Shreyas Kulkarni

The slowish rise of digital-first thinking in ad land

Using Cannes Lions as a barometer, digital-first campaigns are on the shallow side despite the rising depth of digital ad spending.

One assumes a rise in digital ad spending would spur digital-first thought from advertising agencies and their clients.

The answer is not a straight yes, it’s more like a pressure cooker gathering steam, wobbling slightly to the left and then to the right, waiting for the opportune time to whistle and announce itself.

GroupM’s TYNY report – which highlights advertising expenditure for the following year – has consistently forecast a rise in digital ad spending. It said digital would reach 30% of media share in ’20 with Rs 27,803 crore spending, 35% of India’s media share in ’21 with Rs 27,700 crore, and 45% media share in 2022 where the digital ad spends forecast stood at Rs 48,603 crore.

In these years, Ogilvy (along with Wavemaker and won, at Cannes Lions, a Titanium Lion and two Gold Lions in ’22 and a Grand Prix in ’23 for SRK My Ad; using AI and ML, small business owners could get personalised ads with actor Shah Rukh Khan as the protagonist.

Leo Burnett’s Airtel 175 Replayed recreated Kapil Dev’s iconic 175-run innings using technology, and it won a Gold at the ’23 Cannes Lions. 

At the ’21 and ’22 Cannes Lions, Dentsu Creative won multiple Lions for The Unfiltered History Tour – a retelling of the British Museum Tour over the disputed artefacts – and the 8-Bit Journo; relevant news stories converted into Teletext and dispatched to lakhs of Kashmiris through SMS because of the government-ordered internet shutdowns. 

As the rate of digital ad spending increases, the pace of digital-first innovations has not. There is a lack of width here. On the other hand, the West sees digital-first work from many agencies winning shortlists and Lions in different categories; it has become second nature.

Is India a few years behind when it comes to digital-first innovations despite a spike in digital ad spending?

A base idea is conjured and then spread across mainline and digital, but it’s changing. Who is driving it, agencies or brands?

These are the two questions we posed to senior agency chiefs, here is what they had to say. (Names are listed in alphabetical order of the first name).

On digital-first thought in India being a few years behind

Aalap Desai, chief creative officer, Dentsu Creative West and Dentsu Creative Experience India

In terms of technology, we are a little behind because it needs a lot of investment. We are yet to mature in that aspect. I would love to do it but I do not see an idea like Dreamcaster seeing the light of a release in India without a lot of challenges. We are price-conscious and we are growing. I feel we will soon get there.

Ajay Metha, senior vice president, Content+, Mindshare India

Not really, India is not lagging behind other markets. I would consider us at par with others.

If you look at some of the recent work across creative and media, especially in 2022 and '23, most of the winning work at Cannes Lions has been on the back of digital and tech-enabled innovations. Most of the ideas have been platform agnostic with a strong leg of digital.

George Kovoor, chief creative officer, Wavemaker India

To say that the Indian agencies have been slow to embrace the digital-first approach, while new-age clients are born digital natives the same cannot be said about traditional clients.

While marketers have steadily acknowledged the need to go digital, they are still only ready for the social ideas on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

They are largely hesitant to invest the time and the money for large-scale digital-first ideas. This is the major difference between Indian advertising and that of the rest of the world. Though this is changing, the change has been too slow for my liking.

Ramanuj Shastry, creative chairman and managing partner, Infectious Advertising

A lot of Indian agencies, especially creative heads, account heads, and planning heads, don’t belong to the digital generation. When I have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, I will do whatever I know, that is the problem.

People who will adapt quickly to data-driven and tech-based ideation will be more comfortable, and do well in the new era than people who cling on to old habits.

We were doing research in areas of UP and Bihar, and people from places like Darbhanga, and Muzaffarnagar were on their smartphones watching Reels. To ignore it is like being an ostrich putting its head down and ignoring the storm, it will not help.

I would not consider 2023 a bad year (Cannes Lions), it is a great year for people who have evolved and embraced… I would much rather have a smaller number of entries winning big and doing inspirational work than have many Lions doing more of the same thing.

(L-R) Aalap Desai, Ajay Mehta, George Kovoor, Ramanuj Shastry
(L-R) Aalap Desai, Ajay Mehta, George Kovoor, Ramanuj Shastry

A base idea is conjured and then spread across mainline and digital, but it’s changing. Who is driving it, agencies or brands?

Aalap Desai

It is both. I do not think even one of them not driving can make it possible. We can come up with the idea but if there is no one on the client side to pass the baton to, we will not win. And, the client can come up with the best brief but if there is no one on the agency side to pick it up and deliver, we will not win. This relay race can be only won by partnerships.

Ajay Mehta (He also speaks on what role tech play in communication? Any challenges/expectations?)

The lines are blurring, and clients are asking for platform-agnostic solutions; ideas which cut across mediums are better than those sitting on one single platform.

More and more clients are demanding solutions with technology at the core. AR/VR and Generative AI are the new kids on the block and there is enough and more experimentation being done across clients and agencies.

The challenge is to upskill and bring in newer talent that can strike the right balance between technology and creativity and more importantly speak the tech language fluently.

The codes of communication do not change; it is up to us how we use technology to our benefit on the back of creativity. Today, if you are not in the game, then you will surely be left behind.

George Kovoor

In the last couple of years, there has been a definite change with more and more clients approach adopting a digital-first approach. I do not think both the agency and the brand can take any credit for this. This change has been driven largely by the target audience.

Gen Z practically live on their mobile devices and any communication targeted to them has to be on their turf - the mobile phone. With a large part of advertising targeted to the age group of 18-24, brands (and agencies) are left with no choice but to think of digital-first ideas

Ramanuj Shastry

In a world where 'ad-free' is a prestige term, paying a premium for ad-free on OTT and music streaming, in that world, the old ways have to go away and brands have to adapt to new environments.

Brands will push this because they have a lot more to lose than agencies. And the future of the brand manager is directly linked to the relevance of the brand, they would be more desperate for change than ad agencies.

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