Marketers have increasingly started dipping into talent that lies outside the traditional creative agency system - content creators, production guys and other independent creative talent.
For starters, sample these snippets from three interviews I took recently:
Anil Nair, CEO and managing partner, Law & Kenneth Saatchi & Saatchi India, said, "In a time when clients are questioning your very existence and saying 'I'll get it done through Google, Facebook, content marketing companies, AIBs of the world', the problem is - we don't have people who understand what needs to be done, because those people are not joining our industry. Our industry needs IITans - they have more creativity in them than people realise. Go to their fest and see. They have a 'solutions' mindset and don't want to do engineering solutions! They want to create bigger, life-changing solutions. They'll use technology, data and creativity to solve problems. An institution like Ogilvy should have not one but 25 Piyush Pandeys. These people exist but they're not in our industry. They look at our industry and say 'No, I don't like the way it's done here...' Many of them are working for startups today."
Sonal Dabral, group chief creative officer and vice chairman, Ogilvy India, said, "Earlier, clients had one lead agency - that was the only custodian. Today, we're moving towards a world of collaboration, with more 'content houses' and expertise outside of the lead agency. But I still feel brand custodianship should sit with the lead agency - the team that has all the experience and history of building that brand."
Arun Iyer, chairman and chief creative officer, Lowe Lintas, said, "It would be myopic of me to say only other agencies are my competition. I don't think it's just about agencies anymore... We're living in a day and age of ideas and today, ideas can come from anywhere. Content companies, TV -and radio- guys have their own creative teams. There's a whole bunch of creative folk out there, unlike when we entered the business. At that point in time if you wanted to be a creative person, advertising was one of the only few possible destinations. So I see everybody as competition today, even a standup comedian - they are insightful and there's nothing stopping them from getting into the branded content space. Anybody who wants to think for a brand is competition to me... the number of people interested in this stuff has gone up exponentially..."
When three admen (two creative leaders, one business head) independently reiterate a single point, something's surely brewing. Question is: Who do marketers, for whom it's pretty much open season - want to work with? At the recently concluded vdonxt asia, our annual convention on the business of online video, I spoke to three young marketers from diverse product groups - all active advertisers - about who they prefer working with - mainline creative agencies or talent from 'the outside'?
Siddharth Banerjee, EVP Marketing, Vodafone, says, "... it's not just about traditional agencies; the best idea can come from a standup comedian. For us, it's about having the ability to connect with various stakeholders, create that ecosystem, absorb and process ideas..."
To this end, Vodafone, and his former employer Hindustan Unilever, conduct an annual event called 'Content Day' to meet with creative talent from across the spectrum, about which he says, "It gives us a structured way of engaging with people outside of the conventional agency set-up - production houses, boutique startups, digital agencies, people we haven't heard about. Briefs are sent out 60 days prior. The point is to source ideas related to life insights and cultural codes, not just those pertaining to a specific marketing task."
Kartikeya Bhandari, senior director, marketing, Flipkart, says, "... it's not black and white. There is so much work that needs to be done, it almost isn't fair that one agency should handle all of it. Our campaign/business objectives demand that we look at different kinds of skill sets. It's about doing justice to the task at hand and about who does it best... and then deciding who we should go with. And usually it's split between agencies..."
In fact, the presence of different types of creative minds out there allows him to experiment. For him, the difference between a conventional full-service agency and a more content-oriented partner comes into play when the need to be flexible and agile is felt. "When you're experimenting and you fail, you want to fail fast; that's when I would turn to them," he says, referring to freelance content partners. Lowe is his brand custodian, his "partner-in-crime" that understands the brand really well and helps him figure out the brand/campaign idea. When this idea is manifested across touch-points, is when he brings in "pretty much everyone," dubbing the process his version of Content Day. "May the best idea win," says Bhandari.
Srivats TS, vice president, marketing, Swiggy, says, "...It's a combination of all the talent that's out there. Fitting these different pieces into a coherent brand identity is important. Each of the partners, whether it's creative talent, production houses, or a formal creative agency, has a role to play in the brand journey."
His approach to marketing has a lot to do with the life-stage of his brand. Swiggy is a young brand that belongs to a young category. "We evolve our marketing practices over time and learn from different levers, unlike more mature brands that have a clearer brand strategy," he says.
Swiggy works with Lowe Lintas, a large, networked creative giant, as well as All India Bakchod (AIB), a small comedy collective that represents a very new breed of talent. How does Srivats view these two entities - as dots on either end of a linear spectrum? In general, how do marketers perceive the range of options at their disposal - as one pool of homogeneous talent to call on depending on the need of the hour, the media platform, the budget or the deadline... or as totally different types of entities?
Swiggy, it turns out, needed different inputs at different points in time. The team first associated with AIB around two years back. "We thought working with AIB early on would give us reach and engagement with the 'millennial' audience," says Srivats, who started working with Lowe a few months back. He's a big believer in the concept of a core creative agency that works as a partner or 'creative co-owner' of the brand, because agencies give consumer insights that are, he insists, different from those given by content creators.
About classifying his creative options by media platform, Srivats admits, "I'd be lying if I said media channel doesn't play a role in choice of content provider..." He turns to his mainline, full-service creative agency for insights that will help the cause of category creation, something often achieved through 'traditional', TV campaigns, whereas from AIB, he extracts cultural insights ("a funny take on a pop cultural phenomenon delivered in a very different tone of voice"), that help with audience engagement on digital channels.
Vodafone's Banerjee disagrees, "I'm not giving my creative agency the relief of saying they'll only do the main campaign and some other guy will do the digital campaign. So the challenge for my so-called 'conventional' agency, Ogilvy, is to understand the consumer and build the brand. The first right of getting insights lies with them."
"While that's the ideal way to do it, a lot of full-service agencies are struggling with exactly that," reacts Flipkart's Bhandari, "And that's where the ecosystem comes into play, because somebody will step in and fill that void. So I agree with what Siddharth says in terms of what the responsibility of an FSA (full-service agency) should be... and some of them are honest enough to say, 'Hey we're not fully capable of being there just yet but are making efforts towards it'."
As Lowe's Iyer puts it, "As a company, we're focusing on only doing stuff that we are good at. Let's not over-promise and under-deliver. It has become fashionable for agencies to say they can do this, this and this for a client. But it's really about what you can do well. We may not be able to do the entire gamut today. It may even mean actually calling it out and saying, 'You know what, we're not up there with this right now, we're working towards it, maybe we'll get there.' There's a level of honesty that needs to come into the being of agencies as well..."
Where are conventional creative agencies lacking? Overall verdict: Agility, speed, presence of digital natives, quality of talent and people who understand sub-cultures.