Long before Twitter imposed its 140 character-limit on the world, Amul's creative custodians - boss man Rahul daCunha, writer Manish Jhaveri, and cartoonist Jayant Rane - have been playing by similar rules. As daCunha puts it, "If it can't be said in four words, it can't be said." He is, of course, referring to the news-based ads or "topicals" that they release, across 100 outdoor locations, nationwide; around six to seven such ads are released each week. The rule, however, stays the same across outdoor and digital media; the time-strapped consumer is either driving past or scrolling down.
A look at how social media has changed things for this team of three, that has been crafting Amul's topicals for the past two decades.
Between 1966 (which is when the first Amul billboard was displayed) and 1980, daCunha Communications released one ad every three to four weeks. During the 1980s to early 2000s, the frequency rose to one every fortnight. Today, with digital platforms - like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Amul's website (which was launched in 1995) - in the media mix, the team releases a topical a day. Effectively, daChunha, Jhaveri and Rane are back to square one each morning, by design.
Rane sighs, "Social media matlab kaam badh gaya." On an average, he sketches and paints one static poster a day. On a particularly busy day, the number goes up to three. "Sometimes, as I sit and sketch, the team is on standby, just waiting to upload the creative online. Social media has made my deadlines very tight," he says. Rane, like Jhaveri, has been with the agency for over 20 years, initially as a full-timer and later, as a freelance hand.
Besides outdoor and online, the topicals are also published across 33 newspapers (with a combined circulation of 30 million copies). One new topical is released in print, every week. A few TV channels also air these images as ten second-long 'films'.
Interestingly, Amul sees the creatives only after they have been published. "Amul, as a client, does not advise the agency on the creative part of the topical ad campaign," says Jayen Mehta, general manager, planning and marketing, Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF), the marketer of Amul butter.
In the era of digital, can outdoor still be the lead medium for Amul's ads?— afaqs! (@afaqs) November 16, 2015
Mehta adds, "The agency has a 'free hand' as far as deciding the idea, copy and illustration goes. We see the creative only after it is released by the agency. Amul must be the only client in the world that has given so much creative freedom to its advertising agency." Can't argue with that.
Amul spends less than one per cent of its total sales turnover on advertising. This works out to around Rs. 200 crore, annually.
Besides increasing their daily workload, social media has impacted the way the trio works in many other ways. Do they craft their lines or draw their cartoons any differently for digital media? No.
"International news doesn't have much traction on a hoarding in India," he says. His ads on these topics find an audience online. Online, the topics he bases his creatives on are "younger" or more in sync with popular culture. "Social is where we tackle issues that we wouldn't have done hoardings on a few years back. We've gone from an ad a week to an ad a day because there are so many issues that are not relevant to the whole country, but are nevertheless very relevant on social media," he adds.
During the pre-digital, so-called bohemian days, one big event affected the entire nation and stayed relevant for weeks. But today, the rules have changed. Consumer interest has become more verticalised. Unlike earlier, where news about politics was the one thing that interested one and all, today, different segments of the population are moved by different things. "There's very little that's of 'national importance' anymore," he says.
As compared to his father Sylvester daCunha's style, which was famously 'gentle', daCunha junior prefers to take risks with edgier copy. "The one contribution I have made is to not sit on the fence," he says.
A large part of daCunha's job is catching a trend while it's gaining momentum and predicting for how long it will stay of interest. Sometimes, a topic is yet to reach its proverbial high point, in which case he waits till it moves from 'Page 4' to 'Page 1' before releasing an ad on it. Conversely, if an issue has lived its course, he avoids using it.
Social media helps him gauge the trendiness of a piece of news and answer questions like: Is there outrage?, Is there collective amusement?, Is there concern?, Is there mass helplessness?, Is there hate-mongering?
"For me, Twitter and Facebook are powerful granaries of information; they give me a sense of what is meaningful and relevant to people. Newspapers give me the news item, but Facebook and Twitter give me the point of view."
Jhaveri, the writer, says, "Usually, we go with what people are talking about on the web. If it's being discussed, we go ahead and do a hoarding on it. Then suddenly there's a spike in the discussion around it..." He's quick to add, however, "We don't let Twitter trends be the deciding factor. If something's not 'fashionable' enough, and is not trending on Twitter, but we feel it is relevant, we'll go ahead and do it."
On social, daCunha and team get instant feedback for their work, by way of likes, re-tweets, comments and shares. During the IPL, a few seasons back, they ran a creative that bore an image of the Amul girl in a cheerleader's outfit. "Twitter practically came down on me saying, 'How dare you...'" he recalls. Such is the mass ownership his adorable mascot inspires.
Amul regularly tests its ads online to better understand public reaction. While, on an average, most of the ads fetch between 15 to 20 lakh views, the recent one about Google's Sundar Pichai got over 81 lakh views. "Analysing the online reach of our ads helps us understand which topics are of interest to people and which aren't," daCunha states.
It's through online metrics that he knows how little traction ads around Indian politics get nowadays. Online, his ad on Queen Elizabeth was more popular than the one on the Bihar election. Says daCunha, "As a subject, Indian politics - the classic lampooning zone - is just nose-diving. People are tired of it. Sure, politicians are still funny but issues like scams and scandals... not so funny anymore."
Interestingly, he spots a sudden spike in interest around Indian business, of late. "So, this system gives us insight into what the skew is towards. I'm obsessed with social media because I have to have my ear to the ground and be mindful of which direction public interest is going in."
Besides the subject, daCunha also takes daily decisions pertaining to the language of the copy. "Should it be English? Hindi? 'Hinglish'? That's a big decision, as is zeroing in on the outdoor site," daCunha shares, referring to the geographical location of the billboards. "A lot of people in smaller towns, say, Patna, are not necessarily looking at the ads on social. They may not log on to the net that often. So, I may write a Bihari hoarding just for that area. Like, I may do a Jayalalitha-specific one only for Tamil Nadu."
Speaking of language, English copy, he tells us, is very well-received online. Which is why, his team has started releasing 'English-heavy' ads on social, more frequently than it used to. For example, his recent ad that read 'Give the DeVilliers his due - from one AB to another,' that followed cricketer AB de Villiers' recent on-field performance, is "quite a sophisticated English line," but has become very popular online.
Following which, by the way, daCunha decided to make an offline billboard out of it! Every single topical goes to outdoor sites in Mumbai and Gujarat, in any case. "But, after seeing the kind of response this ad got online, I changed my mind and decided to release it offline in Bangalore as well, since he plays for the team there. I realised that it also ought to be released in the Eastern region and in other English-speaking markets," he shares, telling us how online traction helps him make offline media planning decisions. For daCunha, knowledge regarding the virtual eyeballs an ad draws is "like a polestar, when it comes to making decisions about running it on outdoor media."
Amul's Mehta, says, "Topicality is key to the relevance of our campaigns. With social media, it is now easier to be 'on time'. Feedback is instant; no other medium is as responsive."
But, the response isn't always positive. Recently, a long-format digital ad film - sixth in the brand's 'Har Ghar Amul Ghar' series - received flak because people construed it as sexist. Mehta says, "Yes, this was unexpected feedback. Communication is all about information exchange. Receiving feedback is integral to the process."
For its ad films, daCunha Communications works with four production houses. Every month and a half, they brainstorm on a script and ready a film. Many of the longer ones are for exclusive digital consumption.
While Amul's topicals will never be exclusive to the digital medium, it's safe to say that India's most consistent news-based campaign is now as much a digital one as it is an outdoor one.
A Note From the Editor
When Sylvester daCunha created the Amul girl in the mid-1960s to rival Polson's butter girl, little did he know she'd make the Indian billboard her permanent home for the next 50 years. Today, though, the moppet has a farmhouse she frequents - digital media. Sylvester's son Rahul, who handles this legacy account, recognises the opportunity social media affords and milks the platform every single day. Along with copywriter Manish Jhaveri and cartoonist Jayant Rane, he creates nearly one news-based ad a day for Amul's digital pages.
When I went over to the agency to interview the team,I watched as they discussed how best they could capture the buzz around the movie Talvar, on a hoarding. A rare priviledge, that. "Is there a dialogue Irrfan Khan keeps repeating through the movie?" Jhaveri asked, hoping to hatch a butter-related pun on a buzzy line from the film. It took me a moment to realise he was talking to me. "Is the writer of Amul's ads actually asking me to brainstorm with him for a hoarding that's due for immediate release?" I secretly basked, as I gave my two pence, marvelling at how casual and relatable the entire process is. They finally went with 'Kya Talvar Ki Dhaar Se Dhaara Badlegi? Amul - Proves Itself Daily'.
While basing copy on such serious issues (the movie is about an actual murder) don't they worry they might sound flippant or insensitive? Yes, but turns out, they can get away with saying many things simply because the Amul girl is saying them.
But there's a flipside to such popularity. Recently, table margarine brand Nutralite launched a campaign that involved replacing Lord Ganesha's paunch with muscular abs. In India, that's dangerous territory. "We take risks with politicians, not religion. We just don't go there," said Rahul on the subject.
But if another brand can do it without suffering any disproportionate backlash, why not him? "There was no reaction, because it wasn't on an Amul billboard," he said.