of arresting human intelligence long enough to get money from it."

Balsara goes on, "I haven’t come across any definition that, ideally, more accurately describes advertising. The fundamentals of what we try to achieve in advertising haven't changed all that much. Sure, volumes have changed. Advertising cost a few hundred crores, which was the total outlay of AdEx. It is currently worth around Rs 90,000 crore. Global AdEx, just for perspective, is now $880 billion. So surely advertising works for marketers, and I think there is widespread acceptance that advertising is indeed the gas that fuels the entire economy or the machinery that keeps the wheels of the economy moving."

Taking the discussion further about how advertising has changed, columnist and Counselage India founder and managing partner Suhel Seth expressed, "I think advertising has changed for the worse. Earlier advertising was about civility and about creating things in partnership with clients, and the relationship was both mutually beneficial and one of respect. Sadly, nowadays, agencies are treated by clients like vendors, and the relationship by and large has become unequal."

He understands that previously, there were times in advertising when they sat and co-created campaigns, but those were created on the basis of deep consumer insight and a rigorous approach to consumer behaviour learnings and insights that one could then weave and work into the narrative of the creativity that was produced.

He discussed, "We don’t get the kind of people we used to get in advertising in the good old days, and the reason is we don’t pay enough. When you pay peanuts, you get monkeys – and the tragedy is that advertising agencies are paying peanuts because clients are monkeying around with advertising agencies who don’t have the courage to tell the clients that they don’t know what they’re talking about."

"In the good old days, when the client asked us to jump, you would say ‘why’- today you ask ‘how high’. When the relationship dramatically alters and changes and becomes a master-servant or a master-slave relationship, advertising and creativity suffer," pointed out Seth.

He also reminisced about how earlier liberal arts people also staffed client offices. "I have no grouse against MBAs, but MBA has been the worst disaster for advertising agencies because people who have done management by rote, who have no idea of Shakespeare or Tagore, who have no idea about the sensitivities of music, are asked to produce advertising that is bereft of sensitivity," he states.

Seth went on to say that he has a different definition of advertising. For him, the purpose of advertising is to invent desire. "It is not to inform – for that you got to go to Google, Yellow Pages or Wikipedia. What I think advertising was all about – is that it was all about creating magic. It was about engaging the consumer with the brand through the medium of creativity."

He also shed light on the proliferation of media. In the previous days, the clients would ask about hoardings, TV, and cinema - that’s about it. Today's spread is massive—it's digital. India has changed dramatically. It is no longer consuming advertising that is English-speaking; it is consuming advertising that is vernacular. It is regional to the point where the regional influxes are actually carried forward pan India.

Expressing his views, Seth said, one of the dramatic changes is that, due to the rush that everybody seems to be in, less time is spent on strategy and agencies are becoming more tactical. That’s not advertising; that’s salesmanship.

"They also don't prepare for brands with the rigour that we used to. For example, there were partnerships between Madison’s creative and media agencies. "Now, rather than partnering communication, I see media agencies as a post box or an amplifier for disseminating communication," he said.

Seth also put forth his concern, saying that the advertising industry has stopped being inventive and innovative. "We have become more and more risk averse. Because you are talking about billions of dollars being spent, and no one wants to take the risk," he said.

"Another thing is that people are wanting to manage not the consumer, but the client. When you start managing the client, you immediately forget the consumer. Nowadays, it’s very important for the CEO and his wife to be happy, rather than the other way round," he said.

"Today, we are also fraught with a lot of social tensions in our society. Religion, which was in the background, is now in the foreground. You have discrimination; you have political grandstanding. People using social media are bullying and trolling clients and companies to withdraw advertising, which is actually an attempt at conveying something creatively," Seth went on to say.

Ogilvy India head of strategic planning Rohitash Srivastava feels that in an ideal scenario, advertising has become complete. "Earlier we were worried about changing people's thoughts and beliefs. And the behaviour part was kind of missing, you change a person's mindset and then you leave him to behave the way he wants to. Now with digital and technology coming in, the promise of technology was that we are going to change behaviour, we are going to drive behaviour change. So that was the ideal scenario. And that's why I'm saying that now advertising in an ideal world is not just about thinking and feeling; it's also about thinking, feeling, and doing," he pointed out.

He goes on to explain that, in reality, the advertising industry has become more schizophrenic than ever. And there is a lot of speed, but there is no velocity.

Srivastava adds, "There's no sense of direction; you're trying to do a lot, but there is no bigger plan. And this whole short-termism thing is really killing the industry. And I've seen so many marketers behave like salespeople. Now, marketing's role is to create a facilitated environment, so that the scalability of the product goes up, not the sales themselves. But today's marketers are so worried about that very moment. And when sales happen, they forget the larger tasks of marketing and advertising to create conditions for scalability over weeks of marketing. That is exactly what I mean by 'short-termism.'"

Also, information is being confused with knowledge, he said. "There's a lot of data out there, and it's called dumb data because you have to look for the right meaning to make sense of it. And then within that, there is data that is readily available, and then there is long-term data, equity studies, and all of that amounts to a lot of hard work. This whole desire to go through spreadsheets and excel sheets is blinding us to the human stories that are happening and what people are really thinking. So whatever data comes in, you want to react to it," he said.

Srivastava revealed, "The discernment is going away. And this whole thing about people being more precisely wrong than roughly right—before, being roughly right was such a big gift—In fact, we were paid so much because we could make decisions in grey areas, and there was a creative courage to be roughly right. But this whole obsession, to be precise, is making us precisely wrong."

TAM Media Research CEO LV Krishnan commented on the creative aspect of advertising, "The things have changed so much in the last 50 years that we've seen advertising kick start in India. And the interesting thing is the fact that the one thing that hasn't changed between the first year of advertising and today is that nobody knows that the 50 per cent that I spend on advertising is a complete waste."

He explained further that until and unless the whole industry puts a finger on it, testing in terms of advertising will continue.

Krishnan added, "Earlier, for every piece of communication, there was a brand and an advertising positioning strategy, and once they were done, one would know exactly what kind of execution needed to be done. But today, even if those two definitions are not thought through, execution is already happening on the ground to create communication effectively."

He is of the opinion that, now that everything is digital, it's no longer a strategy. There is simply a local influencer using a brand and attempting to showcase it to his or her followers in order to demonstrate that this is the brand that they use. These influencer and social media marketing campaigns are not aligned with the national campaign that is run on television or in national print. So it's becoming more tactical. Most of the campaigns we're seeing now are more tactical sweatshop in nature.

Balsara went on to reveal that out of the $880 billion, 60 percent of all advertising money today is spent on digital, and not on print, television, or any other medium. He believes that the arrival of digital has actually killed the big idea, which we all used to crave, and big production budgets are now a thing of the past.

Srivastava agreed that digital is a big part of the clients’ spends, and even within digital, the performance part, which is called performance marketing, is really becoming significant. And to that extent, the role of the big idea sometimes gets compromised.

Seth said, "Clients and agencies want one particular campaign idea and then try to force potential into several other media options, whether it is YouTube or Twitter."

"It is tactical; advertising is no longer about the consumer. It's about the client. And when advertising becomes about the client, advertising suffers because the consumer is sidestepped and disregarded," he wraps up.