Strategist. Keen on partnering with smart people to help ad industry evolve.
Student of Marshall McLuhan, Chomsky, Mahashweta Devi, Iain Banks, Hans Rosling... essentially anyone who understands reality with critical eye and has the empathy and imagination to create new better paths to a better world, better ways of living, better ways of being.
When i read something interesting, a desire to share it interrupts me. I would be perhaps 5% in with the content i am reading, i would have only begun to appreciate the insight being communicated. I develop an impatience towards reading it completely, to ponder over it or absorb it. I feel the need to share it first. And I think this desire is stupid and counterproductive.
The biggest problem with it is, it reduces my focus. I lose the intensity with which i perhaps was absorbing the content before the desire to share robbed me of that focus. With great focus, comes great productivity. With lost focus, we lose time.
After that disruption, i might complete reading it (often i don’t), but i don’t absorb it fully. I don’t ruminate on it. I don’t build on it. I don’t put it to work.
The content becomes another scrap in the stream of conscience. It passes through without really enriching me. the fault obviously lies with me.
Good content, good ideas need to absorbed, incorporated in our work or intellectual repertoire. To do that, either I must write about it, expand on it, react to it. Or ruminate over it, enjoy it, imagine with it.
For that to happen, I must definitely curb the enthusiasm to share it.
A political spokesperson cites a meme to target his opponent. The point isn’t about the meme or the target. The point is the callousness, the sheer intellectual ‘fuck you’ of getting away with nonsense on prime time TV. The anchor, the guest intellectual and presumably the audience react with stiff lips, a manufactured performance of seriousness. Either everyone’s in on the con (more likely) or they have lost the faculty of reason.
This is merely the most recent ‘fuck you’ in prime time media. Consider the Bollywood award shows where the performers obviously don’t care enough to prepare their acts. Consider the banal conspiracies in TV serials. Consider the high-decibel browbeating on entertainment channels masquerading as news channels. Consider the politicians who get away with blatant lies and malicious propaganda that is visibly based on falsehood but sustains on the power of cult.
It feels as if there has been a mass realization of the absurd and there’s a race on now to the bottom of abyss, of trying to figure out what one can get away with.
Reality has lost its bearings. Meaning has come unhinged. The god is dead and the world is in free fall.
The idea in the past (modernity) used to be that One Big Lie holds the world together.But reality of today (post-modernity) is that many lies gives the bottom away.
Now no one cares. Or rather, now no one is capable of caring even if they want to. To care is to hold onto an ideal and salvaging that ideal. People now instead use ideals as stepping stones to climb up. Everyone’s tasted the absurd. And there’s a tumultuous race to the bottom to discover just how low we can go, how much can we get away with.
I believe that the differentiating factor between a successful agency and an unsuccessful one isn’t really about the star power of its creatives or planners. The key ingredient is the work culture and account management capabilities.
I have worked in some great agencies and some really shitty ones. I grew the most, along with others, in the best agencies. We did our best work there. We could do so because it was led by capable people in management who encouraged when encouragement was due, who gave clarity, who ensured clear lines of communications and responsibilities.
A capable ‘servicing’/ management person understands the business of their client. They might not be capable of thinking of original solutions but they must be capable of appreciating the problem that needs solving and be able to evaluate the work against the objective of solving that problem. They must be capable of building a relationship where client learns to articulate their problems clearly, where each person respects each other’s time, where there is enough openness to perform blue sky thinking.
Unfortunately, I see many agencies losing that spine. People are working without clarity, without conviction, without purpose. I am not blaming a particular agency. I believe it is systemic.
The reality is, a capable manager can earn more, do more on client side/ media side or with tech companies. Agencies don’t pay well enough at entry level, they don’t train their people meaningfully and neither is there a vision of where the agency businesses will be and consequently where the manager’s careers will be in the future. Any sensible person will jump the ship.
That’s what is happening. We have overworked smart juniors who are growing disillusioned with the industry that doesn’t recognise their input. We have under-challenged, angsty, under-motivated senior management who are not keeping up with the times. The smart agile ones are leaving the industry and the ones who are left (out of love for the craft or otherwise) are increasingly cynical, quite naturally.
Its not tough to change course and build agencies for the 21st century. I am yet to witness it though.
It can inform, amuse and inspire. It can clarify. It can change perspective. It can shift worldviews. It can create and destroy biases/ perceptions. It can change the way we live, work, play, buy, interact. It can give purpose, alleviate pain, help gain contentment.
How big can an idea be?
It can reach hundred or billions depend on the media spend and the luck of ‘the viral’ roulette. It can reach the depth of our souls and transform us. First a few, then many. It can transform the way world works even if we don’t want to. It can make real difference to people’s lives.
Can every idea do that?
No. Some ideas are expressions, some others are acts, some other inform our being and yet another our belief systems.
Advertising is about expressions. At most it can progress to momentary acts. Big tech is informing the way we live, its shaping our being. Big government/ conspiracies/ interest groups are trying to shape our belief systems.
The last two decades have been largely about the latter two. Big tech and big govt. playing with the malleable minds of masses. They are using the biggest ideas cynically, to control, to subjugate.
We need big ideas in good faith. We need big ideas that empower people to see reality more clearly, act more authentically, be the best they can be.
Advertising is trivial in the bigger scheme of things. It wasn’t so always. It was an important aspect of pushing progressive ideals, consumerism, globalism in 20th century. It has no values now. It serves no purpose beyond peddling goods, that too inefficiently.
Why waste ideas on the trivial when there’s so much good that an idea can do with right tools (digital tech or analog systems) and right people?
Survival is a delicate affair of balance and luck. Consider a monarch butterfly for instance. The place where they breed should have temperatures between 86°f to 95°f. Too high, eggs go dry. Too low, the monarch can’t fly. The climate change, loss of milkweed (their food & shelter), loss of overwintering habitat, are among other variables pushing the monarchs out of existence.
We might not be as beautiful and blameless as the monarchs. But we are just as much under threat. Digital disruptions, Covid-19, lack of organising culture among industry workers, lack of vision among leaders…we are crashing out of the goldilocks zone hard.
As advertising agencies refuse to evolve quickly enough, strategy departments (cost centre with an increasingly uncertain payoff) will be the among the first sacrificial lambs at the altar of P&L statements sinking towards red. Covid-19 is merely accelerating this trend.
Here’s my thesis on the industry’s growing fragility.
1. Advertising is no longer as important for brand growth as it was in 20th century.
In 20th century, a memorable jingle ‘scaled’ quickly in the collective consciousness translating to years of brand success. But in 21st century, commercials simply can’t make that kind of imprint on the collective consciousness.
What scales instead? Supply chains with tech-based innovations; Predicting consumers’ needs and desires with big data analytics; Targeted nudges to consumer desire with cookies & notifications; Product personalisation with material innovation, delivery experience or social engagement;
Memes that resonate with the zeitgeist…. The list is endless.
Digital technologies have given brand owners so many new tools to creatively find new ways to grow brands. Digital transformation is simply more deserving of the ‘growth’ budget. Consequently, advertising budgets are under pressure. Consequently, advertising agency business models are under pressure.
What can help?
As dimensions of brand growth grow, so must strategist’s capabilities even if agency’s offerings don’t. Strategist must develop appreciation of the broader context and not be focused merely on communications strategy. This can help build agency’s capability, but also strategist’s prospects beyond agency roles.
2. Agency leadership so far, have shown a deep incapability to respond to this shift.
The advertising industry’s choices to grow are clear –
Improve its capabilities in view of the changing world and offer new services or
Increase the premium of its offerings to earn more from the shrinking set of clients for whom advertising remains critical or
Leverage digital tech to scale – serve more brands with fewer people
Even after loud ‘Relaunchings’ and ‘transformations’, most agencies still are fundamentally unchanged. The business model is still unchanged. (I don’t know of a single major agency that has substantially invested in either its capabilities, its delivery or its systems. Most changes are cosmetic.) There are no path-breaking offerings/ new products being created by agencies. Mass media communications remains the major source of revenue for most agencies.
There is no serious attempt at improving capabilities of their people. (The deluge of webinars doesn’t count. What is needed is a culture of positive feedback and experimentation.)
As agency margins come under pressure, agency leadership look to prune the costs rather than spending capital on building capabilities. This lack of vision is detrimental to strategy department’s relevance.
Ideally, strategists should play a major role in helping agencies navigate the transformation agenda. This hasn’t happened so far to the best of my knowledge.People leading the transformation agendas in top agencies are usually business folks who are invested in the status-quo.
What can help?
Strategists should actively participate in the agenda of agency transformation. Strategists must appreciate reality of agency business and be capable of leading organisational improvements.
3. The role of communications in brand building is increasingly relevant in shorter time frame of here and now and not long-term brand legacies.
Many brands these days don’t find the need for long term campaigns or big TVCs, altogether. Since their product/ service is evolving daily, they are more aligned to keep their communications just as alive with daily/ weekly refreshes. They are often more attuned to the changing market dynamics and want to respond at the speed of thought.
The new client expectation is for agency leadership and strategy team to be just as immersed in the brand world as they are. They want agencies to proactively respond to emerging trends, events, sentiment etc.
But often agencies expect the linear flow of directive – client brief -> creative brief -> idea. Repeat.
Agency leadership needs to step in here to set right expectations and enable a working environment where client-talent collaboration is fruitful and not marred by mismatched expectations. It’s not a difficult problem to solve. We just need a will to adapt and partner in new ways, work in new ways.
What can help?
Strategists need to be more vocal in re-engineering the work-flows and creative processes. Strategists need to lead the effort in guiding clients and agency leadership in collaborating more fruitfully in the new fluid brand world.
4. Covid’s impact
Covid has accelerated the shift of advertising dollars towards digital media. This has meant agencies have lost majority of revenues very suddenly. Agencies that had not worked on their transformation so far, are bleeding now. It’s time for tough choices in such agencies.
What can help?
Covid has precipitated economic hardships. Many of us will lose our jobs in this crisis. The industry bodies must take steps in safeguarding livelihoods, augmenting capabilities and creating opportunities to collaborate.
WFH hasn’t affected the effectiveness or efficiency of work. However, WFH has radically alienated people from each other’s journeys. Some teams are exploiting the full potential of productivity tools while some aren’t. Webinars have helped some gain perspective while many have gotten tired with their frequency. Some of us will accelerate in their skill improvement while some will languish. The lack of visibility over each other’s work/ conversations will only increase the disparity.
What can help?
Leadership needs to be more active in communicating with its team members during this time of crisis-lived-from-home. Efficiency and effectiveness are not everything. Community is being ruptured and we are not doing enough to heal it.
The crisis is bringing out the worst in us: Curtailment of labour laws, labour being on the line of fire in every decision we take, corruption in n-95 masks, complete lack of foresight and compassion in decision making, rampant profiteering by brands… greed is so normalised now that business and political leaders don’t even have the slightest discomfort in throwing its weakest under the bus, if it means saving their top-lines from eroding a bit.
The realist in me says that we are fucked, we are heading towards dark ages – walls will close, inequality will rise, climate will create new refugees and in a decade we will have mass civil unrests across the world.
I don’t want that to happen. So I want to think of how we can rescue ourselves from this situation? I see this event has as an opportunity to do revolutionary pivots.
Here’s a few principles that i think would serve us well…
Systemising Wealth Transfers The situation can get dire. we need to urgently institute wealth transfers. from cities to hinterlands, from top 0.1% to bottom 70%, from money market to actual economy. The elite has rigged the economy, the laws, the legislative in its favour. As long as that remains, we are doomed. Violent revolutions are quite likely. Alternatively the p2p economies which exclude the existing system players is also a revolutionary possibility. Both seem far-fetched. Consider the fact that a recent document by IRS officers CONSIDERING increasing wealth tax, just considering, were laid-off. That’s the power of elites. Well, we are doomed as long as elites continue to influence our systems. We must innovate to incentivise wealth transfer. Either through taxes, moral campaigns, decoupling from global economy etc.,
New view of growth: Increasing Productivity, decreasing consumption Growth can come from productivity and consumption. it’s easier to stimulate consumption among the elite, harder to educate, train, build infrastructure for increasing productivity. India will continue to suffer unless we pivot to productivity gains to grow.
New Eco-consciousEconomies We are heading headlong into a future ravaged with climate change related uncertainties. India will be uninhabitable in another 50 years. We have to build economic exchanges, market places that helps us survive. Economy needn’t be always extractive.
Breaks on globalisation Globalisation will slow down and even reverse. Global mechanisms of co-operation are breaking. Money flows but people can’t. Much discontent. New post-covid themes – self-sufficiency, no more bottomless cheap capital (a la amazon), decentralisation.
Platform as commons Here I have written about this in more details. we need to build platforms that belong to people, that empower their exchanges, that are not driven with only profit motive.
The virus might be microscopic, but its impacts come in various shapes at various scales. It affects how we feel, how we work, how the global leaders form new alliances and even how the earth heaves a sigh of relief (or not).
So here’s looking at the world at the post-corona world through seven levels of consciousness.
a. The isolated soul
The economic currents take us away from our hometowns and the coronavirus has shut doors on the possibility of going back anytime soon. Quarantined, worried and unsure – we are profoundly lonely as existential questions dance on our conscience without pause. Distractions are our only succour.
In a hypermediated world, opinions after opinions lash at our consciousness like waves at a rocky beach – incessant and slowly eroding our sense of solidity. Hydrochloroquine, 9 min 9 tamashas… power that be wants us sedated with confusion and meaningless gestures. Who do we trust? What do we do?
Every cough a threat, every touch an attack. Scared, worried our eyes have grown suspicious. Even after lockdown, how freely will you move?
How will we measure freedom in 2021? With number of trackers on our phone tracing Covid’s spread?
We have been living so far as if we can live disconnected invulnerably. ‘I rise alone. I chart my own path.’ But we die together. we suffer together.
It might be a ‘me-versus-the-world’ world. But for us to survive it must become ‘we-are-in-this-together’ world.
Covid-19 has stripped us of our hubris. We are now suspicious of our own breathing and touching. We are truly helpless. Our enemy is invisible, all around us. And for a while, we will have no weapon against it.
Fear of death is a kinetic force; it moves us to do things in our lives. It forces us to live more consciously. Better eating, exercising, reading up, talking to people for longer, entertaining philosophical curiosities, getting religious… Fear of death is a fountain of activity.
Well, not all of us are brave enough to acknowledge death. We must remain in denial. We must remain entertained and amused. God forbid that the internet stops working now. We would have riots the next day.
2. Social Life
Intimacy is beautiful with the right partner. It’s a private hell, otherwise. Under lockdown, people are discovering this, often for the first time. Record number of Chinese couples filed for divorces in Wuhan after lockdown was lifted. What will happen to your relationship by May 3rd?
To meet someone in the capitalist world is to spend money collectively on an evening/ afternoon meal. Under lockdown, we are now instead playing games together, complaining about the bad connection of video calls together… To be social need not be about spending money.
A family may stay apart in today’s world, but it worries together. We police each other, we exchange news and laugh uncomfortably away the political differences.
In the last century, the socialists imagined great things from public spaces – fertile spaces for ideas to emerge, art to get created, political discourses to be enjoyed, anthems to togetherness be sung… Public spaces died first with malls. Covid was the latest nail in the coffin. The public imagination for possibilities with public spaces has taken a tragic turn.
Crises are opportunities to disrupt. Revolutionaries can tip over the critical mass. Or capitalist can profiteer and strengthen hold over the resources. Privacy, masks, foodgrains, brandband access – everything is an opportunity with someone losing, someone winning.
Microfinance empowered women and rebuilt community relationships around finance. Maybe time has come now for health centred co-operatives, shared insurances, indigenous knowledge systems meeting modern medicine?
Us vs Them
Covid will strengthen the xenophobia, make us sceptical of each other. We are hurtling towards the dark ages where we seek people to pin blame on rather than seeking co-operation. We will come-around. Fingers crossed.
Caste & Religion
The whatsapp university graduates are busy turning social distancing into a communal/ casteist conspiracy. Social untouchability might become untouchability. How do we ensure that caste system doesn’t gain currency? Religious powers are bound to gain power everywhere.
Small town vs Cities
The epidemic has made evident the absolute lack of safety net for the migrant labourers in city. Demonetisation, CAA riots and now Covid induced hunger. Third strike and out? Would migrants demand more now? Shouldn’t they?
Time for taking economy to small towns instead of getting people from small towns to economic centres.
Capitalism & Human capabilities
With imagination and agency, human enterprise can shapeshift to adapt and counter the threat of any crisis. If every swiss person is ALSO trained in operating arms, and many last-generation villagers could ALSO sow paddy, why can’t most earthlings be trained in multiple capabilities? Imagine a person being able to serve first-aid AND code. Another can bear arms AND do financial analysis. Capitalism wants specialism – one cog doing one act repeatedly in service of efficiency and cost reduction. For humanity to thrive that model must change. The cog needs to be empowered to react, empowered with more capabilities than one.
Digital v/s physical
The ones with wi-fi access and jobs that can be done online are the new haves. The have-nots are the ones who must interact and produce something in the physical world. Until the next vulnerability to digital world is discovered. Diversify our existence between digital and physical?
Governments versus subjects
Will this be another excuse to consolidate power and disenfranchise people in one way or another? Covid-19 might pave the way for Authoritarianism rule in Southeast Asia.
Global versus Local
A globalised world is a world that globalises risks too. Many countries will wake up to this insight and start ‘diversifying risk’. Local capabilities and resources are not replaceable, cannot be made redundant. We will witness a hard swing to localism.
Why commute now that we know WFH works? Why fly so often when we can do without it? Why spend as much in shopping, entertainment when we now know that we can do without it? Look at the blue sky outside. Look at the birds that have returned. Wouldn’t we want to retain these things in our lives? We might just end up not pushing our children in the climate change induced hellhole.
Covid-19 has knocked the wind out of the global machine that humanity lives in. It has shattered our illusions of stability, our belief in global capitalism (about time), our hopes of certain growth forever.
It is not just a pandemic. It is a huge question mark that stands tall in front of humanity. What’s the meaning of life? What matters? and most importantly, what should we do?
The global machine – capitalism, globalism – runs on the grease of specialism: that I be a specialist brand strategist, that someone else be a specialist health worker and so on. In times of crisis though, this very grease is becoming the gunk that’s contributing to the machine falling apart.
Crises are times when an overwhelming force requires to be countered by overwhelming efforts from the part of united humanity.
Against divisiveness, towards unity
So firstly, we can’t counter these overwhelming forces effectively if we can’t ‘unite’ effectively. A machine that runs on the principles of divisive exploitation is bound to falter and possibly disintegrate in such a situation. Global Capitalism is based on constant replacement of labour with cheaper labour. It is based on inability of people moving as quick as the money does. It is based on exploitation profit principle which perpetuates and amplifies inequality. It is based on divisive politics that pits one community against another.
Under such conditions, humanity can’t unite. The exploited class will remain suspicious of the ruling class. Toilet roll brawls, disbelief fueled corona-parties happen, religious gatherings happen, demonisation of minority happens… the global capitalism had sown the seed of dissent in its very DNA. So there goes unity.
The anti-dote to global capitalism too is seeded in it’s DNA – platform economy. Facebook, amazon etc have shown what platforms can do. Unfortunately, these platforms are right now running with capital mindset of greedy fucktards. But the truth is – platform economy’s logical endpoint is a new form of socialism. A new kind of economy where most essential things can and should be free for most. I have written more about it here. We must work towards this possibility if humanity is to survive and thrive.
Against specialism, towards adaptability
Secondly, the issue of specialism. Specialism is great for maximizing efficiencies, scaling, reducing cost etc. It’s a must for scaling effectively. As such, its a must for global capitalism. But it’s also making us vulnerable to destabilizing catastrophes.
Like Swiss, South Korean and Israeli citizen, who are trained to take up arms in times of emergency (which meant war for them), global humanity must also have a strategy to build capabilities in every global citizen and communities to respond to health crises/ biological warfare/ riots/ wars/ famines etc.
Govt/ corporates/ power centers essentially must build capabilities among their citizen to adapt to emerging situations if the power that be want to maintain their power structures (stability and status quo).
In a complex and Dynamic system such as the global humanity, we can’t rely and wait for institutions to strategise and respond. Global communities must be empowered to unify, take informed decisions and respond quickly. For a health emergency a substantial proportion of people should be trained to respond with nurse/ care/ logistics skills. For wars, an overlapping set of people in substantial numbers should be trained to organise, mobilise, evacuate, arm and respond if necessary. For natural disasaters, similarly another overlapping set of people should be capable of rapidly transforming into first responders, medics, cooks, truck drivers etc.
The essential principle to survive and thrive in the new globalised world is to,
Build Platforms as Commons
Build Capabilities among citizenry to respond rapidly for emergencies