Campaign India Team
Dec 22, 2010

The Big Debate: The good, bad and ugly of Indian Advertising: Subhash Kamath

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 Subhash Kamath, managing partner, BBH India had to say.

The Big Debate: The good, bad and ugly of Indian Advertising: Subhash Kamath

I’ve seen this business change

Our creative voice underwent a huge metamorphosis


“How many times must a man look up,

before he can see the sky?

Yes’n, how many ears must one man


before he can hear the people


The answer, my friend, is blowing in the


 –        Bob Dylan, poet

I joined advertising on January 7, 1987, twenty-four years ago. Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting and dynamic business than this. No other career could’ve given me so much variety, creativity and people-orientation.

Over the years, as India went through some of the biggest socio-cultural changes it has ever seen, I’ve seen this business change. Agencies have been restructured, practices have changed, our approach to brand building became different and our creative voice underwent a huge metamorphosis.

Not all the changes have been good though. Some have been good, some bad, and some downright ugly. 

Here’s my report card, for what it’s worth.

The Good

I remember a time when English was the primary medium of Indian advertising. My own job interview was spent discussing subtle nuances in the writing style of PG Wodehouse. Most top copywriters were often judged by their mastery over the language. These custodians of the written word put the craft of English ‘copywriting’ on a pedestal, with art direction coming second. Art directors were quite often called on to the job after the copywriter had “cracked the headline”; their role was to lay it out nicely in the form of a layout.

Thank God, in this aspect at least, advertising has changed for the better. Creative people work in teams now and when it comes to generating an idea, there’s no difference between a copywriter and an art director.

More importantly, Indian advertising has a unique voice and flavor today. We do not mindlessly imitate the West anymore. On the contrary, we proudly wear our Indianness on our sleeves. Our expressions are uniquely ours and the primary language could well be Hindi or Bengali or Tamil or our very own Hinglish.

So while I do miss the delight of reading a beautifully crafted piece of English copy these days, I can’t help but enjoy the cultural brilliance of a “Har Ghar Kuch Kehta Hai” or a “Ganne de kheth mein tamatar kitho..” (Take a bow, Mr. Pandey, you’ve heralded a whole new era in advertising). The quality of Indian advertising has definitely improved. The best of our work is now comparable to the best in the world, even if the lower end of our quality is not.

Continuing on this point of ‘Indian-ness’ I also feel good when I see Indian brands fighting hard and managing to hold their own against the more powerful global brand leaders that have entered this country. Brands like Titan, Bajaj, Tata, Airtel, Godrej, Lakme, Marico etc have not only retained their leadership, but have given us enough reason to be proud and happy with their brands and their advertising.

Another good change I have noticed in recent years is the importance and value that clients are placing on strategic planning. There was a time when this was part of a genuine account leader’s role. We did both ourselves: the strategic thinking as well as the operational management of the account. But somewhere down the line, the industry lost it, I guess. We stopped providing the strategic value that clients came to us for, and we became creative and operational service providers. We created unnecessary designations. We promoted people without due reason or achievement. And gradually, we lost respect as an industry in our client’s eyes.

Thankfully, a few agencies today are fighting hard to bring back that respect. To provide real brand solutions, not just service. These few agencies are hiring and nurturing good strategic minds and it’s showing in the kind of client relationships they command. Slowly but surely, they’re working towards true business and brand partnership. Accountability is the key here, and I believe clients are more than willing to reward those who’re truly accountable. It’s something the advertising industry had forgotten.

The Bad

Even as I say the top end of Indian advertising has become more endearing and persuasive, I cant help but feel terrible about the general quality of work that one sees. There has emerged a trend towards what I call a `Sea Of Sameness’ across categories. Whether it’s hair-care, skin-care, personal care, oral care, durables, two-wheelers, cars or any emerging category, advertisers seem happy to follow rather than lead.

Category codes have become category clichés. Clients who have little or no feel or commitment to creativity are often dictating stale scripts, identical product-windows and the casting of stereotypes. What’s worse is that agency folks are comfortably following these dictates, unwilling to rock the boat as long as the client is happy and revenues keep flowing in. Somewhere along the line, they actually start to believe in these holy cows. It’s easier, than to go through the rigor of trying to break new ground. Thus, real consumer data is seldom analyzed in-depth, very basic and fundamental observations are touted as ‘Insights’ and creative briefs end up becoming a focused but imploring plea to the creative team: “Kuch kar de, yaar!”

One change that has not happened is the fact that we’re still pretty much dependent on the 30’ commercial, while the rest of the world has moved on to embrace the digital age. Agreed that for a vast country like India, you still need television as the true mass medium, but how many agency leaders, creative directors and their teams have started to grasp the nuances of the new media and what it takes to build a brand in the digital world? “3600” is just a phrase in the credentials and is often relegated to slide No. 45 onwards in the recommendations presentation.

Digital talent, more often than not, is not even a part of the core team working on the brand. When are times going to change? The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind …

Another sad thing that has happened to the industry is the splitting up of the creative and media functions into separate companies. Sure there are benefits – advertisers now have better media buying clout; standalone media companies are able to invest better in media planning and optimization tools.

But there’s a huge downside: Media seldom influences the creative thinking anymore, and the creative thinking seldom influences the media choice or strategy. In earlier days, they did. Today, this integration is left to the client. In a fast emerging digital world, where the medium itself can be the idea, it’s doomsday for us all if we aren’t able to marry the creative and media thinking to provide one cohesive solution. Isn’t it time we brought back media or engagement thinking into the agency, even if media buying is kept separate?

The other thing that makes me feel really sad is the way agencies are being built – with revenue targets, cost targets and maybe ‘awards’ objectives. But very few are focusing on building really strong organizational cultures. And not one, in my opinion, is focused on building its people. Little or no budgets are earmarked for ‘training’, and that’s the first thing that gets cut when the revenue stream slows down. Career plans are rare, evaluations are often done in a hurry and subjectively, and only because increments and promotions have to be announced by the end of the month. In a business where people are the only real assets, there’s hardly an agency in India that can boast of a really good HR function or practice. Strange, isn’t it?

Where has all this lead to?  Simple. Loss of respect. And that ultimately hits us where it hurts most: our income. Look at the way our income has eroded over the years. The good ol’ 15% commission we used to earn is history. Today large advertisers are not paying their agencies more than 5-6%, maybe even less. Or agencies are forced to work on retainer fees based on actual time spent, rather than being able to charge on the value they provide. A John Hegarty, Alex Bogusky or Piyush Pandey may crack a brilliant idea in just five inspired minutes. But that idea could ultimately result in millions for the client. Is it fair then that the agency is compensated for only the time they’ve spent? Yet, our industry is not able to command a premium. And, to make it worse, agencies fall over themselves undercutting and discounting each other, just to bring in the business.

The Ugly

“I see dead people. Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead…”  - Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense

The ugliest thing in advertising today is the advent of scams. What started off as a motivational tool for creative people has become the scourge of our industry, a disease that is eating away at our credibility and respect. Today, a huge amount of money, precious talent and agency time is spent on creating ads that no consumer sees. They’re designed primarily for the jury, comprising of more people like themselves. Then they cheat, plagiarize, bitch, accuse and conspire … all for a few minutes of glory on the stage, and for some rankings in a magazine. Worse, clients are now involved in this duplicity by being cajoled to pay for one single release in some obscure publication. A furtive attempt at legitimizing a bastard child.

Why am I being so vocal about this? Because very senior people in this business have forgotten what we’re here for, and because we’re setting a horrible example for our youngsters.  I know of a large agency that let 6 senior people go because of loss in revenues, people who’d been with the agency for years. Yet, later that year, they spent more than the cost of those people in fabricating work and entering awards! How ugly can it get?

Fact is, we don’t really think ahead as an industry. Neither do we behave as an industry. We don’t have the kind of unity that any self-respecting industry should have. Take a look at the elections held by some of the associations, and you’ll know what I mean. Witness the ridiculous in-fighting; the political machinations …  you’ll see people fighting for power and stature, without having achieved anything substantial. Not caring really for the people. Not doing anything to build talent from the grassroots, just happy to poach from each other. And then there are the others, who never want to take any responsibility, but are content to criticize from the sidelines. There is no united agenda, really, only individual ones.

So there it is. I’ve said it all. The good, the bad and the ugly. But guess what, I’m still here and still smiling. Still can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be, And hopefully, I’ll be around to witness the next big change in this business too.

Campaign India

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