An insider’s narration of the dramatic transformation in the field of Indian advertising over the last five decades.
Advertising has had an eloquent history in India. Western thinking and English- based scripts dominated its early days. By the 1960’s, reputed international agencies like J Walter Thompson, Ogilvy Benson and Mather and F D Stewart had set up offices in India and boasted of a roster of top clients. To rival them were Indian agencies like Da Cunha, R K Swamy and MAA. There was no TV; newspapers and radio were the main mass media, followed by cinema.
Cut to the present and you see a world of a thousand television channels, internet, social media, and digital technology. ‘Transformation’ is an inadequate term to describe it. To chronicle this mammoth change is not easy. Painting even a small picture of how things were fifty years ago would produce a dramatic and unbelievable contrast. I will attempt to simplify this rather complex task by seeing this transformation over time through four prisms. And I am giving it an appropriate acronym too: T I M E! Technology, Information & Media, Marketplace and Ecosystem.
Advertising is always about great ideas, both then and now. But those days after conceiving the design, a lot of creation and execution had to be done before showing it to the consumer.
It was a whole lot of hard work. Remember, there were no computers! All visualisation and art were done manually using paper, crayons, paint and brush! Photography was of the shooting-on-film-and-processing variety and very expensive. Copy matter on artworks would be by way of ordering typesetting and pasting it part by part. Copy corrections were a nightmare. Print production was equally arduous with manual page artworks composed and zinc- plated and made ready for offset printing.
Even for the regular office work there were no computers and no emails! Letters, briefs and memos got typed on paper sheets. I recall my days as a cub account executive, when I used to write out call reports on paper stationery, before packing up for the day! Today, a computer is involved in every activity. All design is done on machines using sophisticated software. Text and images are created, varied and manipulated in millions of ways sitting at the desk. Faces can be altered, voices changed, backgrounds implanted on pictures that were never shot with that background, and an entire music score with a dozen different instruments can be composed sitting on a computer synthesiser.
Does this technology paradigm mean that the challenge involved in creating good advertising is any less today? Maybe not. But it is undoubtedly by far more comfortable to give shape and form to a good idea, toy with it, experiment with changes and variations and make it indeed come alive; and all of this quickly and inexpensively!
Information and Media
The present era is the information age. Today, is it possible for any of us to conceive of a day without using our Google search once or to scan our WhatsApp folder, let alone taking a break from our mobile? Is there a way one starts work in the office other than starting the computer and looking at the emails? A far cry from my dad’s total dependence on the morning newspaper with coffee for any and every information.
The print medium dominated the advertising industry in the 1960s and 1970s. No television. Releasing an ad meant publishing it in a newspaper or magazine. There were only a handful of these. Life was simple for a media planner! For a national release of an English advertisement in the papers, it was Hindu in Madras, the Times of India in Bombay, Hindustan Times in Delhi and The Statesman in Calcutta. End of the plan! Media planning and buying, in reality, meant just proper scheduling, even the rates fixed and inflexible. Radio was restricted to AM radio with limited coverage and content, and even less advertising. Some cinema advertising used to happen through a nodal agency called Blaze and outdoor was in the form of painted hoardings. End of story.
Today, television and internet dominate our lives. Information is comprehensive, global, and instantaneous. There are a thousand channels that an Indian citizen can pick for viewing 24 hours a day. Cable television has penetrated the remotest village. Notwithstanding this assault from TV, the print medium continues to thrive. Every respectable newspaper carries a full front-page ad on any given day! There is one lakh registered newspapers and periodicals today. Radio is reborn in FM avatar and every town has a handful of FM channels. Advanced satellite and digital technologies have transformed the hardware, software, programming, and transmission of content and advertising over all these media.
Then there is the internet and social media. And so, here we are standing on an information landscape that bears no resemblance to what obtained 50 years ago. The job of a media planner today is arguably one of the most complex, data-intense jobs across all businesses.
Those days, the market was simple. Competition was limited. In most categories, the choice was between two or three brands. Toothpaste was either Colgate or Binaca or Forhans. Textiles were Bombay Dyeing or Binny. Cars were Ambassador or Fiat. Understandably, advertising was more informational and infrequent. Advertisements would be for some specific launch and far less for the sustained brand building.
Cut to today. There are over a hundred advertised brands of soaps. About 20 car manufacturers are selling 300 models of cars. Luxury brands like Mercedes, BMW and Audi are competing with one another to snare the growing Indian upper-class populace. Paradigm shifts in technology have resulted in a vast array of electronic gadgets, computers, telecom equipment, cameras, mobile phones and combinations of these.
Then there is the evolution of the services business. Service industries in the earlier world, whether airline or hotel or banking, would often leave one perplexed as to who is the service provider and who is the customer. Such was the extent of smugness and laxity. That has changed now. The competition in service is now as intense as in any product business. Many product makers have moved from pure product play to mounting services on their products. Even a category like cosmetics sees a giant like Unilever offer cosmetic services in support of its cosmetic products.
The competition in every product or service category is intense, and the customer has a vast array of choices. Today, indeed the Customer is King!
The ecosystem for the advertising business which is primarily the
Client-Agency-Media troika and all the associated ancillary activities and services that serve them, has transformed and evolved in tandem with the transformation in all the three facets described above.
The large, ubiquitous general-service advertising agency that offered a single window to its client for everything from planning and strategy to creation to production is a thing of the past. Specialised outfits have replaced the general service agency. There are consultants for strategy, market research outfits for all consumer insights, boutiques and hot shops for design and creation, filmmakers who will produce films and media agencies who will do the planning and buying of media space. There are digital media and social media specialists who bring this game of eyeball counts, click-through, lead generation and e-commerce platforms to integrate with brand building and sales.
A significant outcome of this change is that a lot of the action has moved from the agency to the client’s office. All strategic planning for the brand happens at the client’s office. The agency’s role has been reduced to efficient implementation of the client’s campaigns.
From art to science
I will not call the old era as the golden era, lest I sound like an old man who perennially gets nostalgic and complains about today. It’s true the transformation has made many things possible now that would have been inconceivable in those days. The market sizes and scale, production values, and media spends make the earlier era’s advertising look minuscule. However, at times, one does reminisce on how the agency then was a faithful custodian of the client’s brand, how there was an implicit trust by the client to leave the entire piece to the agency, the excellent people-to-people relationships and mutual respect that inevitably resulted in great work.
Is advertising an art or science?
Today it is science. Fifty years ago, it was art!