boardroom came alive on stage in what was perhaps one of the most brutally honest conversations in the history of client-agency interactions. At the second annual Provocations organised by the Subhas Ghosal Foundation, Santosh Desai, managing director, Future Brands (a division of Future Group), provoked two renowned personalities into a discussion on risk and responsibility, the proverbial dilemma for any agency and client (that a client doesn't take enough risk, and an agency isn't responsible enough).
Representing the agency's viewpoint was R Balakrishnan (Balki), national creative director, Lowe. Vinita Bali, CEO, Britannia Industries, held fort at the other end to defend the client's agenda. Desai threw the first question at Balki, asking him whether he reaches for the gun every time someone mentions the words 'responsible advertising'. Balki replied, "When an adman hears 'be responsible', it reeks of disrespect, and is the worst kind of insult for him." Bali jumped in, "When a client hires an agency, it is proof of the trust he places on people there. Don't you think an agency must hold itself accountable?" Balki responded: "Well, we are accountable for great ideas."
Stepping safely away from the client-agency remuneration setup, Bali of Britannia pointed out that while clients look at a brand holistically, agencies have a fragmented analysis. "For example, agencies don't understand the difference between shopper behaviour and consumer behaviour," she said. "We'd rather turn to specialists for that." To this, Balki gave the expected response: agencies have an expertise in something totally different (ideas).
The debate took an interesting turn when the topic of strategy versus creativity cropped up. Taking Cadbury's Dairy Milk ads as a case in point, Bali quizzed Balki on how the 'Miss Palampur' advert added to the 'Pappu pass ho gaya' equity in any way. "Where's the connection between a cow and the brand?" she asked. Before Balki could even think of something, O&M's Piyush Pandey piped up from the audience, "Milk!"
When the laughter finally subsided, Balki got a chance to answer: "The idea of celebration is very much there in the ad," he said, but Bali wasn't convinced. She shot down another ad hailed by the ad fraternity as a masterpiece: the recent Happydent 'Chandelier' TVC, calling it irrelevant. "How many people ran to a shop to buy Happydent after seeing this ad?" she challenged.
For a change, Desai came to the rescue. "I don't think too many people run to shops after seeing ads in any case," he quipped. "Are you being unrealistic in your expectations?"
Bali was unfazed. "In this ad, the idea is the hero, not the brand." She gave a little more concession to the MotoRokr ad with Abhishek Bachchan, saying it was nice, but asserted that the earlier Motorola ads for MotoFlip were better in terms of insight and suspense. Balki was poles apart when he said that nodding your head to music is the most basic insight ever, which has been captured well in the ad. "Motorola is definitely cooler and more hip than it was some years ago, and the credit goes to the agency," he insisted.
Bali gave in on that one, but started another debate: "What about the indiscriminate use of celebrities?" Balki was quick again: "When clients insist on celebs, and are willing to shell out crores to Big B or someone else, what say do we have in it?"
Finally, the two parties agreed on something for a change. They both trashed the latest Lux 'Bathtub in a parachute' TVC, and Bali attributed it to an irresponsible client. "It's a rubbish piece of work, and the agency is at fault," said Balki. "I think the recourse is to sack the agency." Furthermore, the duo jointly felt that the recent Surf Excel commercials were a good mix of strategy and creativity.
Just when common ground was broken, another controversy reared its head - the Fair & Lovely social responsibility issue. Balki defended his turf, saying that F&L has empowered women, for whom gender and skin discrimination is a very real problem. Bali didn't want to argue about that, although she didn't look too happy.
Desai then went on to showcase the Voltas 'India ka dil, India ka AC' ad, which Bali again felt was lacking the big idea. When Balki called it a charming ad, Bali countered that LG sells more ACs than Voltas. "At least Voltas is now in the consideration set for an AC buyer," remarked Balki, "Job done."
Bali wasn't altogether too hard on agencies; while she said she believed in gut feel, results matter more. She concluded that brands such as Starbucks and Red Bull have, the world over, been built solely by word of mouth (WoM) and viral means, and didn't require advertising at all.
Balki tried to get the last word in edgewise, "For every Starbucks, we have 10 brands that have built themselves with traditional advertising."
"And if you're talking of Red Bull, well, Coca-Cola sells more," he quipped. Bali simply smiled. The argument continues…
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