A senior executive at one of India's Top Five agencies once made a playful remark on why the Indian ad industry did not generally see too much pitching during the months of March and April every year. "It's that time of the year. Who has the time to pitch - everyone in every office is busy looking at who has billed how much, and what figures to show on the balance sheets," he had smiled.
Uncharitable, it might have been, this suggestion of 'fudging' - even factually incorrect, perhaps, that bit about 'lean months'. But there's no denying that almost every Indian agency is obsessed with billing. Which is to be expected, and fair. But we're talking of billing with an eye on improving the agency's ranking, not just the bottomline. We're talking of billing that leads to agencies trading charges over the means adopted to arrive at the billed figures. And for all that agency CEOs say about 'not being interested in the numbers game', the lure of getting into the Top Five - or Top Ten or Top Fifteen - proves irresistible.
Why do agencies care what others have billed, as long as they have turned a well-earned buck? Why this mad scramble to get into one or the other of the 'Top' lists? Another executive with a Top Ten agency (yes, even we occasionally get drawn into this classification-by-Top-whatever thing, but that's for sheer convenience) explained it thus: For agencies, getting into the Top Five or the Top Ten list is critical because this is a sure-shot way of automatically getting shortlisted in pitches. (This, of course, precludes the fact that the said agency should not be servicing a rival brand.) Clients look at where an agency stands in the rankings and form their perceptions about the agency.
What this suggests is that for clients, agency size (and ranking) is one of the most widely used yardsticks to gauge an agency's calibre. Of course, size isn't the only factor that clients look at while evaluating an agency. Relevant industry experience, strategic planning culture, the ability to provide integrated services, the quality of resources and manpower, the suggested remuneration package, the quality of the output… all these too come into play. As Marzin Shroff, executive vice-president - Bombay, Triton Communications, says, "If size was the only issue, HTA would be getting all the businesses in this country." Size also has its disadvantages. "Some clients feel that if the agency is too big, they would not get adequate attention from the agency - which is a misconception," says Sunil Gupta, senior vice-president and general manager, HTA.
Sorab Mistry, chairman and CEO, McCann-Erickson India, agrees, but insists that size does matter. "No agency is small by design," he says. "Every agency wants to grow. The advantage with size is that when you're small, you are constantly nervous of going out of business. A big agency, on the other hand, can look at the client's numbers instead of focusing on its own numbers. And with big agencies, clients can wake up knowing the agency will have opened its doors." Size also means that the agency has resources on call. Plus there is the reassurance of considerable brand-building experience.
This implies that for agencies, size is a significant contributor to positive image. But is size everything? Take away the size factor - and the 'creative powerhouse' angle, which, anyway, almost all agencies stake a claim to - from the current crop of Indian agencies, and there is nothing to tell one from the other. We're talking of the Top Twenty agencies here, none that are likely to fold up in a hurry.
The whole point is, why should agencies allow themselves to be judged so much by size? Why not create other differentiators in the client's mind? After all, consumers who purchase, say, Liril, do not do so because it is the largest-selling soap brand in the country. They do so because the brand promises 'freshness', a clearly defined brand differentiator. Similarly, why don't Indian agencies create a distinct 'Agency Brand' for themselves - one that reflects a certain image and says something that makes the agency more appealing to clients?
An agency could, perhaps, cultivate an image that says 'we build great challenger brands' or 'we understand the Indian ethos'. By not participating in award functions, St. Luke's has acquired the image of a 'maverick' among creative agencies. Fallon and Wieden + Kennedy had come to be known as agencies that did great 'attitude advertising'. JWT has always been considered the 'University of Advertising' (in India, HTA has a similar reputation, at least among servicing). Chiat Day was the 'whiff of creativity from the West Coast', at a time when most US-based agencies were in the East Coast, mostly doing dull work.
The strange part about Agency Branding in India is that agencies advise clients on brand image, but do little to promote their own brand image. "The agency is a brand. So, image has to be built and managed," Pranesh Misra, director, Lowe Lintas & Partners, is categorical. "The agency should have a clear image in the minds of prospects." Shroff agrees when he says that branding is a most critical function, and adds that it is being vastly ignored by agencies. "Even we don't do it," he admits. "The problem exists and agencies are aware of it. But little action is being taken on it."
Mistry feels that the problem stems from agencies being too busy with their clients' images to manage their own. "There is also this feeling in agencies that you are there to promote your client's brands, not your own. But I think agencies should create an image for themselves - an articulated positioning. Who has given a positioning for any agency in India? Nobody. It's sad that the creators of brand positioning are not doing enough about their own."
Gupta, for one, strongly subscribes to the view that an agency must stick to basics - building the client's business. "Our first responsibility is to our client and his brand," he argues. "We are not here to make a noise about ourselves. We at HTA want to be known for and by our work. We are known for our brands. Everything else is temporary. Our differentiation is in our track record. So many creative hotshops have come and gone, but we are still the No. 1. That's our strength." Of course, he adds that finally, it's all a question of individual preferences. "To each, his own."
But then, if agencies do indeed have a 'lack of image' problem, what's the solution? Does the answer lie in consciously promoting image in the media? Or is advertising an answer? And what's the CEO's role in the whole equation?
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