Why creativity took a backseat in 2001

By , agencyfaqs! | In | January 14, 2002
The creative output generated by Indian advertising in 2001 is felt to be vastly inferior to that produced in the preceding years. Here's a look at whether it was all that bad… and if so, why?

It's said that, by and large, it's hard getting people in advertising to agree on anything. By those standards, the year gone by was phenomenal. Save the odd agency that claimed to have bucked the trend, ad folk are in complete agreement that 2001 was a washout for Indian advertising. And much has been written about clients pruning spends, agencies putting increments on hold and laying people off, revenues dropping, and how all this has put the brakes on industry growth.

But now that we're well into a brand new year (though not everyone believes it'll be any better than the last) and the dust of 'financial analyses' has more or less settled, it's time to review how 2001 was in terms of creative output. "Very bad," spits out a senior art director from a Top Five agency. "Forget the Big Ideas, there weren't many campaigns that were even memorable. Yes, some of these campaigns will win awards, but that's only because they will be the best from what's available on the judging table. Compare them to the work from previous years… they're not in the same league."

An extremist view certainly, yet one that is echoed by many ad folk - with less intensity, of course. So was 2001 totally bereft of good advertising? One would think not. With some application, quite a few examples of decent advertising come to mind. There was Colgate Fresh Energy Gel's clutter-busting 'Talk to me' campaign, which was a huge surprise, coming from Colgate-Palmolive. Then there was the Amitabh Bachchan campaign for Parker, and the one for Kamasutra Sport. VIP innerwear, Onida Black, Yahoo!, Prudential-ICICI, Sunsilk and Clinic All Clear ('Get Out. Get Going.') were other campaigns that impressed. And the print- and outdoor-centric campaign for VIP luggage too was distinctive. And there were individual efforts for M-Seal, Slice, Voltas air-conditioners ('weather report'), Saffola, Godrej Pentacool and Godrej Storewel, Kinley and Bisleri where the advertising stood out. Not to forget the 'shirt-falling-off-terrace' ad for Surf Excel.

Going by the body of evidence here, 2001 wasn't all that bad in terms of creativity. In fact, as Madhukar Kamath, managing director & CEO, Bates India, says, "Every year, there are just five-to-10 campaigns that really make a mark." True. But for the fact that, these ads apart, little else comes to mind while recalling last year's advertising. At best, all that one can remember is a relentless kitsch of promo-based advertising.

In fact, it is the also-ran (no pun intended) list that is, perhaps, the better indicator of whether creativity actually suffered in 2001. That, and the stream of indistinguishable promo ads. But, as Kamath reminds, "It's all relative. There would have been fewer campaigns that saw the light of day in 2001, as compared to the years before. The volume of work was less, so the number of ads that impacted the viewer would have been fewer too. It was a poor year in comparative terms. And even in promo-related advertising, people did attempt to be creative." That can't be denied - the promo-based work for both McDonald's and Samsung (the 'Phod Ke Dekho' idea), for instance, was quite novel.

Relative it might be, yet Kaushik Roy, executive director, Mudra Communications, doesn't hold too high an opinion on last year's creative output. "I can't recall too many good ads - especially on television - apart from those stray gems," he says. "The advertising last year was, by and large, 'safe' and idiot-proof… a very literal sort of advertising, which is not very inspiring. And there were very few examples of idea-based advertising. But this is bound to happen in a depressive scenario, a 'losing' mindset."

There is no doubt that the low market sentiment played a key role. With spends being cut, campaigns were truncated, deferred or simply shelved, which had a spiraling effect on the agency. But this raises a poser: with spends going down, the onus of creating even more brilliant advertising - to compensate for lower spends - fell on agencies. Did agencies fall short on this count?

"In a depressed economy situation, my worldwide experience is that adversity heightens creativity, but that didn't happen in agencies here," agrees Sorab Mistry, chairman and CEO, McCann-Erickson India. "And I think that's partly because Indian agencies came into the recession from an optimistic, boom-time scenario. So, despite early warnings of a bad year, nothing much was done, in the hope that things would improve. And when suddenly the realization dawned, the focus shifted from the creative product to survival. Agencies should have taken adversity head-on."

Of course, clients should also take the rap for drawing into a shell. "When spends get cut, the advertising must be that much more powerful," feels Alok Nanda, managing director, Alok Nanda Communications (ANC). "Yet, the reverse seems to have happened. When the mood is low, clients tend to become risk-averse and less inclined to buy ideas, which is counterproductive."

Kamath doesn't quite buy into this spends-versus-creativity theory. "Firstly, when you start out, you don't say 'Here's a big budget, so let's make so-so advertising,' or 'Here's a small budget, so let's make a great ad.' The effort is always to make great advertising. Yes, last year the money had to work harder. But you must also realize that the focus suddenly changed from the long-term to the short-term, so some of the impact might have been lost."

Changing horses in midstream… Mistry is critical of clients' shortsighted, reactionary behaviour. "In a tough economy, clients should take a tough stand. In Thailand and Indonesia, the advertising depicted the reality of the changing consumer scenario by saying, 'Yes, the times are bad, but we are with you.' Clients here either make the mistake of totally ignoring the common man's plight and saying 'All's well', or replacing brand value with value (price cuts). Now this is a very un-strategic thing to do as you are lowering the consumer's confidence in your brand. Clients - especially the multinationals, who have so much collective experience behind them - have acted quite irresponsibly." For his part, Roy agrees that all these promo- and discount-oriented efforts can easily backfire. "You are making a commodity of your brand, and sending your consumer all the wrong signals."

Kamath is more sympathetic of the client. "With deferred consumer spends, when numbers have to be met, short-term strategies make sense to the marketer," he says. "And anyway, I don't think anyone is losing sight of brand-building. Even when you apply a short-term measure, the brand values have to be in place, and marketers know that. In fact, a strategy might emerge where a series of short-term measures add up to the long-term strategy that the marketer had set out to achieve."

There is also this feeling that clients were a trifle unreasonable in their expectations from the agency, which didn't do creativity any good. "Clients believe that once the brief has been given - however vague it is - stunning output will be available at the push of the button," feels Roy. "I know they are anxious to get quick results, but by rushing the work, they are not allowing ideas to breathe."

In all this, the fact that agencies too took their eyes off the ball cannot be ignored. "It's got to do with pressure on the agency bottomline, and is linked to global networks," explains Nanda. "With existing clients spending less, Indian agencies had to pitch furiously for fresh business to meet the targets set by the global holding company. But if you pitch so much - and your best minds are working on pitches, and not the existing business - where's the time for quality output on current business?"

There is also the fact that all these layoffs and resource cuts (and unreleased campaigns) were poorly handled, impacting employee morale, which, in turn, impacted output. "Creative people, especially, need to be inspired, but the state of gloom was allowed to affect them," Roy points out. Agency insecurity also contributed to a lot of below-par advertising. "Agencies have to be faulted for not fighting for what is right," Roy continues. "They did everything the client said, for fear the client might move the account. Such cowing down adversely affects creativity."

What emerges is that in a tough market scenario, the agency-client partnership quickly comes under strain. "What you see happening is a misplacement of trust," Nanda reasons. "And both agencies and clients are to blame. Clients start mistrusting agencies and begin treating them as suppliers - which is bad. But agencies are allocating far too many resources into pitches, which rightly hassles their existing clients. This has to be repaired. Clients should stop threatening to take their business elsewhere and agencies must focus more on existing clients. I suspect everything will fall in place once the market starts looking up." © 2002 agencyfaqs!

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