Bridging the gap between the young and old in advertising

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A common grouse among the senior folk in advertising is that the youngsters (read, the ‘digitally savvy’ – whatever that means) don’t have a solid grounding in marketing and advertising. It is believed that they lack an exposure to the strategic aspects of advertising and its role in brand building. Moreover, they are said to lack the skill set and therefore pay less attention to the ‘craft’ of copywriting or art direction. So digital creative (and by that web banners, microsite, social media posts, web-only films) is said to lack finesse. It is not right to label every youngster in advertising with the same brush and all that but I tend to agree with most of these observations. Similarly it would be silly to say that all oldies in advertising are dinosaurs when it comes to digital – there are many who ‘get’ it from a tech & brand building perspective both in theory and practice.

Social media agencies and specialist divisions in big agencies which offer social media services are teeming with freshers and youngsters. As an outsider, to me the mantra seems to be, ‘if you can tweet, Snapchat or take a selfie you can become a social media executive. The reality is not far that perception. It is not really surprising because things like ‘two Facebook posts per day’ are mandated as part of the monthly retainer fee. Also given the fee structure, it is not fair to expect such agencies to invest in training – I guess it is common for freshers to learn ‘on the job’. It is also not uncommon to see youngsters who are are aware of advertising only from the 2000s. It is not their fault at all, as it is natural to remember content from popular culture of our own childhood – whichever decade it was. Such talent has grown up on SMS and other short-form communication. So it is natural that their expressions, especially in English are from a different world compared to the print ads of the 90s.

Advertising reflects the times we live in – and in the early 90s, print commanded respect. The front page solus position in Times of India or the half page colour advert in Sunday Review were coveted and saw many well-crafted campaigns and one-off ads. The creative teams took pains in arriving at an idea for a print ad and spent a lot of time (too much time, from an AE’s perspective) crafting the headline, the body copy (including the wrap up line which ties back to the headline in some way) and a tag line. Good English copywriters were at a premium. Of course, there was a downside to all this: advertising in Indian languages was often neglected, given step-motherly treatment. Ads were conceptualised in English and passed on to language writers for translation – almost never capturing the essence of the original or harnessing the power of the Indian language. Hindi and other Indian language writers came into their own from the late 90s perhaps. A hallmark of this era was the close involvement of the seniors – be it CEOs, CMOs or creative directors, in the advertising process – from the strategy to the execution. With the advent of TV and then digital, a lot changed. The rise of TV as a medium somehow took away the focus on print advertising – as the 30-seconder became the showpiece of a campaign. This led to run of the mill print ads as is evident today. The rising cost of TV as a broadcast medium meant that clients focused on high frequency (which had an impact on duration) rather than on impact. This led to reduction of the average commercial duration to something like 20 seconds which only allowed for shouting out the features or the offer. The dumbing down of such TVCs meant a cookie cutter approach in most categories – with many brands in the one category creating similar looking advertising. You couldn’t tell one tea ad from another. Digital required talent of another kind- the focus was more on tech aspects rather than on traditional creative skills. So out went the thumbnail sketches and brainstorming of ideas through scribbles. Everything began with a Google search for a reference image by the art director – the execution became more important than the idea. Today’s advertising and its emphasis on videos and short form text driven communication has its own sets of challenges. There is a check-list approach where even brands which don’t really need to do hashtag-driven stuff get onto the bandwagon.

All this is not to hark back on a wistful ‘those were the days’ mood – surely every era had its fair share of lousy advertising. Most of the advertising is run-of-the-mill and hardly noticed in any case – irrespective of the era. But advertising of pre-2000s were by and large about (a) selling the product (b) crafted a bit more lovingly – be it in static or audio visual medium. Sure times have changed- brands need to adapt. But the eternal truth is that brand communication has to do a sell job in an entertaining, relevant manner. Whether it is through a web-only film or an Instagram campaign is irrelevant. In an effort to create content for the new media the emphasis seems to be about quantity rather than quality. It is about getting those two Facebook posts out of the way rather than figuring out how such content will help build the brand and doing so in a relevant, entertaining or useful way.

Creatives of today couldn’t care less about such history (rightly so) because they have never been put into perspective by the industry or the agency they work for. So here are two thoughts:

An online collective of 90s work: what if an industry body (say 4A’s in the US or AAAI in India created a portal showcasing all the good, effective creative work of yesteryears. In India and elsewhere, early 90s saw some great print work – from the likes of Fallon McElligott, Trikaya, Enterprise, Ambience and more. But there isn’t a single platform which is a collective of select work from that period. Can the advertising industry come together and collect such work from diverse agencies and compile them online? It will be a lot of hard work but worth it. The creatives can be accompanied by narratives from the creators on the creative brief, their approach (maybe showcase the rejected work if they have it) and notes on crafting the creative. This could serve as a ready reckoner for the current generation. Again, many such ads were meant to show off creative prowess (read scam) and were largely done for obscure small businesses. 

An ad from Fallon McElligott.

Basic courses in Account Planning 101 and creative execution: with the advent of online course aggregators like Udemy, Coursera and Lynda it is easier to disseminate educational material. What if the industry came together and crafted basic courses in Account Planning and copywriting – put together by the practitioners? Sure, these are expensive, time consuming to produce but I am sure they can find sponsors and figure out other ways of recovering such investments.

It will be impossible to expect every agency – big or small to figure their own way out to train youngsters in the business aspect of advertising or to teach craft in advertising creation. Maybe initiatives such as the above are baby steps towards bridging the gap?

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