RIP Persuasion

By Sunit Khot , Network Advertising, Mumbai | In Advertising
Published : September 13, 2018 05:18 AM
A commentary on the state of affairs in advertising.

I am an avid watcher of Mad Men, the blockbuster TV show set in the '60s world of Madison Avenue, the absolute Mecca for advertising. Likewise, I am a huge fan of Bill Bernbach. I like to believe that he is the real-life inspiration for Don Draper - complete with his immaculate talent married to his persistently secretive nature regarding his personal demons.

Sunit Khot Sunit Khot

Advertising really saw its hey-days in the world of the '60s where the industry was respected for its knowledge and the magic it brought to the table. Clients would stand up when the hotshot creative talent from the agency would walk into the conference room. Contrast that with today, where the faceless 'Purchase Department' is the one that is ultimately mandated with the job of putting a value to the agency's work. And today, I find myself totally ruing the fact that we live in a world where the fine art of persuasion has lost a lot of respect.

Why did this sorry state of affairs come about? That's a question that I have often asked myself.

Let's go back to the basics of our business. As a sidebar, let me first explain what I include when I use the term 'our business'. It's fashionable these days to say that 'Advertising is dead - Digital is the way forward'. But I feel that whatever label you'd like to give it, we are ultimately in the business of Persuasion. Whether it's a hoarding, a TV Spot, a Facebook post, an event, a PR article or a digital activation, we are ultimately doing all or any of those to influence human minds towards a predetermined belief, opinion or action. That's why our clients pay us and that is what we are supposedly the experts of. Therefore, I would include all entities involved in the business of Persuasion - ad agencies, digital agencies, strategy consultancies, design firms, event agencies, PR agencies, and what have you.

There are two key factors which have led to the appalling lack of respect that agencies in general, enjoy today. One is, of course, the 'commoditisation' of the business - where an idea is bought or sold based on hours put into it rather than its potential to move markets. This is a phenomenon which trapped our industry like the frog in slowly boiling water. Slowly and surely it killed the industry by throttling its lifeline - remunerations - and killing its attractiveness to better talent. The rest is history - a deplorable vicious cycle that has led to a downward spiral of doom.

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That said, I think the second factor leading to the lack of respect is worth inspecting even more than this one. And there are good reasons why this factor deserves more attention mainly because this, I believe, is possible for a single agency (or even a professional) to start practising and gain back the knowledge and respect immediately without waiting for an 'industry' trend to emerge. This factor is about how the intellect of the business moved away from 'solving problems' to 'peddling solutions'.

Here we need to take a breather to understand how this phenomenon occurred in the first place. The disintegration of the communication services provided to the client has led to very high degrees of specialisations. However, these very specialisations have led to the client's interests being compromised on an everyday basis. Maybe the clients themselves are to blame because of their 'divide-and-rule' policy which encouraged such a trend. But what they failed to take note of is the fact that they ended up working too hard themselves to integrate the efforts of the various vendors and worse still, made sure that the brands they were responsible for, suffered. Coupled with the pressures of profitability on the part of the agencies, it was inevitable that every agency would try to force-fit their own solution to whatever problem the client had.

The biggest pity is the communication that we see today. There are very few brands which are built around a central core. This is so blatantly seen in the extremely schizophrenic demeanour that they portray across the various media. The other unfortunate result is that communication has become basic. 99 per cent of the advertising and other media communication we see around us is so boring and in-your-face. It's almost as if the industry is trying to make the most of every nanosecond of attention that it gets from its audience and therefore, ends up being un-engaging and insulting to their intelligence.

So what can one do? As a professional in this industry, my wish list is for my brethren to start making small changes in the way they handle their brands on behalf of their clients. Notice how I said 'their brands'. Herein lies the first mantra of success - Ownership. In today's fragmented industry, it is extremely easy for Ownership of the brand to get spread over various different agencies. Here's an opportunity for a well-meaning individual and agency to really take ownership for the fortunes of the brand and thereby gain back the lost respect from the client.

But true ownership cannot really happen in today's agency work environments that reel under the reality of a shrinking bottom line and reduced offerings. Here's where the second mantra of success can come into play - Objectivity. Objectivity here is about consciously setting aside one's world-views and trying to embrace the reality from the brand's perspective. What is it that one would do if one were not sitting in the agency office but at the client's office? What is it that one would do if one's sole purpose in life was to ensure the success of the brand? This can be difficult, but not impossible. The most successful individuals and agencies have the balls to recognise what is best for the brand and recommend the same, while keeping aside their bottom line pressures for the time being. In the long run, it is always likely to work out for them.

What can impart the courage to ensure true objectivity? That's where the third mantra is necessary - Openness. By embracing Openness, an individual or an agency can actually turn the disadvantage of specialisation into an advantage. Instead of trying to hog the entire earning from the client by trying to peddle in-house solutions to every problem, today's industry offers an opportunity to tap into a plethora of choices which specialise in the service that is really required for the brand. To be able to discern this crucial aspect requires an openness of mind, which unfortunately can never come about without complete Ownership or Objectivity.

I believe that we are in an interregnum between two equilibriums. There was an equilibrium in the Mad Men days where the traditional advertising agency did showcase Ownership and Objectivity. There was not much need for Openness then as the remuneration structure was designed to inherently reward these virtues. But today, with the disintegrated nature of the persuasion business, there is a need to quickly embrace all three of these mantras to quickly get over the current chaos and get onto an equilibrium which once again enables us to do justice to the task and build great brands.

Here's a silent salute to all those who are whittling away doing this on their own. Hope that many more join the fray soon. So, that RIP Persuasion is not 'Rest in Peace', but 'Resurrect in Prosperity'.

(Sunit Khot is Chief Strategy Officer, Network Advertising).

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