A recent speech by the Indian ad legend, Mohammed Khan caught the fancy of many ad folks, going by the number of social shares it got. The feeling I got was that the ex-ad folk were sharing it to almost re-affirm their own decision of quitting advertising. Reading between the lines, the messages I received were : ‘see how bad the business is now’, ‘I am so wise to have gotten out of it’ and ‘this proves I was right’. A lot of us, after a few years of experience suffer from the ‘back in the good old days’ syndrome. And when you were last in advertising some 20 years ago, that feeling is heightened. This attitude can be seen across industries. After listening to music of the day, many of us may sing glories of yesteryear cinema. Chances are those very people (including yours truly) would have cursed the state of business then too. There would have been a set of people then who would’ve played the ‘back in the golden days of my career things were different’ (read, better) card. Those currently in advertising too shared the article trying to hold a mirror to their lives and I am guessing, pointing fingers at others.
There have been other articles in a similar vein too. In response to such whining about the industry, there was a post at W+K’s official blog, plainly saying there is no room for whiners in this business (any business?) and that change comes from within. I have also seen Facebook status updates along similar lines from senior industry professionals.
Herewith my unsolicited views on the subject:
Mr. Khan is right, 90% of advertising is mediocre; but that is not just today’s phenomena. In my view, a majority of advertising at any given point in time is likely to be run of the mill, uninspiring, boring and barely being able to hold attention. In the early 90s when celebrity advertising wasn’t as common, a simple before-after or problem-solution approach was taken by many FMCG brands. Or it was a montage of visuals set to a catchy jingle. A lot of that continues even today. But many brands can afford celebrities (of different shapes, sizes, regional affiliations, budgets) nowadays and that seems to dominate many categories. The truly inspiring, idea-driven advertising is a small percentage and that is likely to be the case globally. Why advertising, that is the case with most of the content in popular culture. A majority of the movies, music, books, media content…they are all just regular, run-of-the-mill stuff. Work that truly stands out is always a small percentage. Now, was that percentage higher in the advertising of the 90s? That’s a debatable point. Maybe it was in certain media. Print advertising, for example was definitely superior then both in terms of idea and crafting. Television advertising on the other hand has benefited hugely in execution nowadays. Which brings me to the second point…
Marketing & advertising 20 years ago wasn’t as competitive or complicated – it’s different now. While the fundamentals of marketing communication hasn’t changed all these years, the business & media environment we operate in today are totally different. 20 years ago, a multi-media campaign would mean a TV or print-led campaign, supported by outdoor, radio and what used to be called BTL. Very often, a key visual from the TV film would be slapped on to the press ad or hoarding and that was that. Media planning & buying too wasn’t as complicated or sophisticated as it is today. The marketing needs of today have changed – content creation across media & platforms is a huge challenge. The skill sets required are different too. Ability to dream up media-agnostic ideas and more importantly being able to execute them through digital design or coding is at a premium over merely being able to write well.
Competitive pressures too are in a different league nowadays. Brands need to react virtually in nano seconds to opportunities. The luxury of time is gone. Clients want it great *and* want it yesterday. I have seen agencies tell clients that a single ad will take one week for just a creative presentation (no options). Today, ads are required to go out in hours or within the day. Some of such stuff today (not giving enough time to produce a piece of creative) is due to self-inflicted malaise of the industry while some are due to genuine business implications for the client’s brand. Even this time sensitivity is relative: Leo Burnett is said to have declared this in the 1970s: ‘the trouble with advertising today is that we stopped wanting it great and started wanting it Tuesday’.
Client-agency equation is worse off today. And that has a far reaching impact on virtually every aspect of the business – from agency remuneration to talent acquisition. Across the world, founder-owner driven agencies have found success by partnering with the founder-owner-CEO of client companies for decades. Most of the great brands of yesteryear were built with this combination – the agency CEO worked closely with the client company CEO and they together created magic for the brand. That has changed over the years. Today, CEO’s of client companies are rarely involved in brand building activities – and here I include marketing & advertising only. The marketing department runs the show with an agency team and both sides have many layers. The procurement department plays a key role in agency remuneration. Listing the ways in which the business has changed adversely will need another blog post. Suffice to say that an ad agency does not wield the same influence with the client as it did in many instances a few years ago. The result: an agency team is either too scared to say ‘no’ to work they don’t believe in or they simply don’t know better and assume that their job is to simply execute. I have heard horror stories recently of client company virtually dictating every element of the pack including the font & graphics; of client dictating the ‘content’ that has to go on to social media. Sure, agencies have their fair share of ‘areas for improvement’ too and that again is a subject for a different post.
Yet some of the best work out there today in new media, has come from big brands, known for traditional advertising. Can we take inspiration from the positive aspects of the business rather than the negative, depressing ones? Every industry has its share of pros and cons. In my view, no other industry brings together so many disciplines together – business strategy, marketing, film making, copywriting, psychology, design, web design,coding and so much more. And all of it can have a lasting impact than merely a 15-seconder announcing a free soap dish. Yes, creating advertising for ‘free soap dish’ is also an important part of the job. We all need to live with the fact that the business has changed dramatically, be positive and ‘fight the good fight‘.
If you don’t enjoy being in advertising (with its warts and all), get out of it: this is one business where merely getting by and putting up with what you think is horse manure makes life extra miserable. This is one profession where without belief and passion, it gets extra miserable.
You need to believe to keep fighting the good fight. Comments?