challenges, digital, india, industry, trend

The Battle To Own Digital In India

I was at the Effies the other night, and something struck me hard.

We, Jack In The Box Worldwide, were the only digital agency shortlisted in the category Digital Advertising.

We got a bronze. But the golds went to Ogilvy and Taproot.

It’s time those who claim that mainline agencies don’t ‘get’ digital shut up and take a long, hard look at the awards tallies.

Image Courtesy:

At the Abbys, Ogilvy’s Fox Crime campaign swept the Digital Grand Prix. The same story was just repeated at the Effies last Tuesday.

And media agencies, the third wheel of our growing ecosystem, were nowhere to be seen.

Let’s face it – at both of India’s premier award shows, where digital agencies and mainline agencies compete in the same field, the mainline agencies have come out ahead. 

They may not have won as many awards as the digital and media agencies but they have won the top prize twice in a row now.

The disparity in the number of medals can be explained by the fact that mainline shops get much fewer digital briefs than digital and media agencies.

In fact, the only place you’ll find digital and media agencies competing and winning are at specialist digital award shows – Campaign India’s Digital Awards, the IDMA, etc.

But, and not very quietly either, mainline agencies have been working to catch up and get past the competition.

Lowe, as Joseph George announced in a recent interview, is working to ‘mainline’ digital.

Ogilvy presents and executes an integrated campaign for almost every brief.

JWT has, under Bobby Pawar and Max Hegermann, set up a very capable pan-India digital team.

Leo Burnett’s Creative Directors are, in their own words, asked to crack the digital idea before the TVC.

BBH is competing with their clients’ digital agencies, pitching digital ideas along with their mainline campaigns.

BBDO has integrated so closely with Proximity that the latter even pitches (and executes) TVCs, on occasion.

It won’t be long before they’re winning digital duties, either as part of an integrated package, or stand-alone.

They have the clients, they have the money to hire good digital people, and they can play the long game more easily than small digital shops. 

They also have better creative folk than media agencies, whose key business is in the planning and buying of media space, not creative solutions.

And which client wouldn’t want to give their business to a place that has proven their understanding of the brand time and time again, and shows that they can do it in digital as well?

Us digital folk are fighting a battle we haven’t fully realised we’re in. And we have two options in front of us now.

One: Sell out. Every network agency is shopping for digital agencies in India. There are at least two digital shops I know of in serious talks, and another that has already been stealthily acquired. Integrate with the network agency and play in a larger field, quicker than you would’ve otherwise.

Two: The option former Campaign India editor Anant Rangaswami suggests in his tour de force, The Elephants In The Room. Hire people who ‘get’ brands, across servicing and creative. Show clients that digital agencies can act as brand custodians too. And once you’ve consolidated your digital business, start attacking the mainline agencies by pitching for their mainline business.

What started off as a niche industry has become a full-blown battleground. It’s the Jedi versus the Sith, and it’s unclear, as of now, who’s going to emerge the winner.

careers, challenges, creative, industry

Confession And Inspiration

Advertising is supposed to be the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

But somewhere down the line, you tend to forget exactly how much fun it can be.

It begins when you allow yourself to get sucked into the quagmire of briefs, deadlines and client issues. Before you know it, the term “fuck-all” has become a part of your daily lingo.

“This is a fuck-all brief!”

“How can I crack a great idea with this fuck-all deadline?”

“What a fuck-all client! He just doesn’t get it!”

The attitude you develop in your formative years is the attitude you take with you into your middle years. 

At some point, you realise that your Creative Director is being paid a lot of money. And you start thirsting to reach that same level. The journey is forgotten – all you think about is the end destination. You lose the Zen, the ability to focus on the here and now, and life suddenly becomes about hitting a target. And whining when someone hits that target before you do.

Along the way, the nature of your work changes. Gone is the edginess, gone is the humour, gone is the youth. You end up trying to play Creative Director when you’re not ready to yet. You may not notice. But your bosses do. And in that process, all you do is push that end goal further and further away.

The time comes when you manage to put out a significant piece – or pieces – of work. Or you take a path less travelled. A couple of jobs later, you’re where you wanted to be. The designation. The salary. The cabin overlooking the sea. A bunch of bright young people reporting in to you. And the ego boost to go with all this.

Then you find yourself in a rut again. Caught up in “senior management” things. Targets. Results. Client relationships. Processes. Evaluation. Playing mentor. Board meetings. Visions and missions. The whining begins. Again.

Slowly, it begins to feel that your job profile is, very simply, to deal with shit.

Where’s the fun in that?

Sound familiar?

A few days ago, I finished reading Dave Trott’s Creative Mischief.

Creative Mischief. Available on the Kindle store:

Dave Trott is one of those names you’ve seen in the award books fairly often. A former CD at BMP, he’s now at CST The Gate, a London-based agency with a global presence.

Creative Mischief isn’t the best primer on advertising there is. But it is by far the best primer on the attitude you need in the advertising business.

It’s exactly what you need when you’re feeling mentally jaded at any point in this exciting, fun, dirty, all-consuming, incestuous, joyful, overworked, underpaid, vain, glorious industry of ours.

It’s certainly reminded me of the mindset I had when I joined Lowe fresh out of college. It’s made me think, once again, of how much fun this business can be. It’s made me want to feel the fun again. No matter how long it takes. No matter what stands in my way.

It’s made me write this blog post. And, for the first time, write on this blog as the Creative Head of Jack In The Box Worldwide.

To all those young men and women in my team, I say this:

Find the fun in your job.

The fun isn’t about joking with your teammates and colleagues, or downing a beer with the boss on the terrace. It’s about the fun of coming up with an idea – under extreme stress, for a tough client, without a clear brief – that’ll solve a business problem. A headline that’ll make people laugh or cry. A web design that you’ll be proud to show off to your mom. The process is fun. The idea is fun. The joy is infectious. You just have to want it to be.

If you can’t find the fun in your job, maybe this isn’t the job for you. Maybe you’ll be happier doing a similar job in another agency. Maybe your fortune isn’t in advertising. In either case, I will be very sorry to see you leave. But I will be the first to encourage you to find something that makes you truly happy.

Don’t crib. About deadlines or briefs or clients. Look at it this way. Somebody out there is giving you the license to get creative by developing a campaign for their brand. Without them asking, you’d never have gotten the chance to show off your creativity. Yes, you need time and clarity to create the work, you need support to sell the work. But remember: the shit will always be there. It will only increase as you grow up. Whining won’t clean it up.

Don’t get bogged down by rules and restrictions. Yes, your work will always need to be on-brief and on-brand. You can’t do a sob story for Happydent. Or an adult joke for Surf. But ask yourself, “What are the boundaries and how far can I push them today?” If your idea isn’t doing that, push harder. Boundaries only expand when you push them. If you don’t, they’ll close in and strangle you.

Don’t knock the mundane processes. Job lists and job status meetings exist to make relatively unimportant tasks mindless and easy. Every ounce of your attention should be devoted to one thing and one thing only – pushing that boundary to create the best work you can. Work that solves the problem and makes you happy. Make the job list the mundane, not the job.

I could go on, but I’d rather advise you to buy Dave’s book. It’s the best $9.99 you could spend. 

Happy people = happy work = happy clients = happy people.

We all have big dreams. For ourselves. For our company. And we can only achieve them if we’re happy while achieving them.

And if I seem to be forgetting these thoughts at any point in time, you have my express permission to whack me over the head and remind me of them.

Let’s do this.

digital, industry, virals

The Dark Side of Viral Marketing

On 16th November, Jack In The Box kicked off what became India’s (and possibly the world’s) biggest viral campaign of 2011. By the time we took our foot off the gas, #kolaveri had covered most of the globe. The original video had gotten (at the time of writing this) over 25 million hits and spawned a whole bunch of cover versions. Dhanush was on billboards and news channels, and organising flash mobs at Churchgate Station. Amitabh Bachchan was tweeting about it. And Jack In The Box was getting a whole lot of phone calls and news coverage.

Kolaveri was a case study in viral marketing. It showed the world how great seeding and promotion could get a great piece of content to the right people, in the least time and the least cost. It showed the faith our client had in us – and the power of social recommendation.

Then, two weeks later, we got a phone call that made us painfully aware of the other side of social media marketing. The jugaad side. The dark side. The one that we’ve all been aware of, but chosen to ignore.

The Jedi Knights of social media do it the hard way. We identify the best channels to place the content, and seed it over and over again, each time giving the audience a new way to engage with it. We painstakingly identify influencers and engage with them. If we’re crowdsourcing, we slave over getting entries in. We slave over curating them and putting together the final piece of content. We track, religiously. We optimise. We celebrate every thousandth like and every hundred-thousandth video view. We celebrate the people who make the content viral.
The Sith Lords, of course, are another story.
We’ve heard of the agencies – and clients –  that pay money to buy likes on Facebook. The ones that pay people to create fake Facebook profiles and sit around all day clicking the Like button on all their Pages, creating an artificial spike in their Facebook Insights.
We know about the agencies – and clients – that ‘crowdsource’ videos and other content. The crowd is made up of agency employees and their friends. Of course, the film has been produced by the agency, scripted and staged to the last detail. And then passed off as videos done by fans in the real world.
The phone call we received the other day was one such request.
Why was I so pissed off?
Frankly speaking, we owe the client a lot for Kolaveri. They could’ve easily insisted we buy likes, we create ‘crowdsourced’ videos. They didn’t. They trusted us to do our jobs and supported us in any way they could. The results are out there for the world to see.
Contrast this to a client who refused to acknowledge that we know what we are doing. Who refused to trust our judgement of content. Who asked us to fake something that could’ve been done better and for real. All this after Kolaveri.
Why fake an orgasm when someone is willing to work hard to give you a real one?
It all comes back down to two things.
One: The Measurement Curse. Clients are desperate for the numbers that will make their bosses happy and their bonuses fatter. Agencies are desperate for the numbers that will help them retain the business. It’s a dirty business, really. As long as clients are going to be rewarding employees and agencies on the basis of quantitative measures – likes, comments, % virality, % engagement – this shit will continue to go down.
Two: The ‘Know-It-All’ Curse (I haven’t blogged about that yet). Clients who don’t understand audiences believe they are brighter and more creative than the agency they hire. They don’t spend a tenth as much time as we do tracking trends. Or understanding what makes a campaign viral. Or learning about the platforms we use. Yet, they mysteriously always know better than we do.
I’m under no illusions that this rant will change things. But I just have one more thing to say to the Sith Lords of viral marketing.
Agencies can fool the client. Clients can fool their bosses. Agencies and clients can both fool themselves. 
But ultimately, you can’t fool the audience.
advertising, content, copywriting, digital, industry

Return Of The (Long) Copy Writer?

My love affair with long copy began in 2002, during my internship with Ambience D’Arcy. My then boss, Raghu Bhat, suggested I focus on learning how to craft copy. So during my next internship, I pestered my Creative Director, Elvis Sequeira, to teach me how to write, and never looked back.

All through my mainline stint, long copy was my – pun intended – long suit. I set myself a goal – every year, I would present at least one long copy campaign to a client. In a period when everyone wanted to crack a TV commercial, I became the long copy guy. A lot of work remained unpublished as clients showed ever-decreasing belief in print and long copy. But there were some memorable releases, and I fed off those.

Copywriting became a bit frustrating about three years ago. There wasn’t much appreciation for the carefully crafted paragraph, or for print as a medium itself. Most long-copy ads were written as scam entries for Goafest, hung on the walls for an audience comprising twelve jury members and a few hundred festival delegates. Worst of all, it became impossible to find young talent that could actually put together a grammatically correct sentence in the Queen’s English. Fewer still possessed the ability to vary their tone and vocabulary to suit different brands, the way David Abbott taught us.

And so long-copy advertising in India seemed destined to fade into oblivion.

Until the digital explosion came along.

Portals like Yahoo have long known what digital marketing professionals are just beginning to cotton on to – content, if interesting, relevant and well targeted, will be consumed, no matter the length or format. Long-form content, mostly text, keeps websites alive and audiences engaged. Millions of text-heavy blogs are consumed each day, read through from cover to cover. While video views are increasing rapidly in India – YouTube is the second most-widely searched site in India – bandwidth considerations mean that text is still the primary form of content online.

The other aspect of this is the explosion of social media. Brand engagement on Facebook and Twitter is growing exponentially. Each day, users’ timelines are populated by a plethora of content from brands, be it long form or short.

Here’s the rub. What I’m seeing right now is an explosion of social media content, but an appalling paucity of good writing. I see strings of cliches masquerading as headlines, reams of soulless copy packaged and labelled as blog posts. Take the line, “Winter fashion just got hotter!” How many times have you read this line, in print or online? Replace ‘winter fashion’ and ‘hotter’ with ‘travel’ and ‘easier’, and you have yet another bad headline. Look at brand blogs next, and you will see generic news coverage instead of engaging brand content.

Social media and branded content demand a mix of advertising and journalistic writing skills. The best-written Twitter account I’ve seen for a brand in India is the one for Hippo. It’s run by the copywriters at Creativeland Asia, and brings a distinctive brand voice to popular news and culture.

The other problem with journalism in India is that ideas have become stale and worn, giving way to sensationalism and battles to coin a superlative. Every sale is India’s biggest sale; every party is India’s most happening party. What happened to the idea of positioning each piece of content to make it distinctive, impactful and memorable? What happened to the need for command over the English language? (If you’d watched the TV coverage of the Indian F1 Grand Pricks, you’d know what I mean.)

I believe that there are skills each discipline can learn from the other. But I also believe very strongly that if we can get the hardcore journalists among the social media fraternity to understand nuances of brands a lot better, we’ll be in a happier place. After all, those nuances are what distinguish a Red Bull page on Formula 1 from ESPN F1.

It’s going to take a whole lot of effort to train journalists to think differently when writing for brands. But at the end, my aim is that in my company, we blur the lines between the Content Writers and the Advertising Writers.

And then, perhaps, our people will truly deserve to be called copywriters.

campaigns, careers, digital, industry

Next Is What?

Ever since I made the transition to digital marketing two-and-a-half years ago, I’ve spent my first two hours in office every morning reading. I catch up on social media news, tech talk and the latest in digital creativity from around the globe. It’s a fixed routine, one that has helped me build my understanding and set the benchmarks for the work I want to do.
In the last few months, quite a few campaigns have caught my attention, and had me wishing I’d done them.
It starts with Old Spice. The online commercial that went viral, sparked a stunning Twitter response campaign and led to a YouTube war between the two Old Spice guys.
Three pieces of work stood out at Cannes: Rom, Tesco and Bing.

Before that, there was the world’s largest concert.
Even further back, we applied for The Best Job In The World and blended the world’s latest gadgets.
What do all these campaigns have in common?
Well, they’re not quite advertising; they’re not quite PR, direct, media innovation or activation either. They’re not just social media; they’re also content, SEO and online display advertising. They’re not quite online; but they aren’t mainline or traditional either.
What they are, put together, is a great showreel of integrated marketing. And an eye-opener for me.
My last post and several before that have pushed the cause of integrated, technology-led marketing. I realised about three months ago that I wanted to be out there doing this sort of work. Not just developing content and banners, not just posting Facebook and Twitter updates, but bringing into play all possible media and technology platforms to deliver results for my clients.
A fortnight ago, I resigned from my post as Creative Partner at Yahoo. And signed on to work with Roopak Saluja, Prashanth Challapalli and their merry men and women as Creative Head, Jack In The Box Worldwide.
Jack In The Box brings together digital marketing, mainline advertising, video production and content creation. The sort of mix that should, hopefully, result in work as good as the campaigns I’ve showcased above. I believe that there are few agencies in India that are doing this sort of work. It’s a privilege to be associated with one of them – and an opportunity that’s too good to pass up.
I’m grateful for my time at Yahoo. I’ve learnt so much, not just about the business but also about people and how to handle them. I’ve met and worked with some fantastic, talented folks, and done things that I never thought I’d do. It’s been a shorter stint than I’d planned, but this is a step I need to take if I’m ever going to achieve my career goals. 
I leave Yahoo on 15th September, and join Jack In The Box a month later. I have a good feeling about this (with a wee bit of nerves too, honestly), and am really looking forward to 15th October. There are lots of plans and ideas bouncing around in my head (and on emails and tweets with Prashanth)…but for now, the only thing I’m going to plan is my upcoming vacation!
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.

digital, industry, measurement, performance

The Measurement Curse

That night, she learnt that size wasn’t everything.

It’s hugely ironic that what was being touted as the USP of the digital medium has now become a noose around our necks.

It all began a few years ago, when fledgling digital agencies and publishers – all eager to attract new business – began to tell clients, “It isn’t just cheaper – it’s more measurable. See?”

The flood of subsequent slides overflowing with page views, unique users, repeat users, average time spent, most popular content, average pages visited, bounce rate, page views by country, referring URLs, number of Twitter followers, number of Facebook fans, average number of comments on a post, average number of likes on a post, retweets, number of conversations, amount of influence, impressions, click-through rates, eCPMs, male/female ratios, et al, were usually more than enough to sell a client on the efficacy of the medium.

There’s no question that measurement tracking works. Good tracking helps us sell (the medium and the product/service) better, optimise our ads to increase performance, modify content on-the-fly to get more page views and much, much more.

It’s no surprise today that an advertiser’s key metric of success is, in a nutshell, more of everything. More visitors, more leads, more clicks, more searches, more page views, more likes, more fans.

I’ve even been in presentations where the numbers we bandy about become the basis for the client’s approval or rejection of the concept. It’s a fairly well-known fact in the Indian digital industry that if you promise better numbers than the next agency, you’ll win the pitch. Just read the part in this article where the client talks about why she hired the agency.

But is measurement all that our medium should be about?

And is ‘performance’ all that measurement should be about?

I believe that we owe it to ourselves to convince clients to examine the performance of digital in a new way – by the quality of interactions rather than the quantity. To focus on (and track) brand salience rather than ROI.

An interesting case in point is the recent Audi A8 3D integrated campaign from Creativeland Asia, where they built a website that showcased the A8 in 3D glory.

At first I didn’t quite get it. How many Indians own 3D glasses? Why would you do a campaign that would be so inaccessible to people?

So I reached out to Creativeland Asia founder and creative head Raj Kurup. On an early morning phone call, Raj told me that there were only a few thousand people in India who could afford the A8 (Audi’s most expensive car in India). And each of them would soon be receiving 3D glasses in the mail, so they could enjoy an exclusive, immersive and highly sophisticated experience.

What Raj and Creativeland Asia have effectively done is build a case that getting fewer hits is often better than getting more hits. Because the quality of those hits will count far higher, as they’re from the right people the brand wants to reach.

What’s more, they’ve created a sheen of exclusivity around the brand through the very nature of the idea. Going against the very nature of the ‘open’ web to do so.

While Audi is an ultra-premium brand with a niche audience, there’s no reason why advertisers who target the digital mass can’t learn from this. And set in place new metrics to judge their campaigns.

Another aspect of this is the lack of sentiment tracking done for online campaigns. Sentiment tracking can tell an advertiser how his brand is perceived online, and is a fair indication of brand salience. 

I’ve been reading through several case studies by Indian agencies. Their claimed performance data is impressive – number of Facebook fans increased from 100 to 1000, number of followers on Twitter grew by 150%, search queries increased by 300%, and so on. 

But nowhere do they say things like: the number of positive responses on Facebook grew by 180%; the number of positive blog comments increased by 105%; more than 70% of Twitter mentions showed that the brand was now younger/cooler/better/worse; comments indicate that 70% of the online audience believe that your detergent washes best.

To show you how easy it is to get an overview, I took 30 seconds just now to get hold of the following statistic:

save image

And there are plenty of other tools out there that will help you get a deeper understanding of the sentiment around your brand. Tools that will track brand mentions and comments on websites, blogs and various social media platforms, analyse them and throw up a comprehensive picture. Which will give an advertiser a real indication of how his campaign is doing.

To sum up – there will always be a place for measuring numbers in our business. The CPL/CPS/CPA/CPC campaigns so popular with the travel and finance industries bear testament to that. As do the brands that take great joy in achieving 100,000 fans on Facebook.

But there’s a bigger role that measurement can play. It can help position digital as a medium that can build brand salience and positive sentiment through high-quality consumer interactions.

And then, finally, we can turn our weakness on reach into a strength.