Vinay Kanchan
Guest Article

An examination of our own pandemics

This piece is not meant to raise hackles, or kindle a sense of déjà vu. It’s merely to add some cheer and much-needed humour in these current times.

To say that COVID-19 has disrupted our lives would be stating the blindingly obvious. But as the world is steeped in its struggle to overcome an invisible enemy, thoughts also turn towards the aftermath of this Great War. Attempting to paint an accurate picture of things post this cataclysmic event would be premature. However, this lockdown and spreading disease do catalyse thinking when it comes to one’s own industry and its various ailments.

Advertising has always been very interesting and loads of fun. But it has some oddly quirky behaviours and preferences, and that’s putting it mildly. To be fair, every industry has its own peculiar set of rituals and inanities. But, few others put together such an interesting, eclectically disparate, band of people, all gathered in service of that hallowed key number. We can tend to stand apart like a badly art directed logo.

This piece is not meant to raise hackles, or kindle a sense of déjà vu. It’s merely to add some cheer and much-needed humour in these current times. For, if the advertising industry can’t laugh at itself, it is very unlikely there is any other which can.

1. The ‘Be there in five minutes’ assertion

Given the nature of the creative process and the informal work culture, time does tend to be a fluid concept in agencies. Douglas Adams had famously spoken about the whooshing sound deadlines made as they passed him by, and ad agencies live in perennial fear of that sound bite. This is why we try and stretch established standard conventions. The famous ‘Be there in five minutes’ reply to an anxious client expecting us for a long-awaited meeting, is a time honoured reflex even the junior most person on the account develops as a part of his initiation process. According to internal protocols, the ‘five minutes’ in question are applicable as per chronological conventions across all planets in the solar system. Hence, on being queried later on, the defense can always assume ‘out of this world’ proportions.

2. The ‘It’s a pitch’ flirtation

The lure of a pitch often affects agencies with the same intensity, as the prospect of an extra-marital affair sways the attention of the faithful. For the days leading up to this climactic event, all energies are focused on the prospect of consummating the new alliance. Jobs in the present pipeline get the same blasé looks as the current spouse when there’s a more enticing option seemingly within reach. The pitch also entails a few mandatory late nights closer to the moment of truth, when the midnight oil, plus lots of ideas and people get burnt. Eventually, if the temptation slinks off with someone else, the agency quietly returns to the neglected old flame, which has, in the interim, taking cognizance of the temporary cold shoulder, started the process of sending out feelers to more attractive suitors herself.

3. The ‘everything’s an opportunity’ delusion

Advertising has been wonderfully opportunistic at most times. Agencies have excelled, over the years, in latching onto festivals and topical events. From Diwali to Halloween, Zidane’s head-butt to Mangalyaan; many brands have found novel ways to incorporate this seamlessly as part of their conversation. But as a feisty rodeo horse would concur, not everything can be ridden on. There are times when these associations tend to be a bit of a stretch. Sometimes, they can even be tasteless. The current crisis is one such example. While some brands have managed to generously and selflessly deliver real-time tangible benefits; quite a few still seem to believe in leveraging this catastrophe, based on the troubling assumption that they need to be top of mind. ‘Silence is golden’ is a proverb which can be traced back to ancient Egypt. It should find more relevance in such times. As the wise pharaohs would say, (and I am taking considerable liberties with paraphrasing this), it is better for many brands to be mum at such times, than incur the wrath of the market mummies.

4. The ‘I want an award too’ obsession

Awards have been transformed into an Olympic sport by the advertising business. However, over the recent years, there is a lot less of the Olympian spirit on display. What started off as a celebration of excellence in a difficult craft, has somewhat degenerated into merely the quest for more silverware. And there is an increasing trend of the ends justifying the means. The creation of pieces of communication purely for the sake of bagging trophies is surely a self-defeating long-term legacy. To cite an analogy, Usain Bolt runs the 100 metres against the fastest runners in the world, under the critically scrutinising gaze of the entire planet, not to mention high performance timing devices. My claims of having completed the same distance on my personal treadmill in less than 9.58 seconds recorded on my archaic wristwatch, which tends to meander, simply should not stand in comparison. Such behaviour surely needs to be bolted down.

To conclude, I am sure you can cite some more malaises. Perhaps, that might merit me writing a sequel around this, which seems the trend in popular culture these days. But the fact of the matter is; this period should inspire us towards some introspection, reinvention and new conversation, not just at a personal level, but also around how we function collectively as an industry. When the doors open again, it will be nice to find we have moved away from a relapse into the same toxic old habits of the past. Here’s wishing all of us healthy, safe and prosperous times ahead.

(The author is a brand storyteller, innovation catalyst and the author of ‘Sportivity’, ‘Lessons from the Playground’ &‘The Madness Starts at 9’.)