Sparing a few minutes for us, while on his annual visit to India to visit family, Hari Ramanathan, CSO, Y&R Apac, tells us that advertising is in a self-inflicted crisis at this moment.
He explains, “Seldom do I see an industry like ours. I watch a lot of CNBC and listen to bankers talking about banking. They are never remotely guilty for the sins they do, or feel sorry about banking at all. They talk negatively about the economy, but never about the industry. I think advertising is weird as an industry where a lot us keep talking negatively about it.”
He continues, “I realise the irony in that. But, it’s an observation we should be aware of. We should know how to project ourselves. We’re in a business of projecting brands, but we don’t do a very good job of projecting our industry in a positive light.”
Ramanathan, who currently leads around 50 planners across the region, believes the rise in negativity coincides with a decline in the number of agency founders in place among the ranks of agency management over the last decade and a half. "When you own the agency, and it’s your baby, you’re not going to bad-mouth it as much,” he says. "You love the industry, and that’s why you started it. That passion is hard to transfer to someone else.”
Ramanathan began his career as a copywriter with Ambience Mumbai in 1995. He reminisces about the ‘good old days of advertising’, and wants a return to that. “As old people are likely to say, I joined advertising during the good old days of advertising. This is when we were actually respected. It helped that I joined Ambience, an agency where we thought we were even more special, atleast to ourselves. It has changed a lot since those days."
Ramanathan also believes there's a lack of passion among those who are currently in the industry.
He explains, "I sound like a nostalgic old man, and I don’t want to. But when you look back at the old days, there were a lot of IIM graduates that would give up jobs in banking and join the advertising industry. I think today, advertising still has that (pull) in a big country like India, where there’s a large pool of talent and a lot of people who are driven. The industry is visible in mainstream media too in such a market. But, when you take markets like Singapore or even more mature markets like USA, you’re finding out that not too many people have come here because it's a passion."
He goes on to add that this lack of passion is even more evident in people on the account management side. He says, "I’m probably going to get a lot of flak for saying this, but that lack of passion is more evident in account management. When it comes to creative, you’re still seeing a few people joining because it’s a passion, but the smart account management executives all want to become planners now, and with those who are left, I’m not sure what drives them. And while I am certain there are exceptions to the rule, and I'm even fortunate to partner one such individual, Matt Godfrey, our president for Asia, who's not only passionate but brilliant. By and large it is an uncomfortable truth we need to face up to that we need to do better as an industry in involving ourselves in the training and identification of bright people. And more importantly clearly define the value that each discipline adds in the process."
On what Y&R has done to solve that problem, Ramanathan says, “We have got a very proactive program for internship in place called Z Academy. We recruit students from different universities and bring them in for one or two internships and then give the best ones a choice to stay back of follow any career of their choice. The program has resulted in lots of passionate people staying on with us, but more importantly creating advocates for the industry even when they go on to other agencies and even client roles.”
In chat with us in 2015, Navonil Chatterjee, CSO of Rediffusion Y&R, had an analogy of Messi and Iniesta when asked to compare his relation with Rahul Jauhari (CCO, Rediffusion Y&R). And Ramanathan retains that philosophy. He says, “Planning is about collaboration. It is part of the creative output and we follow this at a global level. Sandy Thompson who is our global planning head is very closely involved with Tony Granger (global CCO). I’m very involved with Marcus (Rebeschini) who is my creative partner for Asia and we work as a creative team. You need to have that sense of collaboration. My creative background also helps me and it comes easier to speak the language and trying to translate strategy into creative points. It’s the single biggest skill we need to speak. It’s about turning rational intellectualism into a creative springboard.”
Data vs intuition
“At heart I’m a creative guy but intuition is an important element too,” says Ramanathan when asked about the role of both for a planner. He adds, “The truth about data is that, one can make it say whatever you want it to say. In fact I’m currently reading a book about how intuition can’t be relied upon. I generally think that one must have a strong vision for the brand. Then you can use that vision as a filter to look at data and try to see what data tells you to achieve that vision. Data is mathematics. If one was at a pitch, and if three agencies have the same data, there won’t be anything different. And that won’t make an interesting marketing premise. So it’s important to have a vision and then look at the data. I believe that and all our planners practice that.”
When asked about one change he’d like to see in the planning discipline in 2017, Ramanathan believes it is about getting clients to understand the value of planning and strategy.
He explains, “I think planning’s biggest challenge is monetising. It’s an interesting dilemma and is again a problem of our own creation. We separated this process of thinking, from doing. Earlier, it was all available as one complete thing. When a client came to an agency, and briefed it. Someone would think, while someone would create. These two aspects were normally taken care of by someone from account management and the creative, or only the creative. Stuff would come out, and the client would pay for it. Now, while planning has been evolving as a thought process, we still haven’t got clients to pay for that thinking separately. That’s the challenge, of getting our thinking monetised. 99 per cent of the time we give it away for free. We need to look at how media has managed to separate itself and charge for something that was earlier built-in.”
He adds, “The rise of planning as a discipline for the better or worse, coincided with the rise of reduction in importance of ad agencies. Agencies are afraid to tell the client that there won’t be a planner from tomorrow if you don’t pay for one. There are 20 other agencies who are lining up to take that business and give three more things for free. I think we are going through that phase. Bigger FMCG companies like Colgate, Unilever, P&G etc have already seen the importance of planning and thus a core part of their compensation. Where the industry needs to make progress is with more local clients across Asia, where many don't often distinguish between the input (strategy) and the output (creative work). It's our responsibility to educate clients and also review the way we present our offering. We need to band together better as an industry. I use an example of other fraternities that provide professional services such as lawyers or doctors. You can’t find a lawyer who will do a case with you (equivalent of the pitch) and then charge you only if it is won. But you will see 10,000 agencies tripping over each other and giving you ideas which are in the end, free. It’s not only about pitches. The advertising agency in general is about ‘if the advertising doesn’t succeed, you’re on the watch-list’. It’s never the same for even doctors, when it’s about a matter of life and death! The other patients don’t stop going to him either, if a person treated dies. That professional respect is needed in our industry too.
Ramanathan surmises, “We are in the mode of transitioning from where people would pay for icons like Mr Nanda, Mr Ashok Kurien or Mr Rajiv Agarwal to turn-up at the meeting and say smart intelligent things. Piyush (Pandey) probably still has that going. We’ve now moved to a corporate industry which has no stand-out personalities. We’ve moved from being personality oriented to processes. We need to come out of that again and get back. It would probably take longer than 2017 to achieve, but I’d want to make the start.”