After much posturing and putting off I finally decided to pen down my thoughts on what makes a lot of digital advertising in India (1) so bad. The stimulus was a comment on this post on Samit Malkani's blog. I'll come back to that in a bit, comment and all. First, let us hold up a mirror. We (I used to) construct these campaigns. We're the ones who come up with these ideas, the shoskeles, the 'viral videos', the microsites etc. Who are we?
If you look at the digital creative bunch closely you'll see a motley mix of people, not to be confused with an eclectic mix. A lot of these 'creatives' have ended up doing digital advertising because (it is going to get harsh here, so get a bit to chomp on):
a) They couldn't make it big or through to, what is called, 'mainline' (TV, Print, radio) aka traditional advertising. This holds true for both copywriters and art guys.(2)
b) They started off by writing content or doing design work for websites and slowly migrated to this sphere called advertising because a 'digitally savvy' person was needed.
By no means am I saying that 'creatives' working on digital ads are second class citizens of the ad-world, but face it, you've always felt that the digital medium is an under appreciated one and you carry that baggage. It shows in your work. If you don't love the Internet, the Internet won't love you. Didn't you get the memo about the Internet being a two-way communication medium? 'Digital' is another animal altogether, bytes upon bytes have been used up explaining that, so I'll give it a skip and come back to the people involved.
As a copywriter it is your job to think of ideas and then adapt it to your canvas but to do justice to them you must first know how to write well and what your canvas is capable of displaying. I've got a question for every copywriter out there. Do you have a blog? A copy person (and a design person too) without a blog is highly suspect, more so if you claim to be a 'digital' creative. Why? I'll elaborate on that in bit.(1) (3) Now, let me turn my attention to the client servicing bunch, sitting there, chatting about nothing relevant. Most of these chaps start off as servicing managers or executives in the Direct Marketing arm of an agency. Then a few clients ask for a website/microsite/'viral like the Webchutney one'/banner campaign and the agency, in all its wisdom, can't justify hiring a dedicated, informed, client servicing-business development person for the work and so asks the DM (or 'mainline' advertising, if it is a 'integrated' campaign) servicing guy to double up on 'this digital project'. If it is a pure-play digital firm they hire greenhorns just out of college to save on costs and these guys will fuck things up in all innocence. What happens then is that a few quick slides are added to the final presentation and this passed on as a digital, or worse 360 degree strategy. I've seen people at positions as high as President, Client Servicing-Biz Dev etc be completely oblivious to the facts about the digital space and in some cases be in downright denial about what can be achieved out here. This is where the downward spiral becomes fast and steep because the blind can't lead the blind.
There is some good work happening, but more often than not it is because of individual brilliance or a cracker of an idea, rather than a large scale awakening within the industry. Right now everything is thrown at the consumer and whatever sticks is feted and awarded. Can't you hear your own echoes in that chamber full of awards? You're not in a position to inspire young minds, who'll want to take up a job in digital advertising because of the kind of work you churn out, no sir.
Every person in the team that is working on the latest TV-print-radio-blah blah campaign has at some point gone into the history of traditional advertising and had a dekko, heard what Ogilvy had to say, read what Neil French wrote, tried to memorize all of Burnett's truisms. They've read about historic campaigns, heck, they've lived through and experienced historic campaigns. So has every person working on the digital campaigns. The mistake is you've been looking only at a part of the history. You should have picked up as much as you could about your medium, the Internet, while you were at it. Only then would you be able to observe the evolution, understand the curve, and appreciate and adapt to the changes. Isn't advertising and branding an exercise where you are a step ahead of the curve, riding it, predicting where it will hit terra firma, where you are enticing the consumers by standing at the edge and describing the experience in the most eloquent (glib, if that's what your brand demands) way possible? However, wouldn't you always be chasing the wave if you never knew where and how it originated?
The clients need to be educated about the medium and where things on it are headed, ergo where they should place themselves. As a consulting agency that's your job. Are you good enough to teach them that? In my experience I've seen that you're not. What the agency has failed to learn is the philosophy and the history of the medium. This precisely why the client wants a 'viral' and agency upon agency promises them one. This why the snake oil trade called 'Social Media Marketing' exists and is made up of three words, Twitter, Facebook, Blogs. (4)
The digital medium, whichever way you look at it, is technology heavy. As a creative person or a client servicing guy you need to understand how things work under the hood. You needn't know how to code but you should have an idea as what type of code could possibly do what you want. Don't go around saying you'll need an HTML programmer and such. To someone who can call your bluff (and a lot of people today can) you come off as an idiot. This is why I say, sink your teeth into applications around. Know how things work because these along with the words and the colours are the tools of your trade. Ask the Copy Supervisor working on the latest television commercial, if he's any good, apart from a compelling tale, he'd also tell you how the screenplay pans out and what lights he'd like. This is why I'd ask all the creatives to start blogging or at least use the Internet to air your thoughts. Use the social media tools as users first before pimping it to the client. Realise that Facebook and Twitter are not the be all and end all of social media and understand why the Internet business today is thinking more and more about William Dillard's quote. Finally, ad networks, heard of them?
Now, it's time to see what can we make of this digital shebang. There is a line of argument (and Samit's post shows that he subscribes to it too) that says, for Digital Advertising to make an impact, in India, and to improve, we need to descend on every user's mobile in whatever way is appropriate (handset, location, SEC status etc considered), this because number theory says that 617.53 million > 81 million. Greater reach means greater impact. True, but not greater positive impact. Think of it this way, we've had a test bed of 40 million users and we've made a bad impression. Do you really want to reach out to 15 times that number with a mediocre service offering?(5)
We, as creators of these campaigns need to educate ourselves first, better our work and then reach out to as many people as we can, very very carefully. For example, when dealing with mobile phone users, what needs to be acknowledged is the subtle shift in the user's mindset. When I switch from a Nokia 3310 to a 'Smart phone', I've told myself that, this a device that is personal when I need it but is also a gateway to what much of the Bible belt calls the 'Interwebs'. When on the 'Interwebs' I am open to information. However, when I'm still on a Nokia-I-Don't-Have-The-Hardware-To-Do-Justice-To-The-Web phone, or using my 'smartphone' as a pureplay telephone, I'm thinking, "This is a personal device, all the information on this is solicited by me and I'm in control." Haven't you noticed how people vent all their aggression on tele-marketers? I'm sure no brand wants to be treated like that.
Ahbid-d a commentator on Samit's blog had this to say in response to Samit's post, "Rural folk definitely won't mind a bit of invasive advertising, if great offers at their local Apna Bhandaar store or mandi are made available. FMCG and home appliances are good candidates. Also, if I'm not mistaken rural folks do get weather updates/warnings and fertilizer tips through state-run channels on their cellphones. They'd surely wouldn't cringe like us urbanites if an Ad is inserted within them." Apart from being downright condescending (which is what an advertiser or marketer must never be) the comment reeks of what I'd call 'The Union Carbide Mentality'. I'm sure Warren Anderson & Co. said something similar when they set up a plant with sub-standard safety equipment in the 'third world'. Name me a brand who wants to be in their shoe. That comment, if subscribed to by Internet Advertising-Marketing experts, is symptomatic of what is wrong with 'digital advertising' in India. As you noticed, there is a part where Ahbid-d says that, 'rural folk' get weather updates/warning and fertilizer tips through state run channels on their cell phone. Surprisingly, Ahbid-d is right, they do. However, it is information that THEY SUBSCRIBE TO, much like how Ahbid-d and his rather posh urban ilk would subscribe to dating tips and movie listings. There is an element called consent at play here and it should be sacrosanct for all marketers in the digital space, irrespective of the demographic you are talking to, else it is called...what's the word for it...oh yeah, spam.
As advertising guys we need to take a good hard look at ourselves and realise that things aren't rosy because we have skipped the philosophy and history course completely, bunked the tech and engineering lecture, forgot the language and psychology notes and have turned up with a marketing presentation that says mobile is future and has 3 slides dedicated to Social Media Marketing.
(1) Many countries who have a digital presence of our size have first taught themselves the technology that makes this medium tick. Creative agencies such as CP+B and W+K etc have strong technology and 'culture' teams. In addition, there is a lot of chatter coming out of these international digital agencies. They blog, prepare case studies and blog some more. The Ogilvy Truffles network exposed us to that. We added next to nothing to it in terms of knowledge. I am guilty as charged.
(2) This is true in my case as well (the first stone I chuck will be at me). I worked with a small ad firm for a couple of months before it folded up and then out of some desperation I took up my first digital advertising job. I never knew much about digital ads then (some 6 years ago, that's the pre Web 2.0 era), I wanted to script television ads and write print copy, it's just that the economics didn't work out. All copywriters would know what I'm talking about.
(3) There is a great post here about why you must keep writing.
(4) Why do I call 'Social Media Marketing' a snake oil trade? I have a - completely locked down deep in the bunker - product, which has almost 350 'fans' on Facebook, most of who 'liked' it way after we had stopped giving out test invites, that's why.
(5) The other day this was pushed into my social stream. Another 'viral'. I have a problem with the thought, the execution, and the idea that, even today, one poorly animated sketch is being pushed by agencies as a 'viral'. I think I've seen the TV ad for this insurance provider, it was the guy falling through an open window in an office, while talking on the phone. So, I have some questions. Is the 'viral' a better story? Nope. Is it made using some better production techniques? Nope. Does it have anything novel and unique to say? Nope. Does it do justice to the medium that it is on? Nope. Has it added anything more to the TV commercial or the product? Nope. Would anything have changed had this video been replaced by the existing TV commercial? Nope. Then, how does it justify its existence?