The party is over, gentlemen!” While this is probably what Gary Kirsten might have told the beleaguered Indian cricketers after the carnage at Colombo, let us stay closer home with the Indian economy where similar statements are being made in b oardrooms across the country, in banks, financial institutions, real estate companies. As a consequence of this advertising agencies and communication companies are likely to face the heat, if they are not facing it already. Yes, the bad news seems to be endless - an all-time high inflation figure that reminds one of Muralitharan’s wicket tally in the match, a climb in the lending rates reminding us of an asking rate that is usually not attainable in the one-day game, a monsoon that till very recently was as unpredictable as the Indian batting line-up, a GDP growth rate that is going south like the Indian cricket team’s rankings …
My submission is that advertising agencies will probably find, like the rest of the industry, that the good times that we had over the last three years may not return in a hurry. I expect clients to demand more, if not get jittery, and agency networks to press the panic button from Madison Avenue or London or Hong Kong. Yet it is probably a time for clients and agencies to step back and objectively analyse the situation and come up with a few smart ideas and strategies that will enable them to come out stronger for the present and for the future.
The dreaded ‘R’ word
For a long time the US, which is perhaps partly responsible for our current ills if not the debacle at Colombo, was refusing to say the dreaded ‘R’ word and was in denial mode. I am not sure if we are in a recession yet in India and yet the smattering of economics that I learnt reminds me of the word ‘stagflation’ which is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. We are certainly in the midst of a galloping inflation and are in a period of sluggish growth if not stagnation if the last couple of months are any indication.
Be that as it may, one can certainly see a mood of pessimism not only in the pink sheets but in the minds of industrialists as well, which is in startling contrast to the unbridled optimism of the last three years. Mood swings, it seems, are not restricted only to the Indian cricket fan! Yet, it is worthwhile for clients to remember what is proven wisdom. The smarter companies do not cut back on advertising in times of recession as their advertising spend can actually work better in these times as many of their competitors would be cutting back on spends. Agencies too have a role to play in educating their clients on the value of spending sagaciously, so that clients can optimise their ad spends.
Research the need of the hour
Ever since I came into advertising, I have heard this statement – ‘Fifty per cent of my advertising budget is wasted, trouble is I do not know which fifty per cent’ and I suspect that one will hear more of this in troubled times like these. To me this statement more than anything else reinforces the need and value of research on an ongoing basis. Now more than ever is the time to check the efficacy of your advertising spend and its effectiveness. A time to validate hypotheses before embarking on programmes, a time to evaluate options carefully.
This enables me also to remind people of my pet theory with regard to market research agencies. While clients have ad agencies and even PR companies to work with them on retainers for long-term contracts, they still work with market research agencies on a project-to-project basis. How will the market research agency develop a long-term interest in the client and her business in this scenario? Troubled times require allies and who better than a committed market research agency?
Everywhere and yet nowhere
One of the greatest challenges that marketers continue to face is that there never seem to be the resources that they need for their marketing programmes. Everybody wants to be national in India and talk about the width of their distribution and the fact that their products are being accepted nationally. While that may possibly be true what is also true is that many companies are spreading themselves too thin in a desire to be national, particularly when they do not have the resources to be national. Brands can be and are successes when they are visible in media to consumers even as they are stocked in shelves in places that the consumers visit. Times like these certainly call for concentration of attention, energy and resources in specific markets however difficult that decision may be to take, given the clamour for being national and widely distributed.
Life beyond the twenty-second TVC
Many brands in India have fed and grown on the power of television. There is no denying the fact that it is a powerful medium given the fact that we have an audience of over a billion people who are starved for entertainment and look to the idiot box to fill the day. In fact, the serial or the cricket match are the high points of the day for many and they seem to be lapping up the brand messages with the same enthusiasm they share for their stars, many of whom are featuring in the commercials. But clients and agencies have to think ‘out of the box’ and that is not only in the form of creating television scripts, but also in extending this idea to other media as well. There is a lot of talk about online advertising and the new digital medium. The waters are just being tested here, even if the costs of this emerging medium are a fraction of mass media. Troubled times are probably times for risk-taking, and the returns from small risks could well be disproportionate, particularly for products that young people consume given their understanding and acceptance of the new medium.
The power of PR
While a few companies such as Infosys have harnessed the power of public relations, it must be stated that many companies and their advertising agencies have a very limited understanding of the power of public relations. They still seem to be in announcement or in press release mode without realising what strategic public relations can do. It is sad that while brand managers and marketing managers realise the value of advertising, they have a very limited understanding of what public relations can do. This extends to the way in which they draw up the communication budgets. They keep a majority of it for advertising and if anything is left then a grudging sanction is made for public relations.
Public relations cost a fraction of advertising and can deliver value several times over. That can be invaluable in times like these and can certainly affect the employer brand and stock prices as well. Public relations companies and marketing communication professionals too must spend their time getting a better understanding of advertising and how to integrate their activities along with the advertising where so much attention and resources are being spent.
Mere parsimony is not economy
Often enough companies believe in the power of cost cutting over all else. Sadly enough, this might result in sub-optimal results, if clients try to cut corners by going for cheaper production of their advertising that is not of the highest quality that is required for it to stand out from the clutter. Another common temptation is to choose cheap media which, though affordable, will rarely, if ever, give your brand the sort of exposure it deserves. Haggling with the agency on its retainer or beating down the commission on media or pushing the public relations agency to deliver more clips are all signs of clients demoralising the agency, and steps like these perhaps end up de-motivating the agency.
What an idea, Sirjee!
Yet, there is one thought that I have, which, though hardly original, can still make all the difference and that is the power of the idea and the value of outstanding creative. For far too often, clients have relied on the support of media weights and have ignored the fact that an outstanding television commercial can do the work of five. Now perhaps more than ever is the time to push the envelope and do ads that entertain and sell. Significantly one is getting to see some very nice work on television now whether it is for Vodafone, Idea Cellular, Airtel (on occasion) or Surf Excel, to name just a few of the many that one gets to see on television.
Yes, it is times like these that can get the best out of agencies and public relations companies. But it needs a calm, mature client to guide, motivate and encourage us to see through these tough times.
Let’s get ready for the challenge!