The absurdity of brands

The absurdity of brands

“They deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them.”

So said Camus of Sartre and Dostoyevsky.  (and the postmodern me am quoting him not from his text but from a wisecrack video.)

He could just as well have said so about apple fan boys and enfield fanatics; essentially, all consumers in the capitalist society. At least Sartre identified the absurd so beautifully. We consumers, feel the absurd, but are not brave enough to identify the absurd.

So when Dove talks about real beauty, instead of identifying the absurdity of a brand attempting at becoming the authority of beauty, we get drawn into the farcical dialogue about beauty that Dove hosts, empowering itself for the benefit of no one else.

Each quality that we use to define ourselves by – beauty, desirability, potency, intellect, etc – is subjective. And hence it is up for hijacking by brands by giving consumers a random objective yardstick to measure oneself with, in the form of a brand or a product. Enjoyment in soda. self-worth in cell phones and sneakers. Power in suits. Beauty in moisturizing soaps. Freedom in horse-powers. Sociability in beer.

There is no beauty. Or rather more accurately, there is no objective standard for beauty. There is no such thing as ‘beauty’ as it relates to an individual  (inside or outside). We simply exist.  It is a subjective judgement imposed by others, relevant to us because we let it become relevant to our lives . And hence we need objective validation. And hence we need brands.

We can’t change ourselves. When it comes to our personal lives, our identity, what comes naturally to us is resistance to change, to fight for status quo, to not make effort in getting out of our comfort zones. But the problems we face in our lives need us to move in certain directions. Since we can’t marshal enough mojo to change ourselves, we change what we associate with instead. Hence brands.

I don’t want to actually write everyday to get better. So I install evernote on my phone instead.
I don’t want to actually run everyday to get fitter. So I buy Nike and a gym membership.
I don’t want to actually work at my relationships, hence facebook.

Since when has an app, a shoe or a website become a necessity for us to actually do something? It hasn’t. But since we don’t actually want to do those things, but want to believe that we are the kind of people who would do those things, we need brands.

ibrand.

OpenAI is not enough: On why Elon Musk must also disrupt the education system and ignite utopian imagination

OpenAI is not enough: On why Elon Musk must also disrupt the education system and ignite utopian imagination

Elon Musk is one of the few powerful people in the world who actually cares for the world, has a vision and has the ability to steer the world in conscientious directions. And Elon Musk is worried. He is worried about our probable future overlords – Artificial Intelligence (AI) , and rightly so. (“Not all AI futures are benign.“) And his response to that threat is characteristically ambitious and well targeted. He has started two new ventures in that field – Neuralink and OpenAI. Neuralink hopes to create ‘neural lace’ that removes the middleman of hardware between our thoughts and computing power. OpenAI hopes to democratize research about AI so that the advances of the technology are evenly distributed.
I am interested in this promise of OpenAI. Access to technology gives one power. And the currently powerful people, can buy access for themselves and create false barriers of access for others to technologies that are powerful. And OpenAI hopes to subvert that dynamic. The wish to democratise access to knowledge is at the very source of the Open movement. But for the wish to be fulfilled, much more needs to be done than OpenAI.

As it stands now, the two companies, by design, will only contribute to acceleration of AI adoption among elite without actual democratisation. OpenAI stops short at making the advances public, without ensuring that the public has the capability or intent of using those technologies. The current educational infrastructure is tremendously inadequate to educate enough people who could take the research at OpenAI and do something with it. Also, there is the issue of convenience and intent. Look for example, the promise of ‘sixth sense‘. Its been 7 years since that technology went open, but we don’t see people leveraging it widely. Or take the case of 3D printing. It was supposed to revolutionise manufacturing – but it didn’t.

Secondly, look at the world – everyone is building walls. To an extent that is inevitable.What happens to technologies in a world full of walls and xenophobia? Technology gets weaponized and secretive, not open.  

Like I said, there are two key issues here – capability and intent.

First, we need people to have skills in applied sciences with capabilities to leverage AI tech. Second, we need to show people the positive future that they can be a part of. We need people with imagination to dream of positive futures, before we can make the positive futures true. This will help in making it convenient and desirable for people to be part of this open alternate system for AI knowledge.

In both the cases of sixth sense and 3D printing, there simply was not enough public will to disrupt their existing lifestyles in favour of a more empowering tech that is less convenient. They were not emotionally moved by these tech’s promises. In absence of emotional will, people always choose convenience over empowerment. That is the great threat that Aldous Huxley warned us against in his ‘Brave New World’.   People will choose Soma that is detrimental over inconvenient though beneficial changes, because that is in service of prevalent power structures. Status-quo must be maintained, until it becomes unsustainable – That is the rule of the game. People and the power centers are geared for this behavior.

Musk understands the power of convenience well. His wealth is built with his ideas that made transactions convenient (Paypal), alternative fuel convenient and desirable (Tesla). So he is well positioned and capable to do the things necessary to make OpenAI’s promise a reality.

So Elon Musk, please invest in world’s (not US alone, since the promise is that of equality) educational infrastructure.
And secondly, propagandists/ strategists like me can help in making OpenAI a part of our cultural fabric, so that its adoption becomes easy. We need utopian ideas that people get motivated with – ideas that people want to be part of, to participate in. And this is where the strategy would be very different from any of the Elon Musk companies before. You would actually need to do propaganda/ marketing for this to work. We need utopian ideas that ignite people with imagination, for this to work.

The triad of Consultancies, FB and Google will neuter creative agencies globally, unless…

The triad of Consultancies, FB and Google will neuter creative agencies globally, unless…

First: The digital disruption.

Globally, Facebook and Google now dominate advertising dollars, not WPP or Publicis or other agency companies. (For comparison about the market muscle – Combined market cap of FB and G was $812Bn as of June 2016. How did WPP, Omnicom, IPG, Publicis stack up? The four combined were at $70 Bn. And the less said about the growth, the better.) So there’s that.

And now consultancies are entering the fray to steal the lunch from agencies. And agencies have largely been too busy in denial to notice their impending irrelevance and gutting of their margins.

Second: The value of ideas.

Adweek recently wrote about the trend of Global consultancy goliaths buying up small agencies to make inroads into the branding industry. And similarly, creative agencies have also been trying to make inroads into consultancy businesses.

Who is more likely to succeed? Which industry will prevail, which will shake-up?

To me the answer is obvious. Why? Here’s why –

  1. Relative Value: Consultancy’s service is typically valued at higher valuations than creative agencies. In another world, where creative agencies didn’t get too complacent early on and put more emphasis on effectiveness beyond awards, perhaps, creatives would have earned more, grew bigger by creatively solving newer and varied problems and given bigger business growth for brands. But we don’t live in that world. Consultancies are good at convincing with numbers how they affect businesses positively.
    P.S. – There should be a research done in success rate of consultancies versus agencies in actually delivering growth.
  2. Positioning: Consulting is positioned as a house of experts. Consultancies typically house ‘domain experts’ that the CXO knows he can access. So, it is not a big stretch to imagine that consultancies house creative experts too. It is a stretch to imagine the chaotic agency to house a supply chain expert though.
    So even if a CXO trusts a creative mind’s judgement in his/her field, I doubt he/she would extend the assumption of competency to other matters of business growth.  As against a typical consultant – no matter how dumb/ smart he/she might be, the CXO trusts him/her to create access to competent people for most business needs.
  3. Ear of CXOs – Both agencies and consultants get to interact and influence CXOs. But, agencies only cater to propaganda need, while consultancies can affect change in almost all facets of a business – supply chain, production, legal etc. So consultancies have a better view of the business and what it needs, and hence better opportunity to offer more services.
  4. Plurality of ‘closed thinking’ projects – Pardon the generalization, but while consultants are masters of ‘closed’ thinking, creatives are masters of ‘open’ thinking. I estimate that there are more ‘closed thinking’ services that a company typically needs help with, than ‘open thinking’ services.
  5. When you can’t innovate, advertise!: Growth in 21st century is about innovations – consolidative tech innovations (FB and G consolidating the ad and comm tech market) or fragmenting tech innovations (innovations in CPG that is creating new breed of many niche players – online or offline.) There is no substitute for actual, real innovation to grow in 21st century.
    While agencies are known for their ‘big ideas’, they are not known for path-breaking ideas that inform a business model or product development. Most of the time, the idea comes from within the company for it to be truly adopted with conviction. And to execute these ideas, they go to the consultancies for help, not to advertisers.
    Can advertising agencies create new business ideas? sure they can. But the evidence is lacking as of now.
    Advertising agencies instead are now becoming home to companies that fail to innovate and then want the advertising to push the ship stuck in the muck.

There have been attempts by agencies to get into consultancy shoes – most recently by R/GA. I wish them best of luck. I really hope someone cracks it and in the process, ‘pivots’ to a higher value service. But so far the trend has not been encouraging.

Here’s an idea for a better future for the industry – start putting your money where your ideas are.

FAQs – Open Source Ad Agency business model demystified

FAQs – Open Source Ad Agency business model demystified
In an earlier article, I proposed a new business model for advertising agencies. As I see it, it is a logical next step for the industry to remain relevant and to thrive. Unless it evolves like this, expect marginalisation of creative industry.
I have been speaking with a few industry leaders. There were some interesting themes of concerns and ideas emerging from these conversations. The biggest is about ‘human creativity’ that most think is a trump card that no one can wrestle away from them. There is a grain of truth in that assertion. However, look at the numbers – it doesn’t take creativity for google and facebook and consultancies to steal creative agency’s lunch. Agency margins have never been this low – which means, the kind of creativity we so dearly hold, has never been valued so lowly. Digital ecosystem has fundamentally shifted the value of our kind of creativity and we seem to persist in denial. Most of my creative and intelligent classmates are not in agency business (from a school that was historically setup to train future agency leaders), but in media, brand management and digital businesses. That should tell you something.
Anyways, here’s some of the broad themes of concerns about my idea of ‘open source ad agencies’ shared by senior leaders in the industry. Weigh in to make the idea better.
Essentially, there were six themes of concerns for the idea –
1. Becoming ROI oriented (SMEs want quick results)
2. Possibility of becoming fragmented unprofitable business
3. Will it upset existing corporate clients?
4. Existing client architecture – many small businesses within larger ones
5. Should the tools be really foolproof.
6. Reputation at stake
Cost of opportunity: Firstly, I will look at these decisions from a broader perspective: if this idea is even remotely possible and say a competitor creates this, would we be able to bounce back to compete in the ‘winner-takes-all’ game of online services in the future?
This idea will need a little longer horizon to payoff and a fair bit of disruption (but not necessarily with existing clients).
1. Businesses want ROI from advertising. Should we fight it or embrace it?
I understand the concern. This is actually true about not only small businesses but also larger corporates. I see companies already looking at big data to cut down on every conceivable inefficient costs even in high growth developing economies like India and Sri Lanka.
This is inevitable. We have to be prepared for it. The digital systems, when used appropriately, helps make better sense of data. One of the minor points in the article was about opening and curating all of agency’s historical campaigns effectiveness data across the globe. Now that would be a herculean task to make that data consistent and usable by a bot, but it is possible. But once we have that data at one place and an algorithm to parse through it and add to the body of knowledge about what works – we will have the single most valuable tool in advertising – an oracle that can guide real time about effectiveness.
The tool and the data remains agency proprietary. Only the results are visible to paying customers. This is where the premium will be charged in the future.
How would the agency like to become the only creative agency that can give effectiveness predictions with decent enough (and improving) confidence levels?
2. Fragmented unprofitable business
That is a real threat. It will be a low margin high volume growth. And as such, in a way it is a second business for the agency. (Perhaps a sub-brand of the agency)
To really evaluate it, we will need to know the cost of its implementation and possible market sizes we can realistically win. I can do that, but that will be a longer exercise. There will be big cost and efforts to create the system, but the fruits of the system, however marginal, will continue for a sufficiently long time.
Also, the way I envision it, this system doesn’t cut down manpower that is currently employed for corporate clients. But the new system that is largely consumer facing, will need smaller human support who will manage bots. So costs would be dramatically less and hence help profit margins.
3. Will it upset existing clients?
I have envisioned it to be an ‘addition’ to existing business, not a disruption to existing structure. So in a way, this new additional service can delight existing clients with the new intelligence that we will have from the community and user, without them being concerned about their data leaking into the Open OS.
I have made a distinction in my article – when decisions are made by committees/ hierarchies, they require people on the other side to work with. So the existing system with all its checks and balances will exist for such clients.
The additional online interface is for clients who usually make decisions individually (personal brands, SMEs). These two segments, who will pay less, will never have the kind of servicing, planning, creative support that the corporate clients have.
So that takes care of the expectations.
The biggest concern is the safety of their data. Again, corporate client data need not go through the open digital system, it can exist off the grid like it does now. What goes in the big data pile that will inform the effectiveness bot, is case studies and older data perhaps. There could be ‘opt-in’ mechanism with clients to ascertain what client data remains forever secret, what comes out eventually.
4. Existing client architecture – Treating smaller brands from big corporates as separate SMEs
That is an important point that I overlooked in my article. I see this as an opportunity to add value to their businesses. This model creates a sliding scale of services. what this allows is, no business, howsoever small, needs to leave the agency or become unprofitable for us just because it is a prestigious client – there will be space for all sizes of businesses without it straining profitability.
5. About creativity and promise of foolproof tools
This is the interesting part. Nowhere in the consumer journey is the creativity itself automated. The community might help them brainstorm or find a smaller shop/ freelancer who could help the client. Or at max, the client will be redirected to agency office if the scope of work is large enough. The creative output is always through a human. So we can continue charging premium for access to agency rockstars.
What the broader algorithms are helping clients with is – strategy, research, competitive mapping, analytics and critically – a confident direction.
The way I see it is, we will need to do two things: set the right expectations and make our existing tools smarter.
First, smarter tools. I fully appreciate the concern about tools being misused. As they sit now, agency briefs or strategic frameworks, are static guidelines. So it leaves even basic question open to interpretations.
In my experience, we often face the problem of receiving ‘bad briefs’ or incomplete briefs from clients. Then it becomes a guess game – what the client might really need/ want?
But let’s look at what BCG does for its interactive cases. Its a guided online journey to solve a business case. It has a simple interface that forces consumer to seek for the right data and right perspective to inform the strategic challenge.
Something like this could help set the expectation and help learn the tools first.
Then, the user will be guided through a smart algorithm (automated strategy framework) that will ensure that the right business problem is identified.
Often, that is half the creative work – identifying the right single-minded problem to solve.
And the process will help people in doing that.
Next comes the human interface – the actual creative interpretations and campaigns.
There are two possible options for clients – either to pay premium and access agency  rockstars. Or find cheaper freelancers (Possibly agency certified? another revenue stream?) who they can find on our community and who can help them. Similar to uber’s rating for its drivers, or amazon’s ratings for its suppliers, we can have ratings for our freelancers. This mechanism has worked so far in most industries – even 99designs.com which is in similar space, but fundamentally different.
6. Reputation
Perhaps, to begin with it could be a controlled roll out or with another brand.

Setting the right expectation should help a lot. At the start of consumer journey it should be clear that what they will get is an Agency process, not Agency creative. 

The consumer journey could make it very clear owing to its subjective nature, Ogilvy is only responsible for its creative output by its people, not the algorithmic output of a plan/ brief.
1. For free – access to free algorithms, certain datasets and case studies to all. cannot expect creative output or a definite solution, only a direction.
2. Personal brand wizard – wizard will interactively guide in creating a brief with client data. that they can then share with people in the community for ideas. None of which is a creative output or a definite solutions, again only a direction.
3. Small business boosters – Online collaborative tools (like slack, skype, etc) used to provide services with planners/ creatives depending on Scope Of Work (SOW). These could be a single team of 20-30 people (spread globally in 4-5 key agency offices) for the entire globe. They can help create creative solutions with quick turnaround. We will have to take responsibility of their success/ failure.
4. Full service  – Corporate clients will see Agency as the most contemporary and innovative agency in the world! Who can deny that if we make this real.  Besides, the first three options will create a substantial bank of possible new business leads.
Having said that, I understand, this is not the complete picture and we will have to dig a lot deeper to understand the massive implications of this move.
But can this be our new purpose? To make effective branding possible for everyone in the world.

End of the bluff

In this video, P&G’s ‘chief brand officer’ talks about P&G’s efforts in ‘draining the swamp’ (as trump would have said) of digital fraud, unverified stats, dubious practices by publishers and agencies.

This is great, because this comes from one of the biggest advertisers in the world. And it is a positive step – one that is towards transparency and common sense that does not entertain exceptionalism every time some one conjures up a shiny new .com.

How would that affect agencies?

I want to be cheerful and hopeful that the greater scrutiny and transparency will force agencies to grow a spine and start asking for the rightful fee it deserves.
But I shouldn’t be too hopeful. Internecine competition takes up way too much time and efforts of an agency with awards, new biz pitches etc. Agencies typically are way too dependent on a few key clients for survival. Fear of losing them and prospect of winning new ones, keeps them forever running on the hamster wheel of survival.
So this is what is going to happen: simple erosion of margins. Agencies will start working at even smaller margins. Which means, even crappier talent will get hired at cheaper costs. Which means, bye bye to competent people.

How would it affect facebook/ snapchat/ etc.

Its amazing how such large companies like facebook can so shamelessly deceit people about their performances. This is a product of the ‘fake it till you make it‘ mentality of the morally vacuous people who see business as a game of bluff.
These digital-advertising-revenue-based companies will definitely be shaken up. Largely, because they are still in the phase where they have to prove their business models. Their valuations are still in need of correction. Their valuations are still based on the assumption of the great payoff that awaits for winner in a ‘winner takes all’ game. They need all the confidence of investors until the ‘winner takes all’ game is over/ or they learn to become profitable.

Hi5 for reasonable people who vote with their money. 🙂

 

Travel Travel, Adopt a Camel

Travel Travel, Adopt a Camel

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Travel as a personal narrative

There are two things that give sense to our lives. One is the ‘anchor’ and the other is ‘change’. These two are the yin-yang of our personal narratives. ‘Anchor’ is things/ people/ places that gives you a sense of solidity about your identity. You perhaps are a Delhite. You perhaps are from the family of proud fishermen. You perhaps are child of very kind parents who have always been there for you. All these things ‘anchor’ us, about our sense of self.

And then you become a teenager. And you must ‘find’ an unique identity.  In an age when you can be anything, often we remain paralysed unable to let go of the possibilities. We are simply unable to kill all the rest of possibilities by choosing one direction. Instead we stay poised at that frozen moment in our personal narrative. We seek change, but are unable to make up our minds. And that is the ‘post-modern’ we. Modernity of 2oth century was about optimistic ideas of future and our roles in it. Post-modern 21st century is about a profound confusion and skepticism about our future and our role in it.

Hence we travel.

The avid travelers of today travels either because he/she needs an escape or because of the promise of bountiful enjoyment or  for its potential for changing ‘something’ in him/her. The first kind of traveler – the escapist – is at least acknowledging the reality that he/ she is escaping from. The second variety – is a sheep following herd, content with the ritualistic excess he forces on himself. It is a sad existence, but wedded to a ritualized fetish, it is anchored in some measure. The third variety – people who call themselves travelers and wanderers – they are the ones I am talking about now. I am talking about the people like me and you, who travel in search of meaning, in search of profound happiness, in search of a direction that is chosen for us. And if facebook walls and instagram feeds are to be believed, everyone today is this very traveler.

“It changed my life”

“It changed my life”, says your friend after his latest trip. And perhaps you should wonder how. Instead you are excited along with him. “Oh, I must do this trip”, you decide. You consult him and online blogs to chart out a pilgrimage taken up by hundreds of others before you. Like you would, they too took selfies with hills in the background. Like you would, they too obsessed over certain dish in a certain restaurant. Like you would, they too perhaps felt somewhat empty when sitting somewhere – thinking.. “this was supposed to be profound. Is this (stinging loneliness/ confusion/ ‘disappointment at the ordinariness of the supposed greatness of the scene before your eyes’)  it?” And before you could complete your train of thought, you take out your DSLR/ cell phone and take a ‘profound’ picture. Your friends on facebook get to know instantaneously about your nirvana. #nirvanaunlocked.

Superego says you must profoundly enjoy

The gaping void that you feel while traveling is not ‘your fault’. The trip was not supposed to be profoundly enjoyable/ transformative/ epiphany inducing/ crazy etc. Though you did think it would be. You thought so because, you are a product of 21st century upper class. If you were a Bangladeshi cattle smuggler, trying to enter India, you aren’t exactly wondering if ‘this journey is supposed to mean something’. The Bangladeshi cattle smuggler entering Assam knows exactly what the trip means – a certain sum of money if the trade goes through, humiliation and beating if Gau rakshak idiots find him.

You, a product of today’s society have been trained to seek enjoyment and happiness at all times. There is an ‘injunction to enjoy’ on you. Your superego, informed by the incessantly glowing and moving online feeds and walls, wants you to enjoy, be successful, be somebody.

Space-time v/s Bildungsroman

Human journey is not in space or time. Simply moving around through different places doesn’t give one intelligence or perspectives or contentment. Neither simply getting old will help one in getting wiser or feeling at peace.

We need definitive change once or twice in life. And at least one of it needs to be positive to be anchored and content in life. Traditionally one was initiated into key changes through rituals – manhood/ womanhood, marriage, birth of child, death. The only ritual guaranteed to a modern person is that of (and about) death. We have no rituals to inform us when we turn from boys to men. We might choose not to wed or have children. Even when we do, we tend to live life of another person – the ideal younger version of oneself. It is as if life for 21st century human is a rewinding spool, going back and burnishing the youth over and over again, until you snap and are forced to reckon with the reality of life. We could very possibly go through life without any real profound change to ourselves that we acknowledge and anchor ourselves with. So, a post-modern person remains in some measure – adrift – not completely being able to comprehend his/her course of life.

One of the most important skill-set that a person should be taught is about building his/her bildungsroman narrative of life.
Bildungsroman – in this context is this – Identity being built through experience one goes through while being among others. It is not the unhealthy narcissism, but a healthy self-awareness that guides one in anchoring the right things and changing the right things for one’s own well-being and growth as a human.

So what would help in building a healthy personal narrative, if not travel?

We come back to the yin-yang of ‘anchor’ and ‘change’ for the answer.

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What gives us an anchor through what we do? Routines do. Routines are essential to create solidity of time, to make life predictable and stable. To anchor life in your own control.

But routines must change every once in a while. We must have routines, but we must have new ones every few years. The solidity shouldn’t lead to stagnation. The routine shouldn’t imprison us. The routine is supposed to form the basis on which the life can take a flight from. The solidity of time, that a routine provides turns into a slowly accumulating cancer that works against your mental well-being if not refreshed every few years.

So if your routine is ‘not’ about planning, desiring, reading about – travels, then travel can be an immensely enriching experience. But what if travel is your routine? Not just the actual traveling part, but the whole mental state – from dreaming to doing to validating it online. The digital lifecycle of travel is now longer. and if you are living from one travel life-cycle to next, i doubt ‘travel’ can then produce moments of ‘epiphany’ for you.

To identify the right changes you need in yourself, then you need to head to everyday normality of other people. That’s where your change, your insight will come from.

What about travel that is indeed a ‘change’?

Change is about braving uncertainties. If your travel is ‘packaged’ to keep you in a bubble of comfort and expected experiences, then you are merely experiencing an amusement park experience. It’s not travel.

For travel to have an effect on you at a fundamental level, you must allow travel to be an unregulated experience. You must then step out of your bubble.

To truly travel, one must be ready for disappointments. You must be ready for uncertainty.

If you chronicle, validate your travel online, you often end up training your brain into thinking in a third person mode. While experiencing something, you train yourself to see it from the perspective of the future self – posting, applying filers, thinking of clever captions when posting… you never are traveling. you are only extending facebook/ instagram bubble that you are completely plugged into.
You can’t live in the present (or contemplative past/ future) if you live through a gadget/screen.

Must disconnect to travel. Must be willing to brave uncertainties for travel to have any meaning.

“Relatability”

“Relatability”

The context

So recently we shared two creative options for a campaign. I wish we hadn’t. But we did.

Imagine the product is a soap targeted to housewives. The product is better because it smells of pleasant cuttle fish, instead of the generic smell of sardines that all the competitor soaps have. (For the sake of argument, imagine a world where being clean, has so far, always meant smelling of sardines. So in this world, people do not take a bath if they have to engage in social functions.)

So the first film was a humorous take on a working woman’s dilemma of using that soap before going to the clothes retail outlet where she works. She hasn’t taken a bath in a long time and really is in pains to do so. But then the sardine smell will scare away the customers. But then she gets to know about the new cuttle fish soap and the world is alright again. (please read these scripts with a huge dollop and then a pinch of salt. I am exaggerating for benefit of no one but my kicks. Oh yes, and to not let out the brand or the category.)

The other film was a generic category film – housewives working at home scratching their backs and in need of a bath. They go get a bath with the new soap. Mother-in-law approves of the bathed daughter-in-law who surprisingly doesn’t smell as bad. End of story.

When we narrated the two scripts – clients laughed at the right time for the first film. The second film elicited familiar nods – ticked all the check boxes.

The first was potentially memorable – simple, apt yet disruptive setting; clear role of brand and need incidence. More importantly, there was a strong emotional payoff – removal of a real social anxiety. Strategically it was very sound. The client however, was concerned that in their culture, women don’t work at retail garment shops. And they don’t wear saris as much here.

And that brings us to the order of the day.

Suspension of Disbelief and Relatability

In Barjatiya films, we relate to the mansion owning, ferrari driving ‘good boy’ who follows “Indian traditions” and agonizes over minor cultural infractions. We relate to Prem, Rahul and all the other misunderstood millionaires, even though we have never stepped into mansions and ferraris. We don’t own billion dollar businesses. Yet, we not only relate to their heartaches, but we wish we could have the problems they are having.

If you could choose the problems you have to face in life, which one would you chose?

  1. Your biggest concerns are eviction, loss of livelihood, hunger, respect etc when you are poor, frail and low on self confidence.
  2. Your biggest concern is earning a ‘yes’ from the girl you love when she can see already that you are wealthy, stable, handsome and from a royal lineage.

Obviously, you will choose no.2. People who watch movies, want the problems that the hero in the film is having. When watching the film, they are playing the role of the hero in their minds. For once, life doesn’t seem as hopeless. For once, they would win a battle. For once, they will get what they want.

Here, relatability is not a problem. People, from their innermost core of being, want to relate to the heroes. There is a ‘suspension of disbelief’ because people want to believe in the story, want to live vicariously the rich life that is forever out of reach for them in real life.

So the question is, if humans have the capacity to entertain a sufficiently large gap in reality with their ‘suspension of disbelief’, what kinds of instances will break that suspension, which ones will succeed in maintaining the mirage?

The Decision

With the first script, was the setting really alien? It was not. Women do work in shops here, this is no Saudi Arabia. If you stroll through a market here, you can see at-least 30% of the shops being run by women. Secondly, though most women wear skirts, the traditional dress is the sari here too. Even if they don’t (for the sake of argument), any person (man or woman) can relate to peculiarities of choosing a shirt/ skirt/ pant/ saree to buy. The dilemmas and role of fashion is almost universal. The fabric, form and designs may differ, but the drive to appear desirable is universal.

Secondly, reality does not inspire actions – utopia (what reality can be) does.

People want to relate to people they think they can be, not people who are like themselves. That is why ads will always depict lifestyles one or two steps removed from that of the real TG. That is why, the first film also could have worked better – because for women who often work on fields and in hard labour, work in air-conditioned showrooms is aspirational. The younger ones do leave villages to work happily in fashion showrooms, don’t they?

Instead, the second script was chosen eventually by the client – because they felt it was more relatable. Death by committee. Committee goes with the safest choice -the MIL and DIL interaction, done to death by a million categories in almost all countries. The easiest way to get lost in clutter.

The way to break the clutter is to stay true to the emotional need but change the context enough to be new yet within the limits of the suspension of disbelief. But not many clients can suspend their disbelief in power of human emotions, their empathy. They resort to hackneyed concepts of “SEC” divisions and other catch phrases that mean absolutely nothing to save themselves from taking a decision to change.