N. Shatrujeet
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Cannes: Why doesn't India roar with the Lions? Part I

With India once again delivering a dud at Cannes 2001, it’s worth asking why India doesn’t feature regularly among Cannes winners? Is Indian advertising short of global standards?

The first time an Indian agency landed a Gold Lion at Cannes was back in the mid-nineties - when SSC&B's ad for Hexit fetched top honours. It was also the last Gold Lion to grace the shelf of an Indian agency.

Although since then a few Indian agencies have won the lesser Lions a couple of times, there is no doubting that, by and large, India's performance at the Cannes Festivals (and the Clio Awards, for that matter) has been woeful short of expectations. Which is both surprising and disconcerting, considering we have quite a booming industry… where the word ‘creativity' is brandished with great aplomb by all and sundry. And, of course, we have been assured by visiting ad gurus, over and over again, that Indian ads are truly ‘world class'.

Cannes 2001 was no exception. Pre-Festival, the frisson in the air was unmistakable, although tempered by past experience. Post-Festival, the mention of Cannes brings a resigned shrug to the shoulders - and a hasty change in the topic of conversation.

So it's time to ask those nagging questions: Why doesn't India feature regularly among the winners at Cannes? Is it because Indian advertising falls short of global standards? (And no, it doesn't help to say that a sizeable amount of work from India has made it to the shortlist stage on various occasions - it's not the same as winning.) Or is our not winning a function of something else altogether?

Ajay Chandwani, president, SSC&B, is quite certain that the best of Indian advertising is well below par. "Few Indian ads are really world class, specially in the print and poster category," he points out. "Only when a significant part of Indian advertising becomes world class, will we begin to do well in global festivals."

Should the client take the rap? Mudra Communications' much-awarded Creative Director Freddy Birdy thinks so. "Our clients are not of global standards," Freddy is vehement. "You need clients who will back really clutter-breaking ideas to the hilt. Unfortunately, most of our clients are happy doing safe advertising. We are stuck in the '70s formula of jingle- and Hindi movie-based advertising. Now Cannes is looking at contemporary, cutting-edge ideas. Why should they award something that is not breaking new ground?"

Chandwani is also critical of "the inward-looking and poor standards of Indian domestic awards" for the failure of Indian advertising on the global platform. "Most domestic-award-winning Indian advertising fails to even make the shortlist in international festivals. A Cadbury's Dairy Milk campaign becomes an icon in India, but fails to make the shortlist in international festivals." And he agrees with Freddy's reasoning that Indian advertising is shoddy. "Indian advertising is largely unimaginative, and tends to focus only on the Indian milieu - that is, feature films, filmy music, Hinglish. None of these make any sense to an international jury. Advertising that is successful in India tends to follow a very safe and non-risky pattern."

Thomas Xavier, creative director at Orchard Advertising's Bangalore office, differs. "I don't think it is fair to say that Indian advertising is below global standards. I go abroad very often, and make it a point to watch the mainstream channels. The average commercial break is full of the same kind of stuff we see in India - lots of crap, and some good stuff. Okay, maybe some of it is better produced… but India is catching up."

Thomas finds a common voice in Nikhil Nehru, president, McCann-Erickson. "As far as ideas go, we are as good as, if not better than, the West. Globally too, there are lots of ads that are crap. But if you compare the top 20 per cent - oranges to oranges - Indian ads have gone places." Nehru too feels that the one area where foreign ads are ahead is in production value and attention to detail. "Our clients do not make enough investments in production."

If we are as good as anyone in the ideas department, we should be winning more Lions and Clios, surely. But we aren't. And this could be because winning accolades abroad calls for as much a science as it calls for art. "Most Indian creative directors are out of touch with international trends in advertising," Chandwani says. "For instance, the Cannes Festivals have seen a shift from simplicity of single-minded ideas to humour to visual puns last year, and a complete change in gear to lateral ideas executed brilliantly, this year. The Diesel campaign that won the Grand Prix this time would hardly have made it at Cannes two years ago, when simplicity, more than lateral ideas, was in vogue." He feels this is true, one way or another, of all global awards, and that success abroad hinges on tracking these international trends.

Thomas doesn't think Indian agencies are poor at reading global trends. "Thanks to the media explosion the above-average Indian creative is quite aware of what it takes to win at Cannes." He thinks the issue is that of relative sincerity to the client. "We want to do genuine work for genuine clients, and then enter them. Quite a lot of the work that wins at Cannes is work done with Cannes in mind. Some of these agencies even have budgets allocated for such efforts - quite like an R&D department. Indian agencies have woken up to this reality. There are ‘R&D budgets' being allocated in the best of Indian agencies to do stuff that are directed to the Cannes jury." Thomas promises that in the next three years, things will change in India's favour.

It's also a question of ‘lobbying', as Thomas sees it. "It's all a matter of targeting. Till recently, the average Indian creative was naïve enough to think that if he sends a piece of work that has been applauded in India to Cannes, he stands a good chance. Cannes is like the Oscars - you need a lobby; you need to whip up a following; you need to drum up enthusiasm about your aesthetic. Your work must be famous before the jury sees it. This is if you want work with local insights to score there."

But then, does India really need to score at Cannes, especially when the target audience - the consumer - is back home?