February 18, 2020
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Utterly Butterly Foolicious

An explosion of brands, consumer choices, multiplicity of media, squeeze on talent and focus on profit over creativity is posing challenges for the advertising industry. Can it regain its mojo?

Utterly Butterly Foolicious
Ajay Devgun, SRK, Akshay and the ever shirtless Salman push banians
Utterly Butterly Foolicious

They call it Goafest and the branding is apt enough; the annual get-together of the advertising industry is very much a festive occasion, with an incredible number of awards being handed out to the great and good in the creative field. In between the wild partying and bouts of int­rospection, it’s all very ego-massaging and self-congratulatory—this year, an incredible 419 awards were handed out. (Last year, there were 318). The Oscars, the most watched award show globally, are given in just 25 categories.

Here’s the bottomline: Goafest faces virtually the same problems it did when it was instituted a decade ago. Amidst the bright lights, the vodka shots and the blaring music, what’s gone missing are the marquee ad agencies and industry gurus. Over the years, India’s leading agencies—such as Ogilvy & Mather, Leo Burnett, Creativeland Asia and BBDO India—have boycotted the event for various reasons, not the least being the credibility of the award process and the standard of judging. This year highlighted another concern—the lack of creativity. Goafest 2016 featured not a single Grand Prix award-winner in the creative and media fields. These categories attracted a total of 4,460 entries.

Everywhere in advertising, the celeb head pops up...whether it’s inverters or banians.

Over 4,000 ad executives were gathered in Goa but what counted were those who had stayed away rather than those who attended. A decade after swearing off Goafest, Mullen Lowe Lintas chairman R. Balakrishnan (Balki) made an appearance this year, but as a film-maker, not an ad-m­aker. Also in attendance this year was Piyush Pandey, executive chairman of Ogilvy & Mather India and South Asia, whose agency had opted to stay out of the Creative Abbies awards over the past few years. He said his agency’s stand has not changed and he was there to be felicitated on his Padma Shri. The guru troika was complete with adman and lyricist Prasoon Joshi, CEO of McCann World, India, showing up this year after staying away following the Ford Figo controversy—one of the ad industry’s biggest embarrassments—a few years earlier. It related to so-called ‘scam ads’ from JWT—work produced for the sole purpose of earning praise from colleagues and competitors and winning awards at events such as Goafest, for which these ads are specifically created. “An Ogilvy not participating in the Creative Abby is like the US not competing in the Summer Olympics,” chortles Pradyuman Mahesh­wari, media expert and editor and CEO of MxM, over a beer and fried Bombay duck at the Mumbai press club.

Bombay duck is a great metaphor for what the advertising world is going through. It’s a fish that is called a duck and it may taste fine but it also has a funny smell. In Indian advertising, there are paradoxes aplenty. Advertising spend has been, to paraphrase another famous tagline, “finger-lickin’ good”, but meeting a range of people from the industry suggests something else—grim faces, overstressed executives, cut-throat com­p­­­et­ition and a seeming lack of creative talent. Here are some examples. The Hutch ad, with its iconic pug, was released in 2003. It is back, 13 years later, in the latest Vodaphone campaign, with exa­ctly the same message. Here’s another, of even more ancient provenance. Nearly 40 years after Lintas, under legendary adman Alyque Padamsee, launched its Liril ad, showing model Karen Lunel in a swimsuit frolicking under a waterfall with a bar of soap in her hand, Hindustan Unilever has recently released exactly the same ad using a different model but what looks like the same waterfall. “That they have recreated the ad is a tribute to its durability. It’s also disappointing that they have to go back 40 years,” says Padamsee. “It shows a creative blackout. Advertising has lost its soul.”

Vodka shots being administered at the frolicksome Goafest ad festival

It’s a lament heard more and more often these days and seems connected to the fact that, with MNCs dominating the Indian ad scene (eight out 10 top ad agencies are owned by global conglomerates), the bean-counters have become an integral part of the agency, robbing it of some of its earlier romance and creative freedom.

“That they recreated the old Liril ad after 40 years is a tribute to its durability. It also shows a creative blackout in advertising.”
Alyque Padamsee, Ad guru

Another advertising legend, Mohammed Khan, was more scathing. His speech at an event last year to honour him with a lifetime award was titled ‘Thank God I am out of it!’ He started by saying he was “saddened by what I see today...advertising design is conspicuous by its absence, and TV commercials are a rude and irritating intrusion into mindless and inane television content, with a few notable exceptions.” He then listed the reasons for his disillusionment, which included the cut-throat competition between agencies to grab accounts, and the change in relationship between clients and agencies. His main grouse was to do with the dominance of the account planner over creatives. The boot, he said, was on the wrong foot. He also exposed the lack of creativity in an ideas business by presenting a comprehensive list of ideas for the next campaign, regardless of whether it was selling cars or soap or insurance or condoms. The eight ideas he listed were: Amitabh Bachchan, Sachin Tendulkar, Salman Khan, Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Sachin Tendulkar and Mahen­dra Singh Dhoni. It was an emotion-charged speech by someone no longer part of the ratrace, but most agency heads privately admit that Khan is right on the money.

Paradoxically, it’s not about the money. The Pitch Madison Media Advertising Outlook report projected the ad market to reach Rs 42,234 crore in 2016. Here’s the downside. The intense competition that led to agencies consistently cutting their commissions has squeezed profits like never before. Naved Akhtar, who quit a leading ad agency to launch Shop, in partnership with another celebrated adman, Freddie Birdy, says, “Advertising is becoming incredibly cost-conscious.” That has in turn led to a squeeze on creativity. Former advertising professional Santosh Desai agrees: “With advertising budgets slashed, creative happens by accident.” Like him, many who were part of the ad scene during the boom years of the 1980-90s, now look back with nostalgia. “There was a burst of creativity back then, a cross-fertilisation of different voices. It was a fun place to be,” he says. Another industry veteran Shashi Sinha, CEO India of IPG Mediabrands, the global media holding company of Interpublic, one of the Big Four global players, admits that “the fun part is gone. It’s far more specialised.”

The numbercrunchers are having a biggersay at agencies, stifling the creative side.

Those were the days when advertising was a dream job, a sort of corporate Woodstock, where long-haired, creative types in flowered shirts and sandals brainstormed with the suits in the corner office and came up with some red hot adverts—‘Whenever you see colour, think of us’, ‘Hamara Bajaj’, ‘Taste the thunder’, and many others, including the cute two-minute noodle ads for Maggi noodles. What we get to see these days is celebrity endorsements for everything even if the fit seems odd (see box). The Big B could easily stand for Big Brand. Amitabh Bachchan, the def­ault setting for many ad agencies, is currently endorsing Cycle agarbati, along with children’s apparel, cement, Parker pens, Gujarat, Cadbury’s chocolates, jewellery, insurance, basmati rice and, for many years, Maggi noodles. Add the three Khans, the Kapoors (Ranbir and Kareena), cricketers like Virat Kohli (23 endorsements currently), regulars like Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif and now Ranveer Singh (from Durex condoms to Maruti Ciaz and Rupa vests) and you get some idea of just how many agencies fall back on celebrities to sell their brands. “It’s the laziest form of advertising,” says C.V.L. Srinivas, CEO (South Asia) for GroupM, the world’s biggest media company. “An overdose of celebrities can dilute the message and the brand.”

It’s a strategy that can indeed come uns­tuck. Fiat paid Sachin Tendulkar Rs 12 crore to endorse the Palio back in 2002. They even threw in a Ferrari as a bonus. The star cricketer was at the peak of his career, but even so, the money was excessive by Indian advertising standards. The Palio bombed, as did the special edition S10, with Sachin’s signature on the side, and the ad had to be withdrawn. Says Nowroz Dhondy, founder and MD of Creatigies Com­m­­unications, “There’s no one-size-fits-all. What we are seeing is short bursts of creativity bracketed by celebrity endorsements, and it is a gamble.”

“With ad budgets slashed,creativity happens just by accident. The ’80s and ’90s saw a burst of creativity, advertising was a fun place.”
Santosh Desai, MD &CEO, Futurebrands

The gamble leads to some bizarre scenarios. The biggest stars—Salman, SRK, Akshay, Ajay Devgun—all advertise for banians which show off their rippling muscles, while the plot gets the short shrift. Similarly, the sight of Salman doing a Bollywood type dance in rolled up trousers to show his rubber flip-flops is an insult to creativity. There’s a current ad for an SUV which shows the vehicle driving down a highway against a background score of Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild. There’s no mention of the vehicle’s features or what makes it different, just the song, which is the star of the ad. Such songs are freely used, sans royalty, no questions asked. Look at one deodorant ad and you’ve seen them all--a couple of sprays on a man’s body and he leaves a trail of swooning women. It’s a similar story with ads for e-tailers: they are all depressingly similar. A majority of today’s television and print ads are shockingly mindless, with loud voices, loud music and over-the-top acting. With creativity a victim of circumstance and contemporary priorities, the fallback is also depressingly familiar—bring on the celeb. So we have Sachin endorsing a ceiling fan with LED lights and even an inverter, items he’d  nor­m­ally fend off disdainfully, like a rising ball.      

We live in a creative economy where knowledge is power, and yet Indian advertising seems poised on the edge of uncertainty, even apprehension. The insecurity is the direct result of a period of dramatic change within the Indian advertising ind­ustry post-1992, after economic liberalisation kicked off a decade of rapid growth in the Indian economy. It was a dream run for agencies, which at the time operated as full-service companies that helped clients decide where and how to advertise their products and created the ads themselves. Their rate was 15 per cent of the client’s advertising budget. For the ad world, it was the best of times. There were a comparatively small number of agencies with loyal clients and the freedom to be as creative as they wanted. That came from a work culture that was open, freewheeling and non-hierarchical. “The explosion of media and the rise of consumerism meant that agencies had to keep pace,” says Srinavasan. Adds Colyvn Harris, executive director (global growth & client development), J. Walter Thompson, “It was a time of churn and change. Some adapted better than others.” The biggest change was that multinational media agencies snapped up home-grown agencies, making them part of a global network. Competition went into overdrive. The first casualty was the relationship between the agency and client. The second was the 15 per cent commission. Between agencies, the brutal competition meant it dropped to as low as 2.5 per cent, split between media-buying agencies and creative agencies. The churn also brought in a new culture and accountability. The bottomline took precedence over the adv­ertising line. “In our days, the client was a friend. That relationship is history. Clients have become arrogant and demanding and agencies can’t afford to offend them,” says Padamsee. Earlier this year, the IPA Client Relationship Group commissioned Hall & Partners to explore the state of the client-agency relationship. The report, titled ‘From Mad Men to Sad Men’, made for some pretty uncomfortable reading, suggesting, as it did, that there was a widening rift in the client-agency relationship. Says Srinivasan, “Earlier, clients and agencies had a long-lasting relationship. Now, it’s audited on a monthly basis. It is upsetting.”

“Advertising is at a peculiar, bittersweet place. Respect and remuneration have been eroded, clients underestimate the value agencies bring.”
Abhijit Awasthy, Sideways Consulting

Most people in the industry blame it on the culture of accountability and number-crunching brought in by the MNCs. Says Desai, “They introduced a profit­-driven model where creativity took a back seat.” The other big change that imp­acted creativity was that consumer was king, more aware, and with a plethora of brands to choose from. Says Srinivasan, “The onus was on agencies to move up the value chain.” The focus changed. From the big idea, it devolved into data and research with creative heads strangled by statistics. “It’s now a much more specialised business and requires different skills,” says IPG’s Sinha. “It was a trade-off.”

Abhijit Awasthy who quit Ogilvy & Mather after 15 years of being its creative engine, says advertising is poised at a “peculiar bittersweet place. Remuneration and respect have been eroded, the diktat of the holding company runs and clients underestimate the value that agencies bring.” That, and the dangerous urge for personal glory, which has given the Indian ad industry a negative image globally. The New York Times reported on a series of ‘controversial’ ads made by JWT, a WPP subsidiary, in 2013. The ads showed three scantily clad women bound and gagged in the trunk of a Ford Figo being driven by ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. The so-called ‘scam ads’ were made specifically to win awards, and are not released in mainstream media but some obscure outlet in the regional press. Ford executives were outraged at being kept in the dark. The ads were never used in a Ford campaign but uploaded by a JWT creative team on an international advertising website which gives awards for ads submitted by members. The scandal led to some executives being sacked.

After a dream run in the late 1980s and 1990, advertising finds itself in the quicksand.

It also made public a nasty industry secret: that ad agencies were allowing their employees to run under-the-radar campaigns that were edgy and extreme so that they could grab eyeballs and go on to win an award. “Cannes has become the Holy Grail,” says Desai, referring to the Cannes Lion, the ultimate accolade for global advertising. In fact, Cannes and similar awards can be career-defining for the individual and the agency, but as the Ford Figo ad showed, the desperate lunge for personal glory can also crash and burn.

Around the same time, at Goafest, more embarrassment was to follow. Two other advertisements that won awards had to be withdrawn after it was found that major portions had been copied from Brazilian and Singaporean ads. There are two reasons for that state of affairs. One, the drain of talent and the fact that advertising is no longer attracting the class and quality of people it did earlier. Says Akhtar, “Adv­ertising has lost its sheen. It’s not as well-paying, exciting or future-driven as other industries. Lots of creative talent is going into other booming sectors.”

“Earlier, clients and agencies had long-lasting relationships. Now, it’s audited monthly. And that’s quite upsetting.”
C.V.L. Srinivas, CEO (S. Asia), GroupM

Srinivasan admits that in areas of media planning and creative, “it’s tough to get the right people”, a sentiment echoed by JWT’s Colvyn Harris. The result has been the near-death of creativity. Apart from a handful of ads like the Fevicol series, or the occasional one for naukri.com or Cadbury’s, advertising is generally cliched, repetitive or over-the top. Agencies seem to have forgotten the wise words of advertising legend David Ogilvy, “The consumer isn’t a moron. She is your wife.”

Awasthy, who quit O&M and now runs Sideways, a creative problem-solving consultancy, represents the new model that agencies are adopting, a one-stop shop for holistic communications. Agencies now have any number of verticals staffed by specialists offering a range of services in addition to the traditional media planning and buying. Agencies like Starcom do event management, celebrity management, digital solutions, placements, Out of Home, telemarketing, in-film placements, radio spots and a host of others, including ACE (activations and consumer excitement). The agency also has ‘colour scientists’, who are experts in the use of colour in retail design and will conceptualise and design entire stores, scriptwriters, model coordinators and experts in sports entertainment. Other cutting-edge agencies like Min­dshare and Taproot (now under Japanese giant Dentsu) are going the same way. It is the fragmentation of media, a proliferation of media platforms, and the rapid changes in technology that has forced the change.

“Advertising has lost its sheen. It is no longer seen as exciting and future-driven. Talent is going into other booming sectors.”
Naved Akhtar, Adman, Shop co-founder

It’s not a seamless transition. One example is the digital space. It’s the fastest growing segment but most agencies still see their bread-and-butter in the 30-second TV ad. “They are being dragged kicking and screaming into the digital era,” says Desai. Srinivasan puts it down to the fact that agencies and clients are still to figure out how to measure impact of digital ads. “It’s still at a take-off stage,” he says. Yet, digital may yet be the savior. It’s a classic case of the cobbler’s children needing new shoes—recreating the sector for the digital world. Sinha believes that in India, we are seeing just the tip of the digital iceberg and with 4G, advertising on the variety of screens that dominate our lives will only improve and become more interactive. What it all comes down to is that the traditional advertising agency is past its sell-by date. Its new age avatar is still evolving. It’s the way forward that has everyone confused and conflicted. For agencies, the ans­wer probably lies in a classic advertising line for Apple. ‘Think Different.’ As to the current state of affairs, one can paraphrase another iconic ad line—“No ideas, Sirji.”


The Celebrity Brandwagon

A decade ago, the share of celebrity endorsements was less than 10 per cent of all advertisements. Today, it is a mind-numbing
 65 per cent, and tests audience credulity. Here are the top 10 promoters of all goods, dry and wet:

Shahrukh Khan, Rs 1,072 crore

  • Apart from the brands listed, also advertises for the interior design firm launched by his wife Gauri.
  • Major Brands Tag Heuer, Airtel, Videocon, Emami, Hyundai, Pepsodent, Dish TV, Vi-John shaving cream.

Ranbir Kapoor, Rs 845 crore

  • The youngest on the list, is seen as the face for the younger generation.
  • Major Brands Pepsi, John Players, Panasonic, Nissan, Lenovo, Docomo, Hero Moto Corp, Franco Leone.

M.S. Dhoni, Rs 468 crore

  • Endorses the Amra­pali group. But buyers routinely tag him on social media see­king interv­ention for delay faced in getting homes.
  • Major Brands Aircel, Ampr­apali, Ashok Leyland, Boost, Dabur, Pepsi, Sony Bravia.

Virat Kohli, Rs 367 crore

  • His cricketing exploits have made him a mega star with a flood of ad offers.
  • Major Brands  Adidas, Toyota, Celkon Mobiles, Clear Shampoo, Nike, Cinthol, Fastrack, TVS, Pepsi, Fair & Lovely, Munch.

Salman Khan, Rs 338 crore

  • Salman is a veteran in endorsements and his appeal does not seem to have faded.
  • Major Brands  Thums Up, Revital, Wheel, Suzuki Motorcycles, Yatra.com, Dixcy Scott, Splash, Relaxo.

Amitabh Bachchan, Rs 292 crore

  • Longest serving brand ambassador—his first ad was in 1996, for BPL.
  • Major Brands Parker, Dabur, Dairy Milk, Boroplus, ICICI, Kalyan Jewellers, Guj­arat Tourism, Navratna Oil.

Akshay Kumar, Rs 260 crore

  • Endorses 15 brands now. Sudden hike in end­orsement fees made it to headlines last year.
  • Major Brands Relaxo, Dollar Club, Micromax, Eveready, Manappuram Gold Loan, Honda India, Rasna.

Deepika Padukone, Rs 227 crore

  • The highest paid Bollywood actress, a long list of endorsements puts her on top of the fem­ale list.
  • Major Brands Coca Cola, Axis Bank, Kellogg’s, Garnier, Vogue, Tissot, Van Heusen, Parachute, HP, Nescafe, Lux.

Kareena Kapoor, Rs 221 crore

  • Scores high on the endorsement front, with 18 brands on her list.
  • Major Brands  Sony, Head & Shoulders, Boroplus, Lux, Vivel, Colgate, Lakme, Philips Hair Styler, Berger Paints, Limca, Tetley.

Katrina Kaif, Rs 214 crore

  • With 20 endorsements in one year, Katrina Kaif is riding high.
  • Major Brands Lux, Berger, Slice, Panasonic, Veet, Sony Xperia, Titan Raga, L’Oreal, LG, Olay, Nakshatra, Pantene.

The figures given are brand valuations of celebs based on estimates by media research groups and not actual earnings from contracts.

By Dilip Bobb in Mumbai & Delhi

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