It used to be quite pleasant and ‘sunny’ when I began my career in advertising. Many legends. Satyajit Ray, Subhas Ghosal, to name a few, started here.
Marketing giants admired the talent, inspiration and at times, the gall of the advertising greats who helped propel their brands. The golden ’60s and ’70s of advertising certainly belonged to Calcutta.
The hot winds of change began to blow from the late ’70s. Brands began to drift to cooler climes in Bombay. By the mid-’80s Calcutta agencies were panic stricken.Who do they fly with? But the talent in Calcutta found a way. They migrated with the westerly winds and landed at the action zone, Bombay.
Today, Calcutta talent is available in abundance in Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Bangalore, you name it, anywhere on the globe.
Meanwhile, the advertiser base had shrunk beyond control. Talent was scarce. Bright youngsters were looking at other lucrative professions. And the ‘15 per cent agency commission’ began to attract a new business-minded breed. Advertising soon became a numbers game with investors seeking quick returns. Dog-eat-dog undercutting became the new business mantra, even for the multinationals.
Heating up even more when the industry split up between creative and media shops.
Those left, needed to re-strategise and rebuild. This opened up new pastures. In the 90s, home-grown businesses began to feel the need to build brands. Bombay was a bit far away and expensive. Clients needed partners in Calcutta.
They took a fresh look at agencies here. And found some had latent talent and offered them opportunities.
Agencies like Response, Thoughtshop, Genesis and Inner Circle grew in their own rights and locked horns with the might of JWT, O&M, Bates, Rediffusion, Lintas, Grey and Mudra. Often merging glocal solutions for hungry Calcutta clients.
Calcutta began to stir out of its Rip Van Winkle slumber. Sadly, the clients were neither pan-India in their mindsets nor in their pockets. Those who were, like the Emamis, still sought out the slicker Mumbaikars. Calcutta was left to nurture what remained. Which it did rather well… till the ‘new’ great depression in 2008.
Agencies in Calcutta, like elsewhere, were hit below the belt. Fees for creative agencies shrunk to less than half. A large chunk of clients switched to project-based arrangements. The battle for daily existence became near fatal.
A new twist in the tale emerged, again. This new homegrown client breed was now even hungrier. They realised during the recession that to sustain and grow, brand building was the only answer. And advertising was back in business again.
But strings were very tight. And they continue to be so. 2008 showed agencies were willing to work for a lot less than their worth. And it’s stuck.
Calcutta still remains a tough advertising market and will continue to be so.
But freak showers still offer some relief amid the heat and humidity A whole new flock of medium to largeish-medium businesses are getting ready to build brands.
The weather is turning, but ever so slowly. The sad part: quality of work and knowledge seem to have taken a backseat. Quantity and volume rule.
In the era of information, the knowledge domain is ‘slip-sliding away’. Instant relief has won over laboured love. The silver lining - there are still a bunch of people, albeit a handful, who have the potential of cheerful sunshine.
We hope. Therefore, we shall be.
Ram Ray refers to Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai by their former names. This, and the views expressed in the column, are personal.