June 27 1987 is the day advertising started its metamorphosis. Or so people would like you to believe. That day, Martin Sorrell with a confidence that only he understood made the successful hostile takeover of J Water Thompson (JWT). Most likely, he was unsure of the destination or the choices he will have to make on the way. He is equally an instigator and victim of the changes that shaped business in last 30 years.
Today, with JWT, Ogilvy and Mather, GroupM, Grey, Young and Rubicam, Kantar and others, WPP is a $16.7 billion revenue group. So, go ahead and blame the leader. Truth is none of us had the same wisdom, insight or confidence. None of us were willing to be adventurous like him. We are moving with the crowd. I know the situation was not India-centric and there were many forces at work. However, I also know, there was never any resistance to the changes that defined business.
It’s easy to blame others for your situation. It’s much more productive to search your own past and find what caused your fault. It is so true.
We refer to advertising as an ‘industry’. It is our way to show respect to something that is nearly 50,000 core in size and employ many people unfit to do anything else. Anyone can get in this business.
We keep pleading for adherence to rules and norms with hardly anyone listening. We are democratically inclined, data-driven and client-directed in our approach. Calling our work as science or art is an understatement of sarcasm.
We are the perpetually in flux highly adaptive bunch of people. We have demonstrated it time and again from creative to media selection to activation and more.
I presume idea is the core of our business. Belief that idea can come from anywhere and anyone, including the peon is highly appreciated. It shows humility and transparency. It was highly applauded. The client has no objection to such a self-defeatist thought. This was the birth of unsaid designations like ‘Marketing director and head creative communicator’.
The insight mining agency immediately understood the shift in their audience number one. Taking the new lifeline it started appreciating the client’s creative interjections. The relationship was now dependent on their understanding the client in person and not necessarily the brand in the real world.
The creative product suffered and yet in places of sinful deliberations, it even got awarded.
The weapon of ideation was trashed and elevated at the same time. Creative hot-shops, many of them strategically unstable flourished. The clients were reminded that strategy was anyway their baby, and now they could be creative too. No one in the business told the client that they knew more about the product and markets, and we never interfered in it. Similarly, if the client hired the agency and believed they are good, could they mind their own business when it came to developing an idea or a campaign. I know it doesn’t happen, but I know of instances when this did happen, and the client welcomed the thought.
We did not cut cost until it was forced on us. We were going great with that 15% revenue model. People were passionate for higher media plans and exposures. Client servicing was still the king. And then fragmentation happened. Someone blinked for the first time and no one took notice. It was the innovative retainer-ship approach a tool to hedge against media expenditure uncertainty and loaded to give stability to agency business. The story of Bhasmasura was repeated again though in a different context.
Suddenly, the tap was drier than the need. Talent accustomed to be celebrated found that the business does not pay that well. Undoubtedly, mediocrity became the next benchmark.
Like other respected professions, there was no barrier. Anybody could start a business or join the profession. The industry did not work with education institutes to get the right crop. Anyway, the premier schools of management and idea were getting beyond their reach. And none of us took notice of it.
Everyone, other than few self-respecting mad men, was pitching. The size no longer mattered. The industry could not draw rules or norms. It remained busy in internal oneupmanship. The client became the god in the category. The industry bodies remained glued to their restricted constrained memorandum and no one bothered. And we are still playing catching up. There is no single source on all agencies, work and talent. There are no norms for calling for pitch. There are no templates that the bodies recommend. There are no penalties for misappropriation of the biggest treasure, idea hunting continues.
Oh, the industry always chased the next wave and has hardly been riding the wave. This lag is evident across mediums and brands. Digital and outdoor possibility is a classic example of it.
There is no fun in working within the agency. No, don’t think it has much to do with data-driven attitude. Primarily, the fun was in a lot more pressurised chasing of dreams and experiences. It was always about the environment and people. Technology has taken a lot of charm out of it, and we forgot to reinvent ourselves.
The business is completely commodities. Cost/ price/ commission is the new grammar. Idea/ people/ talent and teams have taken a backseat. They are not partner, advisor, consultant but dignified vendors. It is procured and no longer appointed. The commission to retainer-ship with no correlation to the size and shape of the business or the ideas and their results has hurt business more than anything else.
Hypothetically, if there was an industry-defined norm for the cost of business flattening the price equation, it would have rejuvenated the debate on talent and people, what the business should have been about.
The agencies are more of tailors, you tell them how you want your trousers. Unfortunately, they will never be like doctors who prescribe a solution and approach.
It is likely that the industry will have to look up to wonder man Sorrell as the lighthouse in the rough weather. He has been right many times over. Hence has the right to be right.
The future of advertising look’s dark and lacks respect. The data-driven deep insights best understood at AI level may become the starting point of campaigns or connectivity triggers between the brand and the consumer. If the industry believes in itself and ensures human-oriented insight-interpretation-creative leap will be the foundation of all the work, it may still have a window to crawl through. I hope it does.
This article took birth while reading Anwar Alikhan’s ‘The day advertising industry changed’ published in Mint on June 27, 2017.
…. BLOG/49/2017.. First published in mxmindia.com