Aishwarya Ramesh
Points of View

'Brand face' is not interchangeable with 'campaign idea': Has the penny dropped?

A couple of admen wrote about this on social media in the context of Dabur Chyawanprash and Akshay Kumar. Will the needle move?

Last week, Satbir Singh, founder and chief creative officer at the agency Thinkstr, wrote on LinkedIn: "Brands are increasingly being trolled for the brand ambassador’s behaviour, etc. Hopefully, more clients will ditch multi-crore deals with celebs and pay agencies better for ideas. The greatest 100 ads of the last 50 years may not have more than one or two with celebs."

'Brand face' is not interchangeable with 'campaign idea': Has the penny dropped?

This came in close succession to the tweet by Ajay Gahlaut, former chief creative officer and managing director at Publicis Communications, on the subject (see below).

At a cerebral level, we know that celebrities, despite their demi-god status in India, are as human as the women and men who purchase the products they pose with. But at an emotional level – and there's no dearth of that in our market – we expect magic. Which is why, when celebrities who endorse health products fall prey to health problems, we feel cheated.

Sourav Ganguly's recent heart-related illness became fodder for idiotic trolls because he is the face of Fortune Oil, a product that promises a healthy heart. More recently, albeit at a much smaller scale, Akshay Kumar was trolled by a few mindless morons when he contracted COVID because he endorsed Dabur's Chyawanprash, a product that claims to fortify consumers with immunity against COVID.

However, trolls aside, the point of this article is to shine the light on the pertinent point Singh and Gahlaut made – the point highlighted at the beginning of this article. Will brands finally start valuing the advertising agency's idea over celebrities? Or will we continue using the two as interchangeable concepts? Are recent events enough to move the needle at all?

Here is what some industry experts have to say.

Edited excerpts:

Nandita Chalam, former ECD and senior VP, JWT; and advertising lecturer, XIC

If you have a strong idea and you’re using a celebrity, that’s a whole different thing. But randomly using a celebrity to drive the point home is somewhat pointless. An agency can really think harder and come up with an idea that can actually drive the point home.

Nandita Chalam
Nandita Chalam

When I worked at Ogilvy, my ex-boss Piyush Pandey used to say, if you don’t have an idea, don’t come and say that you want to use a celebrity endorser. If you have an idea and then you name a particular celebrity who’ll work with the idea, then it makes sense, otherwise you shouldn’t use an endorser.

Agencies, sometimes, use a celebrity because they don’t have an idea, and that’s very different from using a celebrity as a part of a bigger idea. In a way, celebrities testing positive (for COVID) is a good thing because they’ll be forced to look at the idea, rather than the endorsers themselves.

However, even if a celeb has tested positive, there can still be ways to use them – maybe in a safety and awareness campaign, or in a campaign that shows the celeb who tested positive for the virus, taking the vaccine themselves.

I do think a great idea will always have value. There’s one thing that advertising agencies have in their power – great ideas. That’s what the agencies need to monetise on. Otherwise, a client can go directly to a celebrity’s manager – they won’t need the agency at all.

Chaitanya Joshi, senior creative director, Dentsu Webchutney

There is a way of using celebrities in your idea. Your idea itself can’t be to get in a celebrity – that’s a pretty wrong starting point for creativity. Your brand ambassador/celeb has to play a pivotal role to the idea.

If your idea is bigger than the celebrity, then it will work without them also. If you look at the Rahul Dravid CRED ad, he (Dravid) is an integral part of the ad because you’re using his persona.

At the end of the day, your idea is paramount. Your celeb can play a pivotal role in it, but it can’t be dependent such that if the celebrity is not available, you can’t do anything. A bad idea with a good celebrity doesn’t work, and a good idea doesn’t always need a celebrity face. A celebrity may add value to it, but it doesn’t need a celebrity. It’s not mandatory that for your ideas to be big, it has to have a celeb’s stamp on it.

If you look at the 1970s, 80s and 90s – having a celebrity endorser used to drive a lot of effectiveness. If you look at a celebrity, like Virat Kohli, today, he endorses a minimum of 20-30 brands, and it becomes something of a blind spot.

Your idea should solve a client’s problem. For that, if a celeb is adding value, then it’s okay. But the celeb should never be the starting point to the idea. I would rather use it as a good idea to drive effectiveness, rather than just using a celeb. If your messaging is salient, you don’t need a celebrity.

Brands will have to value a salient idea versus taking a celeb just for the sake of it. Because today the attention span of the consumer is very low. You are fighting for the consumer's attention, every second of it. Thus, if a salient idea can be made bigger with a celeb, why not? But a strong idea should become a bedrock of any campaign

Kainaz Karmakar, chief creative officer, Ogilvy

I have always approached a brief as an ‘idea first’. That’s what Aggi (Agnello Dias) taught me and that’s what Piyush (Pandey) taught me. Terrific work can be done with, or without celebrities.

A celebrity can only lend a helping hand to the visibility. The heavy lifting has to be done by the creative. We are living in the age where our advertising is competing with Netflix. If we are not at least as interesting in the way we do our communication, we might as well sit down.

Kainaz Karmakar
Kainaz Karmakar

A great idea needs three things to see the light of day. First, a terrific and brave client. Second, a super talented execution partner. Third and very important, luck. If these three things are moving in your direction, nothing can stop your work from breaking the walls of mediocrity and shine.

In my experience, there is only one way to approach a client presentation. Be fresh and interesting, while giving an honest solution to the client’s business problem.

That being said, I don’t think a celebrity having COVID takes away her or his celebrity value. It’s a pause. That’s all it is. If a celebrity is integral to a brand, the client will wait. To evaluate the power of an idea, with or without a celebrity, has nothing to with COVID.