Campaign India Team
Dec 24, 2010

The Big Debate: The good, bad and ugly of Indian Advertising: Shiv Sethuraman

As part of our year-end special, we reproduce the thoughts shared by industry captains on the good, the bad and the ugly of Indian advertising in conversations with Campaign India. Read what Shiv Sethuraman, Chief executive officer, TBWA\India had to say.

The Big Debate: The good, bad and ugly of Indian Advertising: Shiv Sethuraman

what makes a profession is  the people 

Bankers are boring. Advertising people are fun. 

They say the true judge of a man’s passion and regard for his chosen profession is whether he would want his children to make their living the same way he does. While my children are too young for this to be a material concern, the occasion of this piece forced me to examine my feelings about advertising as a profession and, more importantly, as something to live and love.

To my mind,  the most important part of what makes a profession is  the people who populate it. Bankers are boring. Advertising people are fun.  Cliché mais vrai. As a people, we are FUN. We have fun at work; we have fun outside of work. We have fun with clients; we have fun at clients. It’s the one thing that makes the pathetic salaries, the unreasonable clients and the incessant demands bearable. And even after almost two decades in the business, that much is still true. Advertising is a lot of fun. 

Unfortunately, it seems like the only good thing going for the business. There are many problems that ail the advertising industry - an appalling lack of talent, anachronistic salaries and absence of innovation, to name just a few. All of the problems can, however, be traced to one root cause; our inability to determine how we should be paid. Everything flows from that. Jean Marie Dru, our Chairman, spoke to the American Association of Advertisers (ANA) some months ago where he said, “ As industrial productivity has improved over the past twenty years, agency fees for an average unit of work has dropped by 40% (when adjusted for inflation). At the same time, agency creative workload has increased by 65% and grown in complexity. Much less income, much more work.”Awards. Elections. Pitch fees. All crap. Mere sideshows. Distractions that keep us from focusing on the real issue. 

We don’t know how you should pay us Mr. Client, so why don’t you decide? Would you like me to take a commission so that I  can get screwed over if you don’t spend as much as you claim you will? Would you like me to share my salaries with procurement so he can decide how much to pay my Creative Director? Would you like my performance to be based on things that cannot be measured objectively? Would you like to bugger my profitability to the point where I can no longer afford such extravagances as training and research?
It’s not the client’s fault. It’s ours. The Advertising industry’s stance on remuneration is the corporate equivalent of  ‘saab, jo aapko theek lage woh de do’.  Would you respect someone who said that to you?  Would you say  “there goes a competent guy”? No, you wouldn’t. So, why are we surprised we no longer command the respect of our clients? You would have thought that for an industry that has been pretty much taken over by the bean counters, we would have cracked this one by now. You would have thought that for an industry that sells ideas, we would have some decent ones on how to price our product right.  You would have thought that with the extent of consolidation that has gone on in our business, the ‘holding companies’ would have huddled together and come up with a plan or at least a ‘white paper’. But no! We are too busy undercutting each other. Too busy holding seminars on ‘how to negotiate successfully with procurement’. Too busy moaning over the attitude of our clients. Too busy to look squarely in the mirror and say ‘we have no bloody clue anymore about what we sell and how to fetch a good price for it’!

The Indian industry is now recognized the world over as a source of great advertising and creative talent. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can find a way of ‘monetizing’ that talent better than anybody else in the world?  Wouldn’t that be a fantastic gift to all the future generations that wander into the business? Wouldn’t it be a nobler objective than squabbling over awards and pitch fees? 

Imagine, if you will, a world where we could go back to the best schools and hire bright, young minds. A world where we could afford to train our people regularly and well. A world where people in advertising didn’t have to stare enviously at the cars and homes of their counterparts in other industries. A world where we had some money to put aside for ‘Research & Development’.  

If there is one thing that the leaders of this industry must focus on, it is this. It is the key to all the doors. It is the solution to all our problems. It is time we dedicated our best minds and our best efforts to coming up with some answers. It wouldn’t be alarmist to say that if we don’t get this right in a hurry, there probably will be no industry to speak of in a couple of decades. At least not an industry that a self-respecting 20 something would want to join.  

If we did, however, come up with a model that we all believed in and gathered behind, it would change the future trajectory of this business in an immeasurably beneficial way. I don’t have the answers. Nobody does.  But we have brilliant people who get ideas and we have razor sharp people who understand money.  Now, if only we sit them down together for long enough to come up with some  powerful and practical ideas on how we can make more money. And the day that happens, I will finally go back to Trishna for a two-vodka lunch, call my kids and say “ Join advertising. It’s fun and you can make lots of money. What more can a person ask for?”

Campaign India