Rewind 2009: The highs and lows of Advertising

By Devina Joshi , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | January 04, 2010
The year gone by had agency CEOs combating dipping ad spends, squeezed margins, and pressures from global headquarters, courtesy the downturn. afaqs! presents a look at some of the major developments in the Indian advertising industry during this tough period

The year 2009 began on a note of uncertainty. The slowdown had reared its head towards the end of 2008, and there was no doubt that 2009 would be a tense year -- it was just a question of how much.

Calendar year 2009 saw a 12 per cent drop in ad spends over the previous year. Furthermore, the financial services sector and automobiles showed significant de-growth in terms of spends (source: Spatial Access Solutions). However, advertising time grew significantly, thanks to the fact that many channels were launched and some existing ones dropped rates to boost volumes.

& #BANNER1 & #afaqs! explores the whirlwind that was 2009: the mistakes made, the lessons learnt and the milestones achieved by the ad fraternity.

A reality check…or not?

Due to the downturn, things took a turn for the worse in the first half of 2009, although thankfully, the situation was nowhere near the 'Doomsday' kind of predictions made in 2008.

However, clients did tighten their purse strings, agency margins got squeezed, many diversifications were put on hold, and the only conversation that happened through the year was that of cost control, cutting headcount, freezing increments and doing away with unnecessary expenditure. A lack of head hunters ensured minimum staff churns within agencies, and perhaps, some of the key movements that took place were those of people moving out of the industry as a whole.

Furthermore, a number of sectors simply stopped advertising, such as those related to private equity or the equity market, real estate and travel. Meenakshi Madhvani, co-founder and chairperson, Spatial Access Solutions, feels that the only segment that escaped the pressure was that of consumers - more so since they were in short supply across some key categories.

There are also those who think that agencies didn't fully get their act together last year.

Sunil Gupta, managing partner, South Asia Results International Group, and regional director, South West Asia, Aprais Worldwide, opines that facing the slowdown is akin to pruning a garden -- it helps cut out ineffective, wasteful practices and people.

According to him, this downturn should have propelled agencies and clients to take a hard look at their advertising; but instead, many focussed on the metrics - the GRPs a show fetched, or how some media was bought. "A lot of them neglected what I think is the fundamental part of this business -- engagement with the consumer, which should have happened even more so because of the downturn," Gupta says.

Kamal Basu, chief executive officer, Saatchi & Saatchi India, is amiable. "2009 wasn't all bad…it was just a very different year. A year when expectations changed every month…or sometimes every week!" he grins.

Creative's leap

Almost a dozen or so top creative professionals were bitten by the entrepreneurial bug in the first half of 2009. They left large networks to start their own agencies -- a move that may have been seen as impulsive or whimsical by some top agencies.

As KV Sridhar aka Pops, national creative director, Leo Burnett India, puts it, "Not many of these new ventures are good enough. If mainstream 'failures' start out on their own, how can they be successful?" He is quick to add that the Aggi-Paddy venture, TapRoot India, is an exception, with the duo working on accounts like The Times of India, National Geographic and projects for Nirma and ITC.

Bobby Pawar, chief creative officer, Mudra Group, is a bit more circumspect. "It's too soon to pass judgment…a few of them have tasted early success, while others might take some time to gather steam," he shrugs. "We will rightly know if these shops started by creative people are getting traction, after they have been in business for a couple of years."

Santosh Padhi aka Paddy, co-founder and chief creative officer, TapRoot India, feels there's room for everyone, and not every player started out for the same reason -- that of being disgruntled with larger networks.

The slowdown, in fact, may have been quite a boon for start-ups, as many marketers were willing to enlist the help of new talent. The bad times for the economy, thus, became an opportunity for the newbies, who offered a price advantage over the big guys.

Another development was that the dual NCD structure became even more popular in 2009 over 2008. Ogilvy India was the latest to fall prey to the trend, with creative duo, Abhijit Avasthi and Rajiv Rao jointly taking up NCD-ship.

While some see the dual NCD structure as a suitable 'scale' answer to the length and breadth of accounts an agency has; others are of the view that this is an effort to "please everyone", and not risk losing a top creative hand to the competition.

As Arvind Sharma, chairperson and CEO, Leo Burnett India, puts it, "The view that any agency is too big to have a single national creative director seems like a justification of some short-term arrangements. If the argument was really true, the United States of America should have had 10 Treasury Secretaries this year."

Zoozoos and more

The manner in which Vodafone's scrawny little characters captured the IPL Season 2 had people sit up and take notice. Vodafone and agency, Ogilvy, followed this up with a few more Zoozoos-led campaigns towards the end of the year, and detractors murmured whether this was too much of a good thing.

Pops of Burnett feels that the Zoozoos are a remarkable achievement for Indian advertising, and in fact, are now a talking point in people's lives, much like the pug. "It is a hugely popular piece of communication and has become a part of popular culture, which is no mean achievement," adds Pawar of Mudra.

While the Zoozoos have their share of supporters, Gupta of Aprais offers the flip side. "The Zoozoo is a great creative device, and a significant departure from the usual TV advertising. But at the end of the day, this was innovative only in terms of communication, not brand delivery," Gupta deciphers.

At the retail and customer service level, he says, the brand reality didn't match its communication feel; and at the end of the day, there's only so much a communication device can do to add to brand imagery.

On the awards front, although India didn't manage a Grand Prix like in 2008, JWT's Nakka Mukka campaign for The Times of India, Chennai, turned out to be a golden goose, fetching two golds at the Film Lions at Cannes in 2009. Zoozoos, however, failed to impress the juries there.

Zoozoos aside, the telecom category made noise last year as a whole, with new launches such as Aircel and Tata Docomo delivering the decibels. Existing players Airtel, Idea and Reliance Communications continued with their usual high scale of advertising.

Another category to have made its presence felt in advertising hallways was DTH, with Reliance Big TV and Airtel digital TV joining the likes of Tata Sky and Dish TV. "In a single year, the category had more innovations than any other: time shift, high definition viewing, direct reception without a set top box, and constant price deals. This is possibly the fastest growing category in India," observes Naresh Gupta, executive vice-president, strategic planning, Publicis India.

Brands Inc

Some major brand developments in the year included Maggi's 25-year anniversary campaign, Fevicol's golden jubilee communication, Coca-Cola's 'Open Happiness' reveal in India, Aegon Religare's high visibility campaigns in the insurance space and the launch of iconic brands, Harley Davidson and Volkswagen in India.

A few well established brands experimented with how far they could stretch their communication premises -- examples include the Surf Excel 'Dog' ad; the Tata Safari Dicor 'What would you remember?' attempt shot in New Zealand; and Happydent Wave's 'Elephant' commercial. But not many from the industry view these attempts as creative leaps in the right direction.

"Apart from these, I also think Coca-Cola was not that impressive last year, and I'm purely comparing it with its own work in the past," says Paddy. Pops adds Pepsi to his list of brands that lost their way in 2009; while Pawar of Mudra hands the 'trophy' to Dicor for becoming "too self indulgent."

The year also saw several brands go in for makeovers, including Dalda, Videocon ('Experience Change'), Onida (with its dropping of the Devil), and some Dabur brands (including a revamped Dabur Honey). To many, these are brands that generation after generation has grown up with; and a change was inevitable to stay relevant to its changing consumers.

"All these are brands that need Version 2 of their branding, and for my money, Videocon has the lead," says Naresh Gupta.

But not everyone feels that change is always a good thing, as there's always the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Sunil Gupta of Aprais opines that any brand that keeps trying to change has something seriously wrong with it, and is unsure of how it is trying to come across to people.

"This is a case of image dyslexia, not image makeovers," he says. In the case of Videocon, Gupta questions the consistency of the brand's advertising over the last five years. From 'Germ-free homes', to 'The Indian Multinational' to 'Experience Change', the brand has been experimenting with its positioning rather frequently. "And this, I suspect, with a different agency every year," he grins.

Further, some feel the Devil farewell by Onida could have had an alternative, had the property been used differently. "It takes ages to build a brand, its values, tonality, etc. It's important to stay relevant to changing mindsets, but one certainly cannot drop brand properties, such as the Amul girl, which continue to entertain," says Paddy.

Other key debates in 2009 included the Pepsi-SRK split, the Tech Mahindra takeover of a shaky Brand Satyam, and even the ad industry's internal issue of The Economic Times reporting the GoaFest awards news out of turn.

"I think the dethroning of STAR Plus by Colors was more significant an event," says Ajay Chandwani, director, Percept Limited. "Similarly, the Tiger Woods-Accenture split had more tongues wagging than the Pepsi-SRK one."

Basu of Saatchi gives a comic spin to events, when he says that the most striking debate of the year was "The Free Press Journal sending out a mailer in November to ad agencies for special rates on 'Creative' ads."

Agency Speak on the way forward

afaqs! asked a few industry leaders for their thoughts on lessons carried forward by the industry into 2010. Here's what they had to say:

Arvind Sharma: Don't have another 2009! In a more serious vein, the lesson for brands is to adopt a more targeted and aggressive approach in times of slowdown; and the lesson for agencies is focus on the work, keep operations lean and mean and keep new business a priority.

Ajay Chandwani: The bigger and medium-sized agencies have competition from creative boutiques and specialist digital companies. Traditional and new media are no longer exclusive. Mobile intrusion is still rampant. The most powerful medium of the future has to contend with violation of personal space and time. Lastly, the youth audience will continue to pose the challenge of stickiness.

Naresh Gupta: The marketing strategy of movies like Ghajini and 3 Idiots has opened the eyes of brands in lessons of engagement. So have brands such as Maggi and Lays, which have ensured that consumers now control the brand conversation.

Kamal Basu: Cost Control. No business is secure. If it can happen to Lehman Brothers…

KV Sridhar: It takes a global whip and a job scare to travel economy class. Spend money responsibly.