John Lennon wouldn't have imagined that geophysical barriers would be dissolving thus. Products and brands today reach potential consumers the world over, instantaneously. Any metadata, anywhere, any time, or rather all the time. At least in context of media and communication tools, we live in the age of plenty. From ads to artificial intelligence (AI) and billboards to bots and from 360 degree to predictive advertising, communication is moving at a velocity and volume like never before.
Much of this is attributed to digital, propelled by the global Internet penetration which is touted to be in the 3 billion plus range i.e. nearly 50 per cent of the world's population. We are seeing the worlds of Internet, big data and AI converging and the lines between e-commerce and ad platforms blurring.
The opportunities and challenges of this new media have changed the paradigm-for the marketers, creators and consumers. What makes it irresistible for marketers, is real-time metrics and the nose-diving cost of acquisition per consumer, the crux being that whilst costs have plummeted, the reach has exploded. The rapid adoption of smart devices has accelerated the digital age. Monetization and usage are seeing an upward trajectory, given the innovative product and multiple touchpoints that are being spawned as we speak. Video and messaging have snowballed and new content types are being created; voice has provided another usage spike. Mobile advertising is getting more and more share of the marketing and ad spend.
As advertisers, it is an exciting as well as complex time. From a creative perspective, digital and social media have redefined 'content'. With brands focusing on connecting directly with consumers across social platforms, the fuel they need to create and maintain their ability to connect is content. Memes, clickbait, trending posts and hashtags testify to the growing demand of more creative assets, created economically and more frequently to bolster the continual presence of brands across platforms.
Initially, in the advertising industry, we saw a distinction, which some would contend is an artificial one: Creative assets designed for 'traditional' paid media distribution and 'content' for social or non-traditional distribution. There exists a concreted drive for consumer engagement through ideas that are 'social by design' and therefore considered different at inception. Yes, different platforms do have their distinct codes so to speak. However, insightful and relevant content is a great leveler.
There is definitely much discussion around AI and its impact on content. Technology is changing so rapidly that creativity and amusement can be confused. It's not tech but craft that has the power to say the same thing again and yet sound fresh. Creativity is not science, its art. AI and data is science and science will go hand in hand with art but let's not confuse the two.
AI in advertising may feed a lot of material and what has been done before, and AI would do permutations and combinations and create fresh things out of that material. But writers and creative people don't do permutations and combinations of work done before. With AI, I feel it would be difficult to touch upon an emotion which has never been touched upon before. Most importantly, when you are developing AI, you are feeding in an 'already been expressed' emotion. AI's inability to experience raw emotion, which humans have, will form the crux of the AI vs human creativity debate in time.
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However, apart from discussions around human and machine or medium-specific content, we need to pull back and see what kind of an impact is unfolding before our eyes, especially in the Indian context. On one hand, with 450 million Internet users, we are the second-largest online market; on the other, India has the fastest-growing newspaper industries amidst a global newspaper market that is stagnant. So, whilst digital media is growing exponentially, traditional media remains resilient. Is there a no man's land between traditional and digital media or are the borders porous? While the digital chorus is growing, another medley of TV, radio and outdoor plays, simultaneously. In the US in 2017, the holy grail of TV advertising, the Super Bowl, saw marquee names like Doritos and Mountain Dew missing from the pack of advertisers. Switch to the Indian Premier League in India, which has another story, with each nanosecond on TV being sold for unmentionable amounts and every brand worth their sales figures, featured. Is it a 'developed versus developing' country phenomenon? Well, it's not that simplistic. Fact is, India is at a cusp of a colossal transformation.The answer, as far as I am concerned, lies in the heart of India-rural and semi-urban India. In this context, a key aspect that we in India, particularly, cannot ignore is that of mobile content. It is growing at a phenomenal rate, literally adding thousands at the next glance? Though rural India, with a population of approximately 900 million, currently has only 200 million Internet users, the disparity is large. This shouldn't be seen as just a gap, but the quantum of potential and opportunity. For here, the Internet and mobile is not just another mode of contact or entertainment but a tool to empower.
What we are witnessing is a democratization of communication and knowledge. The thrust, of course, is on infrastructure and bandwidth. But even if that does not develop at breakneck speed, opportunity for brands is still huge. We know that penetration of smart phones is not that high but as costs drop, we will see the shift from feature to smart in no time. The economics will make this segment very lucrative for marketers, who will have to cater with finer and finer differential digital strategies for rural consumers, be it languages or a simpler app designed for smaller screens and bandwidths. As advertisers, we need to attune ourselves more finely to the next big wave of consumer understanding and content creation.
We are a complex country where contradictions coexist. Some decades ago, TV had burst through the print and radio style of communication, bringing forth a new audio-visual language. Similarly, it's time that we understand and look at rural-relevant content specifically as these new Internet/mobile consumers do not identify with the urban consumption patterns nor relate to dominant language codes. The focus will need to be on content that is relatable and relevant to rural India. Nearly half of India will own smartphones and their expectation to be served through this medium on their own terms will only escalate. This 'mobile-first' culture will have its impact on not just media gaming entertainment but sectors, industries and segments that transform lives in rural India-be it health, education or agriculture. Films (long form/short form), news, gaming, music, education, information, e-commerce-all have to understand and develop accordingly. Be it e-chaupals, banking, shopping, entertainment, vernacular content is key. Also, there will be a rapid move towards individualization of content as against the current trend of consuming content in groups. Each consumer's experience, like for their urban cousins, will be designed using intuitive data tools. We need to understand that this audience will be a combination of a small-town India with a rural cultural context, who have the aspirations and life goals of a First World country.
As advertisers, amidst these exciting times of change, what should be kept firmly in sight are not just percentages and the altering media and content scape, but how the brand story will cut across. Brands have to think deeply on how strong their product offering is and whether the brand has a life truth that is steeped in the consumer consciousness, for only then will it resonate. 'The medium is the message' approach only takes us so far; the crux will be in moulding the medium.
I am truly excited to see this new change unfolding. As a creative person, there is nothing like the next big frontier.
(Prasoon Joshi is chairman, McCann Asia Pacific and CEO and CCO, McCann Worldgroup India. Published by Rupa, the book has 193 pages).
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