communication, digital, industry, trend

The Digital Agency Is Now Obsolete

It’s strange to read an article with this headline in a period when digital marketing in India has just begun to take off. It’s even stranger to write one.

I write this post with all due respect to digital agencies. I was part of one for a fair period of time myself, and am aware of and appreciate the steps they have taken to bring Indian marketing into the digital age. But I do believe firmly that most digital agencies – some of them established international networks – have stopped evolving. Here’s why.

I’ve begun to believe that digital agencies are taking the moniker ‘digital’ too seriously. They’re confining themselves to doing work for clients purely in the web and mobile space. To most digital agencies – and I’ve met quite a few in the last few months – building a website, doing some banner campaigns, running a Twitter profile and building a few apps is all that they should be doing. And they build their teams, their thinking, their presentations and their USP around this offering.

There’s a missed opportunity here. The rise of digital media – especially social media – has ushered in a new paradigm of communication. Consumers drive the conversation. And, more than ever before, they’re keen to interact with the brands they love and consume (or want to consume), in ways that are new and surprising.

Today’s consumers are enthusiastic about Liking, tweeting, blogging and creating content for the brand as long as they’re recognised in some way for it. They’re also keen to get what they’re paying for – a single tweet or blog post is often enough for a company to create a Customer Care division out of thin air!

Today’s consumers are also looking for great content from brands, be it text, video, photos or apps. They’re happy to spend more than thirty seconds with the brand, as long as they’re getting something out of it – be it entertainment, information or gratification.

And sometimes, you have to go out of the mobile and web space to give them that. It’s simple, really. Today’s generation is armed with smartphones and GPRS connections. They carry their digital channels with them, all around the world. We always talk of going where our consumers are…so it follows that we need to be with them – on the ground.

I think ‘digital marketing’ needs to mean ‘technology-enabled marketing’. When you think of it that way, a whole new world opens up in front of you. Suddenly you realise that social media is just a channel to reach your audience and promote your content to them, and that they’ll come to your website only when they really have to. An instant later, you’re seeing QR codes at train stations, 3D projections in bathrooms and augmented reality-enhanced streets. Soon your mind begins to conceptualise of a radical repackaging campaign and how to create a digital firestorm around it. (All this while stone-cold sober.)

This isn’t to say that no digital agency thinks this way. But if you ask them for a run-through of their work, they’ll showcase websites and social media. And offer no line-of-sight into this sort of thinking.

I’ve been screaming about integrated marketing on this blog for a long while now. I’ve even proposed a model for setting up a digital-enabled integrated agency. But few mainline agencies are ready, or even capable enough, to show the way. It’s up to the digital agencies to take a deep breath and consciously evolve in this direction.

It’s either that, or go the way the typewriter did.

advertising, campaigns, communication, digital, insight

Heretical Thinking

One (more) good thing about shifting to digital is that it’s opened up my mind to whole new ways of thinking.

In my last post, I’d talked about what’s holding digital back. In this post, I’m going to talk about an idea I had a few days back – an idea that might help digital find a role it can call its own.

Every brief I’ve got in my advertising career basically revolves around two things:

  • Telling a consumer about a product.
  • Making a consumer think that he/she wants to buy that product.

There’s a section of the brief titled What do you want your consumer to think or do? The general answer is: New XYZ detergent washes whiter. Or, ABC cream will make my skin soft and smooth. Or, I want to buy a JKL watch because it’s the watch for my generation.

Clients and agencies have built fortunes around objectives like these. I’ve helped too.

The thing we sometimes lose track of is that there’s a team sitting in the agency across the road writing a brief of its own to take on the brand you’ve just launched.

So, your very own target consumer will soon be bombarded with a message that makes him/her think, DEF cream will make my skin softer and smoother than ABC cream will.

So, six months later, sales plateau; the agency huddles around a conference room table once again to develop the next commercial, to take on DEF cream. And so on and so forth.

How do you keep the pendulum from swinging?

To arrest the pendulum, to lock it into place, you have to get your target consumer to subscribe not to your brand’s benefit, but its philosophy as a whole. An idea that greater thinkers than I have put out long ago.

Tata Tea talks about awakening, not tea. Idea talks about the power of a mobile phone, not its great plans or awesome coverage. Surf talks about values, not stain removal. They’re all selling beliefs. Philosophies. Bestselling philosophies, too.

That’s where the “heretical” idea I had comes in to play.

You can’t get a consumer to believe in your philosophy through a TV commercial, or a print ad. You can only make a consumer aware of your philosophy.

To get them to believe, you must communicate your philosophy using the most engaging medium you can find. A medium which is not a medium at all. A medium consumers don’t think of as an advertising medium.

For example: I could commission an author to write a book. A bestseller that spins a yarn around my brand’s philosophy. Maybe mentions the brand in passing. All in all, it’s a great read by a brand-name author. Release the book. Promote it. Sell it cheap. Hold events with the author – book readings, autograph-signings, etc. Distribute a free e-book version. If you love the book, chances are you’ll resonate with the brand when you see its next ad.

Another example: take 2010’s biggest viral hit yet – Pants on the Ground, by General Larry Platt. With one smash-hit video, Platt has heaped scorn upon the ‘cool’, low-waist, boxer-showing jeans American youth wear. Isn’t that a great philosophy for a clothing brand to piggy-back upon? Imagine if a denim brand were to say that there’s nothing cooler and more timeless than a superbly fitted pair of jeans. It would simply captivate the millions of people – myself included – who hate low-waist jeans. And it’s not advertising, just some much-loved content a brand would adopt.

A third: Diesel’s new Be Stupid campaign. It’s launched with a series of headlines that espouse the philosophy. Why not shoot a series of videos recreating the moments when great inventors and thinkers had their ideas? Why not put out an online guide to thinking bigger by being stupid? (Very mildly branded, of course.) If such content were inspiring enough, the brand’s philosophy would resonate far more strongly with more potential consumers. (If anyone from Diesel is reading this and wants me to execute these ideas, call me. I give best price, la!)

By the nature of the medium, digital plays a crucial role here. It offers a range of media choices – social media, viral films, gaming, blogs, web shows, web comics, e-books, what have you. And it’s easy to generate conversation using digital. One powerful blog post or video can start a debate. Use that power. Get feedback. Get hated, get loved, get death threats. Respond positively. Argue. Fight. Widen the debate. It shows you’ve engaged. Sell not your product. Sell your beliefs.

And this can be the role of digital – to quietly embed a brand’s philosophy among its intended consumers.

Now we just have to think big enough to make it happen.

communication, office

Who’s Calling?

Being a worker drone at an MNC means that you occupy space in a cubicle along with a few other people.

And one of the cubicle duties you have, apart from taking making fun of everyone regularly, is to answer a colleague’s phone when it’s ringing and he/she isn’t around.

So you pick up the ringing phone and say, “XYZ is not around right now.” Then you hang up.

But what do you do when, precisely 60 seconds later, the phone rings again, and it’s the same person? And after you’ve picked up and put it down the third time this happens, it rings…again?

In most MNCs, a certain level of formal phone etiquette is demanded, to go with the starched collars and tight neckties. Ad agencies, however, expect – no, demand – a lot less formality, and a lot more madness.

So the next time the phone rings for the fourth time, pick it up yourself and do something like this:

  1. Put on your best impression of an ‘I’m currently falling from the top floor of a very tall building’ scream…complete with the “Thunk!” at the end of the fall.
  2. Pick up and sing, “Na na na na…” Hang up. When it rings, pick up again and sing, “Na na na na…” Hang up. When it rings, pick up and sing, “Hey, hey, hey…GOODBYE!!!” Slam it down.
  3. Burp into the phone. If you’re an accomplished burper, try and do the alphabet. See how far you can get before the caller hangs up, hopefully for good.
  4. Pick up and say (in your best imitation), “CEO’s office…”
  5. Forward the call to the office playboy/slut. You might just score some blessings here…
  6. Tell the caller that the person they’re calling has just quit. Or worse, died. Refuse to acknowledge that you’re just kidding.
  7. Take your cue from Hindi movies. “Hello, is XYZ there?” “Nahiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnn!!!” Loud enough to burst a eardrum.
  8. Ignore what the caller’s saying. Instead ask, “Listen, have you heard that we’re retrenching? God, I hope they’re firing you and not me!” Hopefully that will distract the caller enough, and might just spark off a rumour that’ll keep you entertained for a few days.
  9. Pick up and say, “Hello, what can I do you for?” Once you’ve told them that XYZ isn’t around, ask when they’d like you to do them.
  10. Heavy breathing.

And if nothing seems to keep the caller away, try this classic. Call on their extensions, put on a desi accent and say, “Hello, EksVaiJhed? Aapke liye vhijiter hai.”

And if that doesn’t get them off your case, smash the phone. Preferably on their heads.