L Suresh
Guest Article

A brief history of digital in mainstream advertising

Outraged by the fact that no one has bothered to commemorate 25 glorious years of digital struggles in mainstream advertising, L Suresh rustles up a timeline of key events that shook every art pull ever pinned on a softboard.


Random scenes in a leading agency…

“Is the dial-up working?”

“Has the e-mail opened yet?”

“The client’s dial-up is down and he wants to know if we can send the mail by fax...”

“The GM, SCD and AVP now have PCs in their cabins and are asking for the interns to come over and teach them how to play Solitaire.”


Digital began featuring prominently in the last few slides of every creative presentation.

Until then, all half page ads minus body copy became hoarding layouts, and their vertical adaptions (or adaptations), posters. The digital revolution ensured that the adaptation cycle was extended, resulting in hoardings being resized to banner ads and posters, to skyscraper ads.

Suddenly, ILM and DreamWorks became reference points. There was always an answer to everything that video couldn’t achieve. “We’ll do Flash animation.”

Pop-up advertising was introduced and soon went on to beat Hinglish, MTV-styled execution and we-are-like-this-only humour as the go-to solution for ‘How to crack an idea when you don’t have one’. (“We have a killer idea. We’ll use pop-up ads on Rediff and Yahoo!")

Every client wanted a website. And every website was a digital version of its corporate brochure.


The digital offerings from agencies had a new slide – online contests, that were essentially raffle coupons with a digital makeover. (“Click on the banner ad and in the landing page that appears, answer a dumb question and fill in not more than 10 words why you prefer to use Brand X.”)

There were also diligent attempts to make Scratch n Win contests work online. Unfortunately, the experiment had to be abandoned when there were complaints of customers scratching their computer monitors with Re 1 coins. Besides, when it came to brands like B-Tex and Ring Guard, it left the losers feeling rather sore.

E-mailers had truly arrived and the banks now had all their customers’ money by design and their email IDs by default. They (banks) could now save on the printing costs of their numerous mailers that pitched loans and products to their customers, and send numerous e-mailers instead. And the customers couldn’t even opt out.

So, while the big ad agencies were trying to figure out how to HTML-ise CDR files, tiny digital agencies down the road were suddenly flooded with work and went laughing all the way to the bank.

Seeing this, every second agency launched its digital division. Now they could truly mean what they said in their first slide about 360 degree communication. The circle was finally complete – around the client, that is. And there was no way they would allow small-time digital agencies within sniffing distance of the marked territory.

L Suresh
L Suresh


Every agency that launched its digital division shut it down and did what it should have been doing all along – outsource.

Three new slides were added to the digital section of the creative presentation.

Going viral: The client had just one question for the agency – ‘How do we go viral?’ Servicing had just one question for the creative team – ‘Can we do a Kolaveri or a Gangnam Style music video?’

Gaming options (aka ‘increase audience engagement through interactivity’): The agency recommendation would be to create a game along the lines of Donkey Kong or PacMan – usually because the branch head hadn’t heard of Farmville or Candy Crush. And so, he dipped into his own fountain of youth and came up with the only two games that he was familiar with.

Social media presence: An online contest in which contestants would have to insert a holographic image of them holding/wearing Brand X and dancing with Spiderman (yes, that gif) – and share it on Instagram or Facebook.

The three slides became permanent fixtures in all presentations because they were never executed and were, hence, presented to all clients.

Mainstream agencies finally figured out what digital meant – ads in websites and a long-ish film on YouTube.


Apps became the panacea for all problems – creative, strategic and market-related. (“Instead of spending money on newspaper ads, let’s create an app so we can send an ad every day straight to their mobiles.”)

A strategic brand communications plan had three main components – four Facebook posts a week, two tweets a day and regular Instagram updates. (“Wait, is that what you call a strategic…? Never mind, fire the planners. We can do this ourselves.”)

Headline options created with keywords and SEO were fed into social media platforms and the metrics revealed which one worked best. (“Fire the writers. We can write these headlines ourselves.”)

Royalty-free images were downloaded and 'mixed-n-matched' with the line options on social media to find out which attracted most traffic. (“What layout? Fire the fancy art guys.”)


With the onslaught of the (Coronavirus) pandemic, everything in life became 99.9 per cent safe. Except our jobs.

2019 was spent convincing clients to advertise on TikTok. 2020 was spent unselling that notion. (“No, it’s okay to have this meeting on Zoom. It’s not Chinese.”)

Post-2020: (Some time in the dystopian future, post the pandemic.)

“Yes, we’re fresh out of college. No, we’re not here to apply for internship. We are the founders of Wupp Digital. Our office? We work out of CCD. We’ve just got a Series D funding and are looking to take over WPP... Why? Because we think it goes with our name… If we can’t buy the entire group, can we at least buy one agency?"

(The author of this guest article is a creative consultant.)