Dec 1, 2008

Mktg - India;Political parties seek professional help

Sangeeta Tanwar

The politicians and their political parties – the ruling party or the opposition – have faced severe public criticism after the terror attack on Mumbai. Needless to say, these political parties need to bring in a change in their tarnished image through better communication and PR exercises, as elections are round the corner. And for that they need professional help of advertising agencies.

Well, this concept of hiring an advertising agency is not a new one for these political parties. It all started in 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi felt that electioneering needed proper marketing and communication techniques, and he roped in Rediffusion to take care of the party’s campaign that year. It didn’t take long for other parties to follow suit – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for instance, got Trikaya Grey to do its advertising.

From just posters and banners, political parties now use digital, SMS, MMS and OOH quite effectively in their campaigns. For ad agencies dreading the impact of the financial slowdown, this has come as a much welcome shot in the arm. Today, any agency would love to get a juicy bite of the political advertising business, which is estimated to be worth several hundred crores of rupees. afaqs! takes a look at how the dynamics of political advertising have changed in India.

Branding exercises
Winning a political account involves the usual pitching procedures that an agency goes through while approaching a regular client. The BJP, which intends to spend Rs 120 crore or thereabouts on advertising, is believed to be talking to Lintas and Graphisads.

Crayons (the Congress account was worth Rs 150 crore) has done political campaigns for the BJP, Akali Dal and the Samajwadi Party in the past. The roots of branding exercises by political parties can be traced back to 1966 when the Swatantra Party brought in creative genius Kersey Katrak to work on its campaign. The chief difference between then and now is the fact that the communication has become more regular and organised.

Ranjan Bargotra, president, Crayons, points out that the groundwork for such campaigns is always thorough. For instance, the Congress Party called for a pitch many months ago (the general elections are slated for 2009, though dates for some assembly elections have been announced). Bargotra says, “Well, a long timeframe helps to take the brief forward and to make sure it fits into the larger picture.”

There are some agencies who don’t pitch for political accounts. O&M, for instance, has never done so. Sanjay Thapar, group president, North and East, O&M, says, “Our founder, David Ogilvy, had clearly listed out some dos and don’ts for the agency. One of them was to never take up a political account. Moreover, there is a huge stress on resources while working on a political account – the returns on the project are meagre.” Thapar says, however, that Ogilvy doesn’t have a problem working on government projects like India Post.

Why an ad agency?
What is with this increasing fascination for ad agencies among political parties?

Prathap P Suthan, national creative director, Cheil India, says, “With increased media engagement, the parties acknowledge that advertising makes brands and sustains them by running short and long term campaigns that adhere to a core vision.”

Should political brands be treated differently from regular brands? Suthan points out that when it comes to handling a political party, one has to mount research of empirical proportions, which is perhaps not required in the case of other products. While drawing up a poll strategy, it is almost impossible to claim to know the pulse of the target group by merely covering the top 10 cities or towns.

The other difference arises in the relationship between client and agency. “When it comes to political advertising, the client enjoys a higher authority in the relationship,” says Suthan.

Bargotra distinguishes between a consumer of products and a voter. For brands, it’s more about a socioeconomic kind of communication, which is aspiration driven. As a result, the economic profile of various consumers is taken into account. But for political advertising – since it is the votes that count – economic background doesn’t matter. All voters need to be approached.

According to Nagendra Choudhary, general manager, Dentsu, political advertising is characterised by negativity. At the same time, political advertising aims to get the people to buy the product, which is the candidate. To achieve this objective, political parties need communication specialists.

Can ads influence the voter?

Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, chief, BJP campaign committee, has this to say: “Any campaign aims to do three things for a party. It has to retain the loyal vote bank, influence the undecided voter and provide a cushion for the party against any sort of negative voting by forcing negative voters to cast their vote for the weak, least harmful third party.” According to him, it is the leaders or policies (product) that attract the consumers (voters) to the brand (party).

Srinivasan K Swamy, chairperson and managing director, RK Swamy/BBDO, sees a very limited role for advertising as a vote influencer. That is because, he argues, “in India, the maximum percentage of voting is about 60 per cent. We are a multi-party democracy. A candidate getting about 40 per cent of the votes polled normally gets elected. Therefore, effectively, only 24 per cent of the total electorate has chosen the candidate.”

The second highest candidate may have received 34-38 per cent of the votes polled. This means that the difference between a winner and a loser is at best a small percentage of the votes polled.

Swamy draws a few conclusions from this. “The electorate is generally predisposed towards a political party. This is based on a variety of factors – caste, religion, knowing someone in the party and loyalty (“I’ve always voted for that party”). There is at best a small percentage of floating votes – about 5 per cent – and this could also comprise first time voters. All campaigning done is to get these swing votes.”

He reiterates that the role of advertising in such a scenario is to provide hype (for or against) on an identified issue at the given time.

Bagging a client
Graphisads, which is in the fray to bag the BJP account, has earlier designed print and outdoor creatives for the party during assembly elections in various states. How does an agency pitch for a political account?

Explains Mukesh Gupta, managing director, “When one pitches for a political account, one has to be sure of one’s leanings.” Gupta is a BJP man and makes no bones about it. “Each one of us at the organisation is a firm believer in the ideology and values propagated by the BJP,” he declares.

Bargotra of Crayons who worked on the BJP’s campaign for the 2004 election is all set to prepare the Congress for the elections. He disagrees with Gupta’s argument about political leanings.

“Working with a party has nothing to do with our political ideology. We took up the project like any other assignment,” he says. In winning the Congress account, Crayons beat off Rediffusion DY&R (now Rediffusion Y&R), Percept/H, Madison, JWT and Mudra.

According to Naqvi, political advertising is far removed from business advertising. Most agencies make the mistake of treating a political party as they would any other brand. “There will always remain fundamental differences in selling a toothpaste brand and a ‘party’,” he says.

What does an agency do?
Crayons is the main agency on the Congress account. What does that mean? Bargotra clarifies that the agency has the responsibility of designing all communication messages for the Congress leading up to the general elections. Media planning and execution, too, will be undertaken by the agency.

Crayons aims to execute the political campaign nationally, but it will also explore the possibility of delegating the work, if required, to local agencies. Choudhary claims that providing creative inputs, design elements and cost-effective media buying is not the only input from the agency. Public relations and communication strategies – how to approach the target group, what went wrong last time and how to rectify that – have also to be addressed.

Technology is a big influencer in changing the approach and form of political advertising today. Loudspeakers have given way to 360 degree campaigns. Visual media extends the language of political or social messages more effectively and economically than conventional methods.

CVS Sharma, senior vice-president and director, Arc Worldwide, is a firm believer in the role of digital media. He argues that at present, there are 45 million online users and 300 million mobile phone users. Of these, 200 million are eligible voters belonging to SEC A and B. There is a great opportunity to convert these into potential voters.

Digital allows the messager to know exactly who the target is, but one has to be careful about misuse. Sharma says, “Digital media has to respect the individual’s privacy. In that sense, phone-ins by poll managers are pure spamming.”

The platforms used so far in India have included canvassing, rallies, posters, wall paintings, door to door campaigns, propaganda, masks, bumper stickers, rumour mongering or anything else that can be imagined as a media platform. But the traditional route is still the most prominent one.

According to Naqvi, 80 per cent of the expenditure is incurred on activities such as communicating through posters, rallies and door to door campaigning.

Chandradeep Mitra, president, Mudra Max, endorses Naqvi’s view. “Nearly 70 per cent of the spend goes into printing posters and hoardings and pamphlets.” As party representatives chalk up column centimetres and secondages and use the web along with clocking kilometres for canvassing, ad agency heads can smile to themselves.

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