Sreekant Khandekar on advertising awards and the client factor

By Sreekant Khandekar , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Advertising | April 09, 2008
Fashion shows, auto exhibitions, feature film making. Is there any place other than advertising where experiments are passed off as mainstream work?

When agencyfaqs! spoke to some of India's biggest advertisers early this week, they found it hard to conceal their unhappiness with creative awards. 'This really has nothing to do with advertising that sells', was the sum of their response.

It wasn't always like this. Marketers used to be proud when the campaigns that they had approved were awarded. They felt good just as feature film makers do when a well made, intelligent film does well at the box office.

& #BANNER1 & #If things have changed, the advertising business has brought it upon itself. Far too often, an ad entry's claim to fame is based on an untruth: that it has been seen or heard by the brand's target consumers.

Sreekant Khandekar
I knew this was coming when I visited Goa last year. Goafest has a truly splendid idea, which is to publicly display the shortlist of entries. As I went around the gallery, I blamed myself for being so out of touch with advertising: I hadn't seen most of the work. I felt better when I saw that other visitors were unfamiliar with the entries as well. Just then a well-known executive of one of India's largest print companies went by grinning and muttering, 'Remember, you saw them for the first time here.'

That's when the full horror of scam advertising hit me. These are charged times, so let me clarify that this hasn't anything to do with either the Abbys or Goafest per se. It could be either - or any other award.

How do clients matter, you mutter under your breath? They matter because their brands are the fig leaf necessary to create even scams.

Next, some clever young thing will undoubtedly think up a scam brand for which to make scam ads, thus doing away with the need for a client at all. And of course, we will be assured that such a client does exist. Just that he belongs to some small town which none of us has visited.

Client disdain upsets me because it doesn't take long for contempt for creative awards to translate into contempt for ad agencies and worse - contempt for the process of advertising itself.

It upsets me because every time a scam ad wins, it cheats a better deserving entry which actually appeared in mass media and tried to connect with consumers. For every undeserving winner, there is a deserving loser.

It upsets me because every time a scam ad is entered, it cheats the client of involvement with the creative process. The agency deprives the client of the simple pleasure of saying, 'Let's go with it', to a great piece of work.

It wasn't always so bad. I have been watching and attending advertising awards since 1989 when I co-founded A&M magazine. (For those who came in late, it was India's biggest advertising and marketing magazine ever.)

I have sought out parallels to see if there is any other profession or business which will explain the existence of scam ads.

What are scam ads? In the simplest terms, a scam ad is work that an agency wishes it had client approval for to run in mass media - and which makes a token appearance (generally once) in some minor or niche media.

Look at the fashion business. Fashion shows consist of impossible looking models wearing impossible looking clothes that no one outside the room will ever see. Isn't that a scam too?

No it isn't, and here's why. Internationally, haute couture forms a microscopic fraction of the apparel business, where pret a porter (ready to wear) dominates. And yet, haute couture was once famously described as the poodle that pulls the apparel train. Why?

Because a much toned down version or aspect of what we see in fashion shows frequently finds its way into everyday clothing. (In India, though, fashion shows are either for the very rich or simply media events.)

In any case, nobody pretends that what we see in fashion shows is what ordinary people buy. Unlike scam ads, which pretend to have appeared in mass media. And that's why fashion shows are honest and scam ads are not.

Or take automobile shows, where car manufacturers display concept cars. Again, nobody is pretending that these cars are being bought by customers. They are merely a car maker's statement of vision and intent - where manufacturing and design are headed and what tomorrow's automobile may look like. The auto awards that we read about, on the other hand, are for cars that thousands of people buy every year.

Or look at the business closest to our own, the feature film business. You can see how producers, directors, financiers, exhibitors and a legion of talented professionals have, together, pushed the boundaries of Hindi film making.

Today, the films that win the popular awards are the ones that lakhs of people actually see. Art films and documentaries have their place, too. But there's a different set of awards for those, and their distribution circuit is separate as well. Nobody pretends that they are popular, and that's fine.

Let's not kid ourselves. None of these professions or businesses is less creative than advertising. And while they may be full of pretension at other levels, none of them tries to pass off experimental work as mainstream.

And that's exactly what the game has become when it comes to Indian advertising awards: Far too often, it's sleight of hand. See if you can pass off this fake as the real thing, will you?

So, isn't there a place for experimentation? Or pushing the boundaries? Of course, there is.

At agencyfaqs!, we feel so strongly about it that we will soon allow people to upload their work, irrespective of whether or not it has been published, on the site. And let other professionals enjoy it and learn from it. There's no indignity that I can see in admitting that work is experimental.

Last year at Goa, Trevor Beattie (best known for FCUK) passionately tried to stir the audience against scam ads, "Imagine going up on a stage and collecting an award at a music or movie awards function when it hasn't even been aired. Scam ads are just the same."

Privately, senior agency executives wring their hands and say that every entry is accompanied by a client approval. What else can they possibly do? Besides, everybody else is doing the same thing.

Well, to my mind, leadership is about doing the right thing. If an ad has not been genuinely created for a client and run in mass media, it ought not to be entered. Or else, why don't agencies just get together and agree that published as well as unpublished work can be entered for awards?

Yes, I do understand the compulsions of business, but most professions function inside a business. Advertising is not alone.

An engineer practises in the context of a property developer's need. A doctor inside a corporate hospital. An editor within a publishing house. They all operate under business pressure. And the good ones do their stuff honestly and well.

If agency big shots don't stand up for what they think is right, they will be guilty of more than just encouraging scam advertising.

They will be telling a whole generation of young advertising people that it is okay to bend the rules to get ahead.

Worse, they will be implying that clients never buy good advertising. And that is an untruth.

Sreekant Khandekar is editor-in-chief and director of agencyfaqs!