R Sukumar of Mint has posed some interesting questions in his Saturday column on the state of internet advertising in India. He has asked where is the Piyush Pandey of the medium, where is the Volkswagen Lemon campaign and where are the industry leading publications that report on and champion internet advertising. I believe that he may find answers to at least some of those questions by framing them differently.
Admittedly, he is using a columnist’s dramatic license to ask where is the big pioneer, the thought leader who will define the spirit of the internet advertising the way the mustachioed gent defined the so-called middle India television advertising. But the expectation that online 'advertising' would be a linear extension of mainstream television advertising with one or two big thought leaders extending their giant footprint across the landscape may be flawed. In fact, the online space may need ideators who straddle writing, visualising, coding, strategising and creating activation platforms; people who are comfortable with the fluid, collaborative and iterative nature of the space. It could include deep listening and changing the product offering itself.
Essentially, the grammar of advertising may be undergoing a sea change - and digital may not be to television, what television was to print. Which means our search shouldn't be for the THE big solo thought leader, but for small teams who create breakthrough programmes on the move and keep building on it. That may not appear as sexy as the archetypal big hero but may more accurately capture the zeitgeist. And I suspect we do have some very bright people who could contribute and help develop this new grammar for the digital space. Unfortunately, the environment as is to be expected, does not make it easy for them.
This is directly related to the second question that he poses – where is digital advertising’s 'Volkswagen Lemon' campaign. Again, I think there is a natural temptation to try and frame the future in yesterday’s language. The nature of digital communication may not be to have one big campaign which gets everybody talking. For that matter there may not be an ‘everybody’ in a digital context. There may be many smaller segments, each of whom is potent and important – an aggregation of sorts.
The attempt to seek a digital Volkswagen Lemon is actually an attempt to seek advertising that becomes a water cooler subject – but in an era when that water cooler itself is being replaced by Facebook groups and Twitter feeds, isn’t it natural that the best of digital advertising will reflect that. I would think that that good digital advertising by definition will be focused and targeted, engaging deeply with a small and relevant audience and leave everybody else completely in the cold. That doesn't mean the campaign hasn't got traction, to the contrary, it just means that it’s done a great job.
So while these are early days for digital advertising, I think we should start by recognizing that this involves new rules and new parameters of evaluation. It also needs a new richer, deeper language of engagement. And as a newspaper and columnist with some impressive credentials, I would like R. Sukumar and the Mint to help craft that language.
Kumar Subramaniam is executive VP, Contract Advertising, Mumbai.