However, as time went by, the newly setup digital agencies started to discover that it was a hard business. Marketers were in experiment mode and most of them were not clear about what they wanted. There was no brief that gave agencies a clear mandate. Has anything changed now?
The brief then...
Some say that for a marketer, briefing an agency is like pretending that he is standing on the bank of a river and is about to build a bridge on that. But, what if the marketer is not sure about where the river is? When it came to digital, marketers were brave enough to allot a particular amount for the medium, but that was about it.
Elaborate briefs were primarily meant for other media - digital agencies were asked to carry the same brief forward. Most of the time, agencies were not involved in the brief-generation process. There were largely requests for adaptations of a television campaign or an existing ATL (above the line) story. Agencies were frequently asked to produce 'something viral' in nature.
Marketers started experimenting in project-based approaches, than a full-fledged brand philosophy aligned to what digital offers as a medium.
... and now
India is a 125-million-big digital universe, but digital briefs from majority of Indian brands over the last few months, have been digital - or social - only in letter. That shouldn't be a surprise given that digital constitutes 7-8 per cent of advertising and marketing spend, across most Indian brands.
The only change that might have surfaced is that, today, briefs come to agencies at the same time that they are shared with the traditional agencies and not as an afterthought. Most briefs fall into two categories - digital adaptation of an existing campaign, or digital ideas for a brand campaign. The latter is common for brands about to be launched.
Why a brief?
Not all brands are digital unsavvy in their approach. Some informed big brands make it a part of their annual campaign brief, others send in separate briefs for product launches, new positioning or to simply engage better with their audience. More brands share business objectives and seek agency recommendations, than ask for just a social media page or a microsite.
Kotak Mahindra Bank recently launched a digital-only campaign that was targeted at those who had corporate salary accounts with the bank. The campaign promoted a plan that gave such customers an additional interest of two per cent, over and above the annual increment that the customer got from his company. It was promoted on Facebook, search and other related destinations.
"The brief for this campaign was simple, as we wanted to get the word out to the target group. We were sure that, in this case, TV, print or even radio wouldn't have worked," explains Karthi Marshan, executive vice president & head - group marketing Kotak Mahindra Bank.
For many brands, however, the digital brief has ceased being a brief. In a fast evolving digital media environment, marketers believe that they cannot wait for agencies to come up with ideas after the brief has been made. Some marketers go to agencies with ready ideas. "We prefer to call up the agency and give them the idea rather than emailing the brief and waiting for ideas to come in. In case of big campaigns, we meet the agency and brainstorm," states Simeran Bhasin, marketing head, Fastrack and New Brands, Titan Industries.
Agencies, on the other hand, feel that brands still need to construct briefs that have a deeper understanding of their users and business. "It," says Shubhradeep Guha, country manager, India and Global Capability Lead, Sapient Nitro, "needs to clarify the human need the brand is seeking to solve, while the objectives should state what milestones the business seeks to achieve." How the purpose and objectives will be met should be the latitude that's given to agencies.
Hitting the 'Like' button
The social media rage got many brands interested in investing on 'digital'. Before this, the only thing a marketer wanted to have was 'hits' on the website. Now, it is about becoming social. Direct marketing brands like Tupperware were the first to jump on to the social bandwagon. "When you use a brand and like it, you go and promote it among friends and become the brand ambassador. Having a social network presence was a natural extension for us," declares Anshu Bagai, CMO and head, Institutional Sales, Tupperware.
Even within social media, most client briefs become a 'do-something-for-us-on-Facebook'. Most of them lack clarity on exactly what the brand wants to achieve, even if it is just Facebook. This is also true for brands that have built a sizeable fan following. Tata Docomo, for instance, has 13 million likes on Facebook, but little activity.
According to a study on social media engagement, conducted by Ketchum Sampark in August 2012, of 100 Indian brands surveyed, engagement levels (number of people talking about a brand's page) for 41 were lower than 2 per cent of the fan base. Coca-Cola, the largest brand on Facebook, has an engagement level that is barely over two per cent. In other words, only one in 50 was talking about the brand.
Brands are doing something about this. Today, 360-degree briefs include social media. Brands are looking for reputation, action and reaction from the campaign. And they use fun and games in this serious business. "We promote contests through our Facebook page, ensuring that our community likes the brand and the page goes beyond the brand. We are there on LinkedIn, because officegoers use our lunch boxes," informs Bagai.
Not everyone feels that it is just the client who has to know his brief. Agencies like to participate in the briefing process. Tushar Vyas, managing partner, South Asia, GroupM, explains that one of the formats GroupM follows is a hybrid one where, it has digital implants or agency-cum-client teams to create capabilities. "This provides the best of both worlds," he says.
Sometimes, the campaign changes from the original brief once the agency gets to work. Fastrack's ongoing 'change the name' Facebook campaign had a different brief first. It asked the agency to run a contest to increase fan following. The agency came up with the idea to launch a campaign that challenges users that, if they increase the number of likes to 10 million in 30 days, the brand would change its name, thus driving activity from the users. The verdict will be out soon.
Marketers have slowly started believing that agencies have to develop closer relationships with brands, when it comes to digital. Recently, Kotak Mahindra wanted to find out what it could do around the IPL and invited all its partners for a brainstorming session in a cricket-themed amusement park in Mumbai.
Not all clients are team people. Those marketers who are clued in, identify a problem, demand the best solution and even suggest digital tools. They are also willing to look at multiple options and want agencies to explore opportunities fully.
The argument for going solo
Many marketers are increasingly finding themselves facing a dilemma - should they use the expertise of an external agency at all? Many are building internal teams to develop interactive campaigns and want access to campaign data.
Agencies, on the other hand, are wary of giving away data. In most cases, agencies depend on third-party data to find out how a campaign performed. Agencies also try to evade the data part while presenting ideas, since clients tend to point to one success story and ask them to generate a campaign that can guarantee similar response. A case in point is when clients ask for a 'Kolaveri'.
What they tend to overlook is that Kolaveri was an instant hit because of the content it had - aligning the same with a brand-specific message might not work well. Boost tried to replicate the same with Dhanush singing a Sachin anthem, but it failed miserably to recreate the magic. Even for Kolaveri, few remember the name of the film it was promoting or the production house.
Brands do need the agency's expertise in implementing a campaign. There is more flexibility in this option - you can change agencies easily which is not the case when you hire a permanent internal digital team. "With niche knowledge and a proven track record in delivering successful campaigns for previous clients, an agency can sometimes give the magic touch a brand needs," says Sidharth Rao, CEO and co-founder, Webchutney. At times, marketers complain that when consumer feedback comes to the agencies through social media, they fail to respond properly to this and that is where the in-house marketing team comes in handy.
According to a survey conducted by CMO Council and Adobe, 20 per cent of marketers in the APAC region will spend at least a fourth of their budget (in 2013) on digital. But has the brief that drives those investments evolved at all?
Agencies argue that brands need to develop a deeper, stronger focus on long-term branding and objectives and a brief needs to take into account who it is informing. On the other hand, brands are ready to invest more, only when the agency comes up with a concrete idea and plan.
Amul has been using banners since long and posting the same creative online too. But that doesn't make it a digital savvy brand. For marketers looking to use the web and related media, such as mobiles, a brief needs to be digital-platform agnostic and focused on what the consumer is demanding from the brand on the medium.
Marketers need to know where their audience is spending most of its time online, along with figuring out which device or browser it is using or what they are talking about and when. "If the audience of an agency's outcome is the customer, then the audience of a brief should be the team. When the person who constructs the brief uses this filter, they end up creating something that offers better value," explains Rao of Webchutney.
With digital penetration, consumer touchpoints have increased and brands need to make sure that they are present everywhere, take consumer queries head-on and develop a brief that is sharply focussed. Going solo doesn't seem to be a paying proposition at present. For successful digital marketing, the agency-client partnership has to continue even more closely.
(Based on additional interviews with Chhaya Balachandran Aiyer, CEO, BCWebWise and Shubho Sengupta, digital brand consultant.)
A Note From the Editor
When I think back to the pre-internet 1990s, it seems that that world existed in black and white. It was so, so different back then.
Marketers have had a difficult time coping with the change that digital has wrought. A decade ago, there was hardly any digital spend because the number of Indians online was negligible. And in any case, the medium looked like more trouble than it was worth. Now with the number of people online crossing 100 million, it has become a mainstream medium.
Once upon a time, digital agencies weren't even invited for a briefing to the same table as traditional agencies. They were an afterthought and got to know what they were supposed to well after everyone else. Now, at least they are briefed together with the others. Digital agencies' favourite complaint is that they are generally expected to render what is, effectively, a digital version of what the TVC does. The marketer doesn't takes into account either the medium's pliability or its interactivity.
The counter argument is that if the point of communication is to hit the consumer with exactly the same message across media, why should an exception be made for online? Moreover, marketers have dealt with mostly small digital agencies and their ability to understand branding issues is suspect. They are seen as digital experts rather than brand experts. However, as independent digital agencies get acquired by agency networks, their credibility will grow.
Another area of contention between the two relates to measurability. Some digital agencies are chary of every activity being measured to death. They are apprehensive that the moment measurability comes into play, clients are apt to say, 'Let's do a kolaveri di' without bothering to understand why something may not work for a brand. Clients, in turn, resent what they see as agencies obstructing - or worse, lying about - measurement. Agencies are bound to lose this particular round because like it or not, the medium is inherently measurable.
All of this is work in progress. Both marketers and agencies are still in the process of getting the most from the medium while defining their relationship at the same time. If we did the same cover story five years from now, I am sure it would read differently.