The precariat agencies

The precariat agencies

I am interested in the changing dynamics of agency business. So I tend to read whatever I can about new efforts being made to reinvent businesses. Some of the efforts are truly astounding – the AI agency Born, for example – sounds very interesting. Then there is Maana, a big data company that helps make sense of internal data.  I don’t completely understand them yet, but I know what need they are fulfilling and how they are relevant. They are trying fairly interesting new things.

And then I come across news from advertising agencies – and it feels as if all that ad agencies do is bullshit, not actually innovate. Just came across an article on adage that I had to read twice to make sense of. Here it is. So the article packages the desperate efforts of some small agencies to stay relevant as ‘new business models’. Sure, what they are doing is indeed a new ‘business model’ – like depending on freelancers instead of investing in teams and infrastructure or to charge only by hours instead of guaranteed scope under contract. But is any of it in their own long term interest? If you are not engaging in contractual  partnerships, you are simply creating a cheaper alternative to traditional agencies while absorbing the uncertainty for yourself.

A ‘business model’ that essentially creates ‘less value’ is similar to a ‘business model’ of outsourcing manufacturing jobs to ever poorer countries. The client gets a cheap deal and the labour at home suffers. That is not innovation. It is desperation.

precariat2

In the article, BETC LA, (a dance company? an agency?) boasts about spending ‘only’ a quarter of a million dollars on a launch campaign. I tried to dig a bit deeper trying to understand why would an agency need to spend that kind of colossal sum on a ‘launch’? The agency website still say that it ‘will’ launch in oct 2017. Doesn’t compute.

It feels like somebody had to do wild mental gymnastics to portray these various precarious agencies as pursuing bold new ‘business models’. If you get into cost wars, the cheapness spiral will only drive down the industry.

In a way it is poetic justice. The industry that played a role (even if indirect) in destroying unions and collectivist utopia of 20th century finds itself on the other side of the table – capitalism draining it out and rendering it into a commodity.

There is time still to do the right thing, to grow by increasing the ‘value‘ of what we do, by being more conscientious of what we do. Here’s a few ideas for ad men/ women to grow in the future –

1. Recognise your  precariousness and Unionise to gain strength.

2. Recognise your human potential and look for opportunities ‘beyond ads’

3. Learn from beyond the narrow world of advertising and create new value, don’t sell old wine in new cheaper bottle.

May you find your way out of precariousness.

 

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Shifting to Colombo, Sri Lanka?

Shifting to Colombo, Sri Lanka?

I am an Indian, living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. And I would have done a few things differently had I known a few things about Colombo before I came here. So here’s a heads-up for future expats heading to the wonder island.

The summary

If you are a savvy business person and looking for new opportunities, Sri lanka is a great place to be at. If you are a salaried person looking for career growth… assess your options well before coming here.
For a South Asian salaried person:
Come here for the wider footpaths, less crowded city, the blue sky, the greenery and the amazing beauty of the island. Career or economically, it is probably worse than your other options.

For someone from developed economies:
Come here for an interesting addendum in your CV and a relaxed work culture. Again, career wise or economically, it is probably on-par with other opportunities you might have.

For somebody from China:
Welcome to grow with your nation’s colony.

Either ways, bargain a better deal with your company for a better pay pack and hopefully a house and a car as part of the deal. If you don’t get a house and a car, look for substantially high allowances. If neither, do not come.

The lowdown –

  1. The walk

    Among South Asian cities, it is easily amongst the cleanest, neatest cities. The single most important reason for me to choose a city is its ability to allow me to walk pleasantly from work to home. So discounting the terrible traffic fumes, I like Colombo walks quite a bit. I do get to enjoy a good  three km walk everyday. Besides, it is not as crazy crowded as other Asian cities, yet.
    Having said that, the housing bubble here now is dangerously inflated. Housing is very expensive. I was lucky enough to get a company house in the heart of the city at subsidized rate. If it were not for that, it would not have made any sense for me to shift here. If you stay beyond 5-6 km from your work place, the commute could be harrowing (like in most cities, but slower.) So you are between a rock (expensive cars for commute) and a hard place (expensive housing close to work) when it comes to quality of life in the city. So here’s the first tip – move here only if your company provides you with a house and a car, or if you are desperate.

  2. ‘Nice’ People

    The stereotype is true to a certain degree. Sri Lankans, by and large, are mild in temperament and they have the patience to indulge others. Neither do they have the brashness and loudness of Delhi-Gurgaon-Noida hell hole nor the incessant busyness of Mumbai folks. Any town in India on its way to become a ‘city’ becomes a little sharper, a bit brasher at its edges. That too happens here, but to a lesser degree I feel.
    Having said that – my perspective is limited. I live in a fairly upmarket area so that shields me. For instance, I wouldn’t be as carefree in Pettah as I am in Kollupitiya. If you are  woman, you could experience catcalling, stares, occasional hooting too, especially in the evening.
    So it isn’t a paradise either.

  3. Getting repairs done is a pain

    The flip-side of the ‘niceness’ is the inefficiency and lack of dependability. Getting anything done in Sri Lanka is quite a challenge. The first challenge is finding people – there simply aren’t many electricians, plumbers, etc. Those who were in the trade have left for Gulf countries for better pay. Those who didn’t go, are driving cabs and tuk tuk (auto rikshaw) since it can pay even better than these trades and with the added bonus of freedom. So Sri Lanka is facing a huge problem of skill-shortage. This matters because if something breaks in your home you better fix it yourself or wait for weeks and months to get it fixed.
    There are a few professional services that work alright, but i won’t trust all of them. The norm is that of repeated calling, reminding and cajoling people into getting things done.

    I see it in positive light though – A labourer here is much more respected than in India. Indian workers are treated poorly and driven to work ruthlessly. Indian households and companies can be brutal assholes. Sri Lankan labour though has some amount of agency and they get paid much better than in India. So YAY for that. I accept the inefficiency as a welcome cost for living in a (slightly) better world where fellow comrades are treated fairly. (again, unfortunately not to the extent of Nordic or German fairness, but a welcome experience coming from Indian cities.)

  4. Advertising career

    Well, if you have revenue responsibility – Sri Lanka would be a smaller market but one with decent growth potential. That has its own set of  dynamics though. The long term prospects for Sri Lankan economy are not too bright, unless you are Chinese (from my perspective – bad deal with china, currency in doldrums, low preparedness on developing strategic markets or skill development and terrible deficit.) There is a vision to make it the next Singapore, making it a financial hub, aviation hub etc… But I don’t see any proof of that helping the middle class. The money is staying with the Chinese and a few rich local parties. Strained middle class -> strained consumption -> strained agency growth.
    Besides, most FMCG categories have nearly universal penetration, that means growth is not in expanding markets like in India, but in stealing competitive shares. With impending opening of the economy, there will be competitive bloodbath for local brands. High inflation rates means subdued consumer confidence (even as compared to India, per-capita wealth in Sri Lanka is better).
    All this means – Agency clients are not doing too well, and won’t do spectacularly well in the future too. That means, pressure on agency for margins, cuts in marketing expenditure etc. So if you are a suit and coming to Sri lanka to manage an agency, be prepared to lead a smaller biz with uncertain prospects.

    As a planner too, the experience would be quite different. To begin with, since the businesses are smaller, agencies hire planners to look after  a wider set of portfolio than anywhere else. In Ogilvy, I am the only planner. In other agencies too the teams are either non-existent or fairly small – largest being a team of three planners.
    But the number of brands is not fewer – so it means I have less time on most brands. Pitches, launches, fire-fighting – a planner is spread thin over many projects. I never have visibility of my time beyond a week’s time. I am always busy or waiting to get busy soon.

    So that means I don’t get to deep dive in category/ consumer understanding. I don’t have the luxury for doing it. I typically crack the brief on the day of client briefing, prepare the strategy deck the next morning. and iterate it over the next week while attending to other brands. I have adopted this work habit and am ‘comfortable’ with it. I doubt there would be many planners who would want this though – since this limits your control over long term projects – building IP, sharpening your skills, going after bigger challenges…

    Like in most other countries, agencies are laggards in adopting their business practices for the digital age – they can’t foresee their marginalisation and plan for it. So even as I see opportunities with business strategy projects, design projects that could get us in higher margin services, the agency is simply not prepared to change yet. Like India, even here there is much room for learning growth of both servicing and creative folks. Like India, there is a limit to how much and what you can push for.

    What that means is – same expectations as in other markets but with fewer resources and time.
    Come here for – Experience of working with reasonable people. Experience of wider set of brands and consumer segments. Experience of pre-bubble universal-penetration economy.
    (I would give another 2-3 years for the Chinese money to sustain Sri Lankan housing bubble.)
    Don’t come here for – Bigger challenges, innovations, pushing boundaries of what you can do.

  5. Very expensive living

Here’s my perspective about cost of living in Sri lanka compared to cities in India – (I have previously stayed in Gurgaon, Mumbai, Hyderabad). Here’s a useful link from numbeo.com that compares cost of living fairly well. (though they tend to err on the side of caution.)

From a top level – I would say I spend about twice as much in Colombo as I did in Gurgaon. Consequently I am saving less here.

Coupled with the recent drop in exchange rate for LKR, (0.41 now for 1 INR. it was 0.46 half a year ago) the savings have taken a further hit. This rate of depreciation should be alarm enough for any would-be migrant to reconsider his negotiations.

Details are as follows –

Apart from restaurant, everything else is fairly expensive in Colombo.
1. Barring a few items (Soaps, etc), most Consumer goods (imported) could be two to three times costly. Consumer goods from local companies will be 1-5 to 2 times the Indian rates, mostly. There are exceptions of course.

2. Grocery is fairly expensive too , apart from seasonal local produce. Most things for Indian diet would be atleast 2-3 times costly.

(For eg. Bread – 160 – 200 LKR (In india 25-40 INR) , local Biscuits pack – 100 LKR (in India it would be 25 INR) , Eggs, 200 LKR for 10, etc)

3. Cars – i didn’t buy any – nano costs 15 million LKR here. that gives a perspective. Fuel costs are similar though.

4. Rentals – Hmm.. I would say expensive than Gurgaon, a little cheaper to Mumbai. It can go down if one plans to commute for an hour. But expensive vehicles punctures that economic logic. I would say, Gurgaon was cheaper because one can get new good apartments at much lower rates in a fairly decent locality. I was paying INR 30,000 in DLF Phase 1.  For similar locations, here one might have to pay more than 150,000 LKR per month for a comparable home.

5. Electronics – similar to India in a basic electronics. However, as you go for beyond-basic electronics, your would be paying 3-4 times higher for value-added items.

6. Utilities – Phone bills are similar. However, electricity and water is a bit more expensive. I am again spending 1.5 to 2 times the amount here, even as I am using much less electricity. (Don’t need AC here that often).

7. Public transport – is similar to India in cost and experience. a bit cleaner though. My wife uses Pickme (a local uber) often and finds it fairly useful. Some annoying drivers notwithstanding, it is largely a decent experience.

Overall, cost is higher, but it is compensated with relatively cleaner air and opportunity to walk without being trampled upon and honked at.

In summation – Sri Lanka is a growing economy and a lovely place. So there are business opportunities that you may find here that you might not find at other places. So do come here if you have a plan in you mind and a realistic assessment of how you are going to achieve it. If you are coming here to serve in a company, demand a substantial hike and a house and a car. Hope this lowdown helps somebody in negotiating a better deal.

Cheers.

The feedback loop

There is one definitive characteristic that separates the competent from the mediocre; the practice of giving, seeking and acting upon constructive feedback.

I was fortunate enough to get good bosses early on in my career who were kind and thoughtful with their feedback. I learnt a great deal from them.

One of the most valuable artifacts I have, is a printout of my ‘yearly evaluation’ by my then boss, Anirban, who took the pains to write multiple pages worth of insights about my work. He saw the good in me that I was not aware of. He kindly pointed out areas of improvement that I was afraid to even acknowledge. Without feedback like that, I would have remained insecure and incompetent. But I was lucky to get good bosses. I shudder to think about those who work in companies that do not have a culture of giving, seeking feedback at all. And there are many companies like that – I have worked in one where the bosses never gave any constructive feedback at all, they would just sit on judgements. Young creative guys would not know what will hit them. The creative process became a religious process – blind, fraught with terror and delivered with superstitious hope. Superstitious folks are not the ones to reason and improve. It was a terrible place with low morale, high insouciance and middling prospects. I was at my busiest in that agency even as none of the work we did was worthy of going in anyone’s portfolio. We were a factory of uninspiring ads.

Don’t be at such a place. And rescue your own workplace from becoming one.
A good place to work is where the boss provides kind and thoughtful feedback often. A rookie might not even know what he needs to know, so the onus is on the leadership to cultivate a culture of thoughtful dialogue, of thoughtful analysis of our work.

Without feedback, there is no improvement.
Without improvement, there is no growth.
Without growth, there is only existential dread and career insecurity.

Why subject yourself to it? If you are senior enough, get in the habit of engaging your team in thoughtful feedback dialogues. If you a junior, get in the habit of asking for feedback.

Feedback is a lot of work – you have to think hard, analyze… most are too lazy to do it proactively. So demand a feedback from your superior after every project. No other education/ ‘training’ is needed if you have a culture of thoughtful feedback.

Targeting: the holy grail of 201x’s ad-tech creeps

Traditional advertising was famously opaque. As the old adage went – “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” So when digital advertising came about, the initial siren songs were about the promise of precise targeting and reducing the ‘wastage’. That siren song has not lost its appeal. More and more ad-tech firms pile on with newer and newer ways to target/ retarget by usurping personal data of unsuspecting consumers in morally repugnant ways, even if legal.
IoT, mobile phones, smart TVs, alexa…. the spying glass now comes in various shapes and sizes. And there are thousands of companies trying to incrementally increase the creep efficiency with each of these surveillance windows.

But to what effect?

  1. A vast majority of ad-tech firms are not making much money. A ridiculously large share of the profit pie goes to only two players – Google and Facebook. So the prospects for ad-tech guys don’t look all that well. Their hope is for the laggard holding companies to buy them off.
  2. Brands -Brands are waking up to the reality of indirectly funding fake news, hate mongers, trolls, sexual predators and so on with their programmatic buys. Even as the ‘inventory’ gets cleaned, they are getting a terrible deal on the rupee spent – for every rupee spent, merely 3 paise actually amounts to something useful. The rest goes to middlemen. So much for efficiency.
  3. Trust – and most insidiously, more and more people are looking at media, at devices, at brands with suspicion. All the tracking, hacking, retargeting efforts have left people uncertain about the faustian bargain. the deal perhaps was not all that good. free apps, it turns out, are fairly costly. The utopia of ‘Choices of brands’ is turning into dystopia of incessant, insidious and inescapable commercial propaganda.
    How insidious you ask? Here’s an interesting article telling you exactly how insidious – apps, ad exchanges pervasively track  (beyond your permission, your imagination or your awareness of it) your behavior in hope of ‘monetizing’ your behavioral data.
    The creeps go so far as to use sonar or wifi to monitor your every move in a store to figure out your preferences. Without your knowing ad tech guys are monitoring where you are, what you do and much much more. The ‘big data’ then gets traded around to ‘third parties’, mixed with and analysed so as to know you better than you ever can know yourself. Right now, no can say for sure who in the world has what information about you and how could it potentially be used two years from now.
    Things you wouldn’t care for ten years ago like your routine, your choice of retail shops, your click streams, your idle time on phone etc, are now data points that can be weaponised to influence you. We are being forced to care for our inane details.
    A lot of ad-tech is built by people who either can’t fathom the societal context of what they are doing or don’t care. They are at best naive, at worst slimy scumbags who profiteer at the expense of ruining the internet for everyone.

Most likely, like EU, many other countries will tighten consumer laws (or worse! Use these surveillance system for government’s use like in China) and put an end to overt targeting.
This can’t end well for ad-tech guys for sure.

Essentially we must realise that targeting is a false goal. 1:1 connection might be desirable, but is sustainably possible only in certain ecosystems – physical, amazon prime perhaps to an extent and such. That means  monopolistic powers might gain further, but not without them too getting under the scanner.

Stop obsessing over Targeting.
Make advertising great again. 😛

Effie Awards propagating wilful ignorance?

The incentive is structured against comprehensiveness

Effie awards are fairly important awards in Advertising. They are about ‘effectiveness’ – They recognize campaigns that have been effective in achieving their stated goals. So far so good.

We have won it, a lot of planners I know have won it. It is an essential career milestone for many in our business. Some job postings mention it too – ‘need planners with experience in winning at Effies‘. It is that important.

So the incentives are not geared to bring out reality of the marketing effectiveness. The incentives are stacked to create a straight narrative that joins the dots between the results and actions of agency, most convincingly.

I am yet to read a case that credits a favorable policy change, economic change, societal change for gain of brands. Even though they do impact businesses. There is simply no incentive for writing such a case. (Who will go to collect an award for an economic case? The FM?) So even if Paytm had a windfall of opportunity with demonetisation in India, you won’t see an Effie case for it (I hope).

I understand Effies serve a purpose to encourage marketers to put in more thought and rigour in their practice. But since out of the many other variables that affect a business, a comm strategy tends to remain in focus with Effies, we remain blind to the complete picture. I will give you an example.
Recently I was working on a brand that lost market share. We were working hard to figure out why we were losing. There was a new competitor in town, but it’s communication wasn’t convincing. We did consumer research, comm tests etc. Turns out comms was not a factor at all, though brand imagery had suffered. The culprit was pricing – SKU mix strategy. With the right SKU, the value paradigm had changed. A high Share of Voice for a fairly good campaign couldn’t convince people to choose our product over the better value relaunched product by competitor. The competitor is kicking our ass and he can’t enter a case in Effies. Would you give an award for winning by identifying a sweet spot with an affordable SKU? I wish Effies would.

Need to Change Effies to reflect the need of change with Advertising business

So you realise that there are a whole host of variables to win the market with and Effies tend to reward only a few of those. It is unhealthy. Because as agency business gets marginalised, what will help it become more relevant is to find out ways to become more effective beyond ‘campaigns’. To remain competitive against consultancies and fb/ google, agencies need to look at the big picture, start looking at and rewarding marketing efforts that go beyond campaigns.

If one were to make sense of the world solely based on Effie cases, the person would come out as a gullible idiot with false sense of intellectual enlightenment.

We need to engage with the complexity, the uncertainty

Read a few cases and it makes you think that the marketing world is a very rational and simple world. But it is anything but.

The cases paint a flat picture of the world – the causality between efforts and the market response seem ridiculously simple, even as they project conscience of all the factors affecting the brand’s performance. Is it even possible, to know all the factors that affects a brand’s rise or fall? If causality was truly that clear, would companies need the army of sales managers, favorable retailer relationships, the many offers and schemes and lets not even get started with consumer’s irrational behaviors and preferences. We assume these ‘variables’ as ‘constants’ in our grand scheme of building the case. And that is not helping anyone.

If anything, awards only reinforce our illusion of certainty. It creates a false sense of expertise about a subject as complicated as applied sciences, but without the rigour of applied sciences papers and awards. A medical sciences paper would go to great lengths, source hundred of experiments, cite precedence to establish correlation and yet shy away from ascribing certainty, there will always be a caveat. Causation is difficult to prove. More so with psychology, sociology. It is almost impossible with these fields. And yet, advertising professionals write thousands of cases a year, joining myriad dots to convincingly prove cause-effect between a brand’s success and their effort.

The cases gives you a sense that an enlightened mind was behind the campaign – some cases read as dramatic as the story of Siddhartha. One gets a sense of an incisive insight cutting away unprofitable behaviors and perceptions, suturing profitable ones. In reality, brands seldom follow as simple a trajectory. I mean, sure, great ideas do have out-sized impact on brands. But it is easy to ascribe out-sized impacts to even mediocre ideas, in absence of a culture of rigour. We want to believe in it, so we do without critically examining the cases.

Often the germination of such ideas are random, their expression might come from unexpected quarters, their reception might be dependent on a lucky social chain of events… Great ad campaigns often had a huge element of luck, of serendipity involved. But we will never find a case talking about such lucky lifts. The cases build a myth of straight thinking – business problem statement leading to insight leading to creative idea. How many times has this process really progressed so linearly in a real agency?

And there is no reason to absolve ourselves of this randomness. This very randomness will help us remain relevant in the age of AI. If causality truly was achievable, we would have been replaced with robots by now.

So perhaps, it is in our interest to institute another awards – Lucky Ideas Awards perhaps. It takes efforts to get lucky, sure. I don’t wish to discredit the hard work behind good ideas. Indeed as John Cleese suggests – to get good ideas, one needs to work at it, push oneself harder and not be too pleased with oneself. Yes. But even then, to be in a position to think for a brand that has a cultural cache, that collects data and conducts researches, that has a confident and energetic marketing department who is willing to enter awards – needs luck.

Many brands simply do not have enough data on their business. Many do not want to experiment. Many do not have great ambitions. It requires luck to work with clients who are systematic, ambitious, willing to experiment. And after that you need to work hard for a good idea. and then immense amount of luck for that idea to be supported with the many thousand things happening that affect a business.

So essentially – recognise complexity and reward strategies that succeed, no matter the form of its execution, no matter the size of its footprint.

Right to a marketing free life

Right to a marketing free life

I am taking a marketing refresher course these days. In that course, marketing is defined as an exchange of values.

Seller gives products/ services/ experience in exchange of buyer’s money/ attention/ time/ trust.

The thing that struck me is that that in real life this exchange is not equal at all. The professor’s talk made it sound like marketing was a noble cause of increasing, providing value to a people in exchange of money, attention, trust given to it by free will of people. Yes, markets have enriched our lives tremendously. The exchange is bedrock of human civilization. But the 21st century exchange is a tad bit murkier. The globalised exchange is far too skewed in the balance of power between seller and buyer.

Marketers steal my attention, time and trust to make me think that parting with my money is completely my choice. But the exchange is rigged. The options are false. Where is the option of me to slam the door on marketer’s face? “I am not interested, please go ahead.” You can’t do that anymore. The marketing virus is as ubiquitous as air. Advertising industry, after all, is employed solely to hack the minds and hearts of consumers – to ‘incept’ brand ideas, as their own.

In absence of free will, can it really be called an ‘exchange’? its not between equals.

In that sense a better metaphor would be a colonised ground. Our minds are colonised by brands. They are fighting for our mind’s share. and there is no way for us to shoo them away. We can only chose between such and such consumptive lifestyle. You can’t escape brands completely in the 21st century.

Your minds are completely colonised. And marketing is the effort needed to expand their colony.

An opt-out option

In India, we can opt out of telemarketing sms/ calls facilitated by nation’s telephone regulatory authority. How about an opt-out option for consumers from all kinds of marketing?

Fool’s pride

Are you not a fool if you take pride in doing something that imprisons you, that belittles you, that curtails you, that is detrimental to your interests?

If your agree, then let’s check if you are a fool or not. Imagine you are a middle management guy, with a team of 5-6 people reporting to you. Among the following statements, which ones do you agree with?

  1. I am proud of working late/ weekends often. I respect those who stay late at office.
  2. I am proud of being a doer. Thinking is for pansies, let’s just do it.  I don’t like it when people ask too many question. I like when they do as they are told.
  3. I am proud for being available to my boss and subordinates, 24×7. I like it when people are accessible at all times for the smallest of queries or requests.
  4. I am proud for not having taken a holiday in the last two years. I don’t like people taking holidays.
  5. I don’t like hiring women, because they get pregnant.
  6. I am proud for taking care of things in the nick of time. I like people who are flexible, who can take additional duties at any time.
  7. I am a shoot-from-the-hip, on-the-fly decision maker. I don’t like these new-fangled things called plans, strategies. Who thinks ahead in time, anyways. I react!
    I like enterprising young talent who can make sense of my chaos. I hate taking decision or thinking ahead in time. Which means you will have to be ready to respond to escalations, unexpectedly long reworks, expensive detours, deadend meetings, scrapped projects…
  8. I like people who ‘hit the ground running’, who would start working on day one. Training is a waste of time and money.
  9. I don’t like giving feedback. Too much work to think about someone else. Just do your job.

And so on. you get the picture. So for how many of these statement were you in agreement with? and now imagine how many of these statements your boss would be in agreement with? Is there an alignment?

Is it really in your interest to be this person or to work for such a person?