A while ago, Sanjeev Jasani, a very dear friend and colleague, had written a pertinent piece in the Times of India stating how he wished advertising stalwarts could lend their expertise in improving the creative quality of digital communication. While I believe that the need for this exists, it will be a little while longer before it becomes a reality; but here's my argument.
The concept of a Medium Life Cycle (MLC)
Similar to a Product Life Cycle, the moment a new medium is introduced to a culture, it follows a similar pattern of Introduction, Growth and Maturity before it finally dips into Decline. The latter occurs when yet a newer medium is developed which either replaces the prior completely or partially (we have already started the debate of which gives more bang per buck - ATL media spends or online media spends).
The three media behemoths that rule the digital media advertising eco-system today - Google, Facebook and Twitter - came into marketing existence only post 2007 (Google India started in 2004, but it took a few years to add vernaculars and spruce up its search engine). So, on average, these platforms are not even 10 years old in India. Therefore in the Medium Life Cycle chart, they are still at an Introduction and partial Growth life stage where platform awareness and media innovations precede everything else.
The 'Medium is the Message' effect
First coined in 1964 by Marshall McLuhan in his seminal work 'Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man', what it basically outlines is that when invented/introduced for the first time, the medium itself impacts society significantly more than the content it carries. He goes on to give the example of the light bulb; at the beginning, it carried no content of its own, but the invention of the light bulb as a medium alone, was sufficient enough to impact society when it learnt to create new space in the night by dispelling darkness. It was only years later that humanity learnt how to use this new medium (transmission of electric light through a tungsten wire) for different applications through the use of different content (from automobiles to cinema projection and surgery).
In other words, when a new medium of communication is invented/introduced for the first time, the impact of the medium is so strong and awe-striking to the human psyche that in the initial years, it just doesn't matter what content it carries. Just like in a PLC, when a product is too new or novel, it doesn't matter what its back story is as long as it creates ample awareness through sheer visibility. But like any new medium, the new product is the message in itself.
Television as a medium of communication in India
Let's take the example of the evolution of TV advertising in India. In India, terrestrial television was started way back in 1965 as a part of All India Radio. Now, if we scan through the TV ads of the 60s, 70s and the larger part of the 80s, we will realise that they were just slightly better than glorified still shots in motion with a VO narrative. There was no story-telling whatsoever. The only thing the ads did were highlight the utilitarian benefits of the products; extremely archaic in today's day and age.
The big point we're missing
TV, as a medium of advertising, was so powerful and drastically different from others like print, outdoor and radio, that for almost two decades, the 'medium was treated as the message'. It was a huge accomplishment and a big differentiator for any brand to just be visible on TV. The content really didn't matter back then. All seminal pieces of Indian TVCs with true storytelling and creative excellence, be it Hamara Bajaj, Erickson's 'One black coffee', Radico's 8PM border ad or the Fevicol or Cadbury series, happened much later, towards the end of the 80s or in the early and mid-90s. Till then all three parties - the brands, the agencies and the consumers - were consumed with the miracle of audio-visual communication beaming right into their living rooms. Nothing else mattered more to a brand than just being present on Television.
History repeats itself
And we are witnessing a similar situation with new-age digital platforms. From the marvel of content being beamed into one's living room to the marvel of content being beamed into one's pocket. From ROS and RODP to 24x7 always-on content; from one-way broadcasting to two-way conversation; from repeat ad casts to likes, shares and comments, it's way too much of a change for Indian brands and agencies to assimilate and adapt. Hence, more time, effort and money is being spent on pulling off a Facebook Live event, getting a Cinemagraph right or doing a Null Cast. Just like the good old ads of the 60s, 70s and 80s, today, any content is good content on digital platforms as long as we can pull it off using the correct media innovations.
First, the dust of mass euphoria around these platforms and their media innovations needs to settle. Second, these platforms need to gain critical mass (more brands and agencies on board) so that they move from the current Awareness and partial Growth Media Life Cycle to a more Growth and partial Mature Media Life Cycle stage. Only then can we expect more meaningful, engaging and mature content on these platforms, just like the way it's happening now with TV ads. We gave Television a good 20 odd years before expecting fantastic advertising; we need to give the new age digital media platforms at least a few more years before expecting similar results. Until such time, let the medium rule.
(The author is head, brand strategy, Cheil India)