How bad is the advertising business today?

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The 3rd Anniversary Issue of Campaign India hasn’t reached me yet, but I browsed through some pages of the electronic version of the magazine. One of the features asked a few of the industry professionals to talk about what they ‘like, dislike and hate in Indian adland‘. I haven’t read views from all the contributors – just a few of them – but what we bemoan about the industry is the serious stuff: lack of talent, not commanding respect from clients, poor agency remuneration, lip service to integration, era of specialization making the generalist (the Account Management team) irrelevant and so on.

Image source: Campaign India

Spend more than 10 years in an industry and you tend to look back wistfully at the years gone by and say, ‘those were the days’, ‘we don’t make ______ like that anymore’. After nearly 2 decades in advertising, yours truly is in a position to recall the glory days of bromides, spray artists, U-Matic players, 35mm slide presentations and in-house media departments. I am sure there were cribs about the industry back then too (I surely cribbed) – it was just limited to agency forums and bar gossip. The trade publications, social media and industry-focused TV shows have given scale to the issues relevant today. Here’s my shot at the ‘good, bad & the ugly’ aspects of the ad business:

The Good:

Distinct Indian-ness in advertising: I joined the business when copywriters planned the creative strategy in English and wrote in English. They were all either from Cuffe Parade or Cusrow Baug. The vernacular writers (as they were referred to) then translated the ads into Hindi and other languages. There was absolutely no interaction between the person who wrote the original ad and the person responsible for ‘re-creating’ it in a language behind which most of the media monies would go in. The language writers would simply pick up the copy sheet from their respective pigeon holes (‘Kannada, Oriya’ etc.) and simply translate the ads. From those those days, we’ve come a long way. It is so heartening to see Indian languages take centre stage and to know that it’s not ‘infradig’ to create advertising that appeals to the proverbial Geeta from Gorakhpur. The idioms and concepts too have a certain Indian-ness about them – quite like Thai advertising. The stage is set for regional advertising – which has the potential but not taken off yet. In the US, there are several mid- and large sized agencies outside of New York and several that cater to niche audiences like the Hispanics. In the years to come, maybe we will see agencies outside the Metros gaining scale and regional advertising gaining precedence.

Far greater scope to learn: Today, thanks to developments in media & technology the scope to learn is far greater. It is also a huge challenge for generalists (or for those who want to understand the advertising business in entirety) to fully understand the various aspects of advertising today: marketing, communication planning, media planning, digital media and so much more. At best, one can have a cursory or basic knowledge which could also be a dangerous thing. Despite such hurdles this is perhaps the best time to be in advertising, especially for those who consider themselves to be perpetual students in this business – irrespective of their number of years of experience.

The bad

The second part of the above section is also the bane of the industry. Ever since specialist services have been offered, the interaction between those services and the ‘mainline’ agency has only remained at the Board level. So it is quite natural for the senior most members of the agency to be in touch with business trends across functions, but the generals & foot soldiers are a clueless lot today. Even though I have been part of an era where media planning was part of the agency offering, my basic knowledge thanks to the interactions then, would be woefully out of place today. So its quite possible that a 5-year old in the business (and most likely to be at a Supervisory level or even heading a team) today has never had a single interaction with his media team. On the other hand, his client is likely to have a far better grasp of media than him – simply because the client has to have control on his media monies. Why are we surprised to find clients respecting agencies less nowadays? Ditto with other aspects of client’s advertising – digital media, events, PR etc.

The other perennial talking point – and it has remained just that, is the lack of training and development of talent. The advertising industry lost a lot of talent to the media & tech industries some time back and has never really recovered from that loss. While some of the big agencies do have a structured training programme for freshers, ‘on-the-job’, as-you-fly training is the most common form of training. Even among big agencies, once someone acquires the necessary skills to lead & manage a communications program, very little is done to prepare them for the next rung – business development, people management – are all skills one is supposed to acquire magically.

Every agency CEO will talk about the need to develop ‘media neutral’ ideas and how their agency is best suited to deliver that. Yet, most brand work is television centric. Nothing wrong if that category demands it – but the attitude to new media & technology is one of skepticism. Those who are tech friendly and would like to explore new media would be seen as time wasters who have nothing better to do (the ‘if-you-are-on-Twitter-and-find-time-for-a-blog-you-are-shirking-work’ syndrome). Take a look at the global winners in the Digital category of late – they are not just in a different league – they are playing a different game. We are still in the ‘let’s write a viral video’ (most probably cel animation) mode.

The ugly

5 years from now, exactly the same issues are likely to be discussed. The reason: the industry isn’t united. Much time and energy is spent on politicking, back biting, scam ads and chasing awards;  the central issues like agency remuneration, speculative pitches, training are sidelined. Can we have many more MICAs? How do we make a career in the industry attractive again to freshers? Shouldn’t those be the issues that need discussion and action?

While there are several ‘bad things’ about the industry – not all of them are the sole responsibility of the ‘captains of the industry’.  Some require the might of the industry as a whole  – the issue of remuneration, charging a pitch fee, setting up training centres, making the generalist (Account Management) hone their advertising skills in holistic way – just to name a few.  ?But change can happen in a small way – all of us, including yours truly can do our little bit to make it a better place. What keeps us going is the belief that there is no other profession that can be as much fun…as rewarding.  We need to celebrate the passion, fun and the joy of learning in our every day work. And hope that becomes infectious.

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1 Comment

  1. The ‘Better Grasp of media’ thing is a great point, and not spoken about too often. I’ve felt inadequate not knowing about media planning and all, despite being in creative.

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