The general consensus that seems to have emerged over the past one month is that insensitivity in advertising is often a result of bad judgment, and scamming your way to win awards is always a result of misplaced priorities. There has been enough spoken and written on both. And I am broadly inclined to agree with this consensus. What has been bothering me though the past few weeks, is that recent examples of either or both have led to a specious sullying of the entire industry, the profession and its practitioners.
This is not the first time. And it won’t be the last.
The business of ideas
This is my 24th year in advertising. And I have loved every day of it. And no, I did not have anyone in my family from this field, nor did I know of anyone in it till I actually started working in it. If anything, I grew up in an environment quite different. Very different. My dad is a cosmic ray scientist who for most part of his working life, designed sensors for satellites for a living! So does that make me feel guilty for doing something that in comparison seems irrelevant, insignificant and probably shallow too? Hell no!
The single most important reason for my coming into advertising, sticking on, and feeling the same passion even today, is that as a species, all of us humans are genetically coded to ‘create’ and ‘build’ things. And that’s what being in advertising asks of you everyday – to create and to build; through the power of ideas. And ideas alone are what we constantly seek, fight over, applaud and value. Walk around the offices of any agency and the question you’ll hear most often is, “So what’s the idea?” It’s one of the most egalitarian industries in which you can work in. No one cares where you were born, where or what you studied, who you know or don’t. It cares for only one thing, ideas. And whether you have any? And yesterday’s idea is exactly that, yesterday’s. What’s new? What’s next? How can a new refreshing idea help a brand create desire or gain competitive advantage? And where capitalism (even our socialist version of it) and democracy co-exist, advertising plays an intriguing role in giving true meaning to both.You can’t escape it. And this can be a problem when so much of it is so poor. I suppose one could say the same about any creatively driven industry. How many good movies, music, books or soaps did you see, read or hear last year? But at its best, this unique mixture of art and commerce is engaging, entertaining and informative. Look at advertising from any era and you get a unique insight into society at that time - its loves, aspirations, insecurities and needs. It almost always has captured the zeitgeist.
Much more than ‘sell’ing
Great pieces of advertising have gone on to become cultural artifacts. For this to have happened, advertising has had to do more than ‘sell’. It has had to make us laugh, make us teary eyed, make us cheer; and most importantly on the rare occasion, it has had to inspire each of us to be more than a buyer and be an agent of change. Which other profession makes you learn as much about yourself and the world you live in? There are no limits. There are no pre-conceptualised possibilities. It’s like trekking on a glacier – the icescape you walk on is yours today, for tomorrow's trekker it may look entirely different depending on the night's snow movement. Sure, advertising uses exaggeration (like I probably am now!) – but consumers know and understand that. Just as they understand that our movies use exaggeration, as do our daily conversations and even our scriptures! Surely, our culture and society would be far duller without entertaining storytellers! It’s easy to brand us as merchants of want. Taking it seriously would be a gross over claim even by advertising standards. Because, if we indeed could make people want anything we wanted them to, trust us, we would have made the world want peace, respect women, believe in the dignity of labour or even get us as a collective Indian society to get more finicky and belligerent in daily life about ethics than in morality! I borrow and wholeheartedly subscribe to Howard Gossage’s observation: ‘People don’t see ads, they see what interests them, and sometimes, it’s an ad.’
Agents of change
Advertising has never been completely noble. But that has been the beauty of it. There was a certain impudence to the way we were. We were the flower children of the corporate world. We had a certain something to us. We were the ones that our clients could never be and secretly always wanted to be. A meeting with the agency was the high point of what they saw as their dreary 9 to 6 day job. The difference between then and now is not that we are any nobler now, but now we would like to believe so. Why? What changed? At our core, we are just an agency. Being called an agency means we are agents for our clients. Our primary responsibility has always been and will always remain towards our clients. We never had any delusions of grandeur of what we did then. We created works of art that sold their produce and/or philosophy then. We continue to do so the same today, albeit held now, a lot more accountable for the RoI we deliver. It is our clients who are recalibrating the priorities of their businesses today, and we are just trying our darned best to effectively communicate them.
My dad has over the past many years, been regularly and unsolicited-ly bringing up subjects with me like, “Is advertising an entertaining and easy to understand lesson in marketing?” or “How do you price an idea? Can you even?” Or, he ambushes me with conundrums like, “Does advertising give credibility to brands or do brands give credibility to advertising?” His questions and his earnest desire for their answers are revealing in themselves – that advertising can intrigue even the most unlikely. And before you dismiss them off as overtures of an indulgent father, let me just say that he is far too left brained for that!
Cheer them on!
But once more and yet again, advertising has become the favourite whipping horse for anyone and everyone. The fall out is there for all to see. The baby has yet again been flung out with the bath water; and the advertising industry is yet again feeling that debilitating cringe in its collective gut. The hue and cry (and thank God there is!) over the 1 per cent work that is scam gets more word count and debates than the 99 per cent of work that is legit. And in this legit work you will find a motley bunch of the good, the bad and the ugly. But all of them, a result of hard work, heated debates, trampled upon egos, long nights, rigorous thinking, honesty of intent and multiple rejections. Rejection, the word that gives most in the industry a booster shot to come out with the next idea. And because it is commercial art, the job ends only when the client has bought and executed the idea. And till that happens, people soldier on silently, resolutely and unflinchingly.
The least we could do is to cheer them on…
(Joseph George is CEO, Lowe Lintas and Partners. Views expressed are personal.)