Ouch, Plainspeak Hurts

Written by Geeta Rao | Updated: Aug 27 2004, 05:37am hrs
In the warm-fuzzy, touchy-feely, cuddlesome-wuddlesome world of the advertising club of Bombay, Mr Ambanis hard words, damning our big fat firang complex, must have pinched hard. I did not make it to the event despite being a life member of the club, but Anil Ambanis keynote speech, I am told, was the high point of the evening. Because advertising gurus have become media darlings, the usual suspects are unwilling to say anything remotely controversial or politically incorrect about the industry. So it was good to hear Mr Ambani had taken on the mantle.

His advertising credentials are impeccable. He owns one of the countrys top ten agencies, Mudra, which was started not just as an in-house agency for Vimal but also to provide services to a swathe of Gujarat entrepreneurs whom the so-called Bombay brigade could not handle often because of multinational considerations.

He is also the chief mentor of Mica, which is an institute started by Mudra, and which has released a large number of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young men and women into the world of advertising and media planning. So, on the 50th anniversary of the Bombay ad club, he was fully entitled to have his say. And say he did.

Forget the rhetoric. It is somewhat Luddite to talk of the sun never having set on the East India Company (sic) and the fact that thousands work in bondage to foreign advertising firms. In this day and age, it is called globalisation, and there is no escape. Therefore, the pithy take-off, Firang aisa jod lagaye ache acha na tod paye, was probably more for effect than as an expression of real angst. As we move into other markets, as Mr Ambani heartily hopes we will, remember we will be the firangs too. The point that was perhaps hidden in the word-play was whether we look westwards for affirmation and validation and whether the flow of globalisation is a one-way traffic from west to east rather then a two-way, equal exchange.

Ten years ago there were more owner-run companies than there were foreign- owned companies. Then the famous 49-51 equation worked well. Now almost all the top 15 agencies are fully owned by one giant group or the other. Sorellisation is not true just of India. This is how the world advertising pie has been sliced. Its just that no Indian company has looked westwards at the M&A (merger & acquisition) route, and there Mr Ambani is right. If Bharat Forge could buy a plant in Germany and Infosys could buy a company in Australia and Reliance in China, there is no reason why Rediff or Dacunhas or Sistas or even Mudra could not have, in their old desi avatars, bought out an agency in New York or London, or Singapore for that matter.

That we look westwards for creative affirmation may need honest introspection. Call it the Cannes complex. For years, the media covered Cannes exclusively almost as if no other awards event was significant. So an entire generation of creative people have grown up with the Cannes benchmark. Somewhat ashamed of what is typical Indian advertising. And Cannes has been doggedly male, European, American and yes firang. It took south America and Japan several years to break into the club. India has just made it by the skin of its teeth or the curl of Piyush Pandeys moustache.

In fact, Cannes navel gazing was so well known that it was only after 40 years that a session on Asian creativity was included in 2001 when a panel of Asian creative directors actually got a chance to talk about their countries and cultures. Yet, winning at Cannes has become the equivalent or more of getting the Bharat Ratna.

But lets step back and look at advertising in India. It has grown significantly, beating world averages. So the sell-out hasnt harmed the industry. We are still not saturated markets, so the growth is likely to continue. The scope of advertising is changing, the role is altering. The quality of production is significantly better.

Whether you are in the FMCG business, in retail, in telecom, in the services sector, in manuacturing, the role of advertising and communication will soon take up a bigger chunk of the budgetary pie. Growth will come not from the traditional big spenders, the multinationals, but from the local big daddies, the film industry, the local FMCGs who in turn may sell out to other global giants, and so the circle of life will continue.

Insularity is not a prescription for survival. We are not, as an industry, trying to be the last Gaul village holding out against the Romans, though it may be romantic to play that role. We need creative ways of doing our business across the world rather than just creative ways of expressing our clients brand promise, which in turn will lead to greater confidence in expressing our own version of advertising creativity perhaps that was the point, Mr Ambani

Like manufacturers look for different business cycles across the world to balance their productivity, or like bankers working across time zones to optimise profitability, so too should Indian advertising look for a different business model. Point taken. But as always, Mr Ambani, in the globalised world the flow must be two-way, the situation win-win so if, as you recommend, we go across the seven seas and say to the firangs on the magic carpet of our creativity mujhse shaadi karoge, then we must open our doors to the ones who come eastwards and let them say the same thing. Finally, we will have to be mutually fida on each other for the marriage to work.

The writer is a Mumbai-based advertising professional. Her last assignment was with Ogilvy, Asia Pacific as regional creative director, based in Thailand