2018: A good year to disrupt creative agencies

2018: A good year to disrupt creative agencies

Two things happened recently, that have filled me with an existential dread as an advertising guy. I see a leak in the advertising industry’s ship. But instead of fixing it, the two indicators are telling me that advertising industry is busy being in denial – telling its employees, its clients that everything is fine, all we need is ‘purpose’, ‘creativity’…(and other buzz words). Semantics and bullshit have never rescued a sinking ship. The ship is totally rescue-able – it can even get better. But for that the emperors must acknowledge their true sartorial status.

The first indicator – Denial

So I got my grubby hands on a leaked document from one of the biggest agencies, charting out their plan to succeed in the new year. They identified just the right problems plaguing the industry. I was quite surprised to see the clarity in problem statement. Wow, hope!
And then the embarrassingly small minded solution to the big problem – a new fucking planning tool. Don’t get me wrong, i understand the power of a new perspective and this tool was a new interesting perspective of looking at modern business problems.  It quite adequately and elegantly captures the new realities of digital behaviours and mass media’s sharper relevance. BUT, it did not solve for the problem that was stated. If the brands are dead, how would a new perspective resuscitate them? If agency’s role in brand building is getting marginalised, how will a new planning tool help it in becoming more relevant? It is part of the solution, not the solution itself. Perhaps I misunderstood the scope of thinking – so I engaged a few people in conversation – perhaps there is a technological component to the tool that will help scale the operating procedures. After all, what good is a perspective if it remains a sales tool rather than a systematic way of thinking for the whole enterprise. That can happen by designing intelligent workflows, reimagining the roles and expectations. So I asked about these opportunities, but in return I received puzzling silence. Maybe they don’t get it? maybe I am not getting it? Either ways, glug glug glug.

The second indicator: Talent paucity and nothing constructive done about it

Successful Digital startups ‘pivot’ fast enough to stay relevant and thrive. Agencies very obviously can’t. They are good at applying cosmetic changes to their ‘purposes’ and ‘philosophies’ even as nothing operationally changes.

Successful companies are good at institutionalizing the feedback loop – the giving, taking and leveraging of constructive feedback. Company improves if employees improve. But agencies seldom have that culture – the evaluation ritual is perfunctory most of the times. All agencies depend on talent, though only a few invest in talent with time and thoughtful dialogue to help improve. Most agencies simply throw money to hire someone with new awards. They would much rather spend money than time and efforts. Effectively that has created a loop of talent turnover instead of learning and improvement.

Why 2018?

Because of the momentum – The media inventory being questioned, tracking  and target positioning ad ex as bad guys, stocks falling for holding companies and there being obvious ways in which an eagle eyed activist investor can take charge and improve long term growth prospects… Besides the vulture funds have too much cash and not enough places to put their monies in. Hedge funds, hedge this.



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.


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.


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.


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.