Future of advertising: Agency as open source platform
Future of advertising: Agency as open source platform
Just discovered the majestic video for ‘Blue Planet 2’ and the monumental soundtrack – Hans Zimmer and Radiohead’s ‘Ocean Bloom’.
It felt as if I was a pebble, tossed around and shaped by the majestic and beautiful logic of the blue oceans. One with the bigness of the world, with the wonder of our existence, with the beauty of what lies beyond our pale human anxieties and priorities.
This beauty pains, because it shows forces that we are not shaped by. Yesterday, more than 20 people died – crushed between capitalism’s herd rearing, blind panic of marginal existence and total incompetence and apathy of the government. I feel guilty for exiting that reality. Exiting those forces, selfishly.
I wish for everyone to be able to escape that tranquilized coop they call modern living in modern cities.
Why waste life in trivialities of everyday hate-countering, marginal wisdom sharing, point-of-view debating, helplessly hand-wringing at the apathy of the powerful towards us? Why give power to others? We are getting shaped by the waves of hate and mediocrity, instead of by the grand beauty of nature and the creative spark of human potential. Radiohead, Beethoven, Kundera, Sigur Ros, Iain Banks… There is so much beauty and creativity to be shaped by. Why subject ourselves to miasma of mediocrity and a marginal existence? If we must exist in a bubble, might as-well it be of pure beauty, wonder, curiosity and creativity. May one day, everyone be able to access it.
May one day, every life fulfill its potential. May no life be cut short so callously. May one day, no one is robbed of the joy of walking on sure ground with blue sky above and green of earth shooting upwards all around.
I am taking a knee for humanity today. May wonder, kindness, sanity become accessible to us all.
Just came across these ads from one of HUL’s brands – Quality walls ice creams.
Unilever has gone regressive AF.
I can’t believe Unilever can do such work. I mean, it is one of those companies famous for their rigorous approach towards marketing effectiveness, their many checks and balances. I can’t believe that at none of these stages did anyone find the sexism in the ads problematic? How did this pass through?
For the ones who can’t understand what’s wrong with the ad, let me help you.
Firstly, understand that no frame in advertising is by mistake. Every frame, every act, every pronunciation is deliberate. The copy gets tested, visuals are first story-boarded and then PPMed the shit out of them. Models are chosen carefully. Settings are chosen deliberately.
Everything you see in advertising is deliberate.
So, what deliberate story do you see in the ad?
The second is your daily sexual harassment on the streets that the powers-that-be want to normalise desperately. The second ad is obviously in bad taste, i don’t think it needs explanation. The first one, to the patriarchs, might seem alright though. So let me try and help you understand why it is problematic.
In the first film, the young son is sitting at the table while the little girl is cooking chapatis. The family validates her role as a cook with their fake claps. It is almost an initiation ritual into maidhood of the girl.
It wouldn’t have been problematic with the first ad, if both the children were shown to taught to cook. The purposeful setting reinforces the patriarchal norm – cooking is for women, sitting idly on the asses is for men.
Labour by itself is not wrong, far from it. None of us can escape the need to eat, need to clean house, need to wash clothes. We need these things. Hence we need to be able to do the labour to live our lives. and here by ‘we’ I mean both men and women – the entirety of family. Work multiplies with number of people, so shouldn’t the hands that clean up too?
At our home, my wife cooks, but I also do the chopping of vegetables and cleaning of the dishes. Or vice versa. We don’t resent our labours. We do what is needed to be done and get on with our lives.
Beyond the utility of chores, I find household chores as a good opportunity to converse with my wife. It is an easier and more sustainable way to bond with your partner than by dedicating holidays or dates for that purpose. Typically, we both are in the kitchen doing our respective chores and talking about things – all sorts of things. (mostly our personal art projects, but more frequently trump and modi these days. Today it would be this shitty quality walls commercial most probably, if donny doesn’t egg rocket man anymore.)
It is a welcome break from my addiction to screens too. It is almost therapeutic.
So I look forward to the simple acts of making tea, doing the dishes, making breakfast, putting the clothes out to dry… all these things are essential breaks for me from my media addiction and welcome engagements with real life and real relations.
My problem with Indian mindset is that that it views household labour poorly. And since it is viewed as an undesirable part of life, it is relegated to the second rate citizen of the family – women. Men would rather get fat, rot their minds with mindless TV but partner their wives in household chores. This mindset is visible amply in TV ads too.
P&G has famously decided to be a ‘force for the good’ with its women empowerment pledge. So while P&G is progressing ahead, being a voice of sanity, Unilever is regressive with its terribly sexist ads.
What is more worrisome is, Unilever is one of the biggest advertising spenders in India. It sets the standard and trends of advertising for a lot of other brands and agencies. And if it itself indulges in casual sexist ads, it does not bode well for Indian advertising. It is a leader and it should act as one.
“Perhaps the loudest alarm is that despite spending $600bn (£454bn) a year on marketing, our collective industries still aren’t growing enough, holding stubbornly on to low single digital market growth,” Marc Pritchard said. “You might say that never have so many done so much for so little.”
Marc Pritchard makes some very important points in this talk about transparency, brand’s voice and partnering with platforms (in effect marginalising agencies). He talks about brands being a ‘force for good’. And I am glad that someone as powerful as him is pushing for more advertising that is good. So many of us in advertising do sexist, classist advertising and then we feign ignorance about advertising’s social impact. So someone pushing for being more conscientious with brand messages is a fellow soldier I want to hi5 with.
But when he said about being a ‘force for good’, initially I didn’t take it as simply the brand stance being progressive. I had a more radical idea in my mind. The problem he talked about was of low growth and what is the most common-sensical thing to do for an FMCG player to grow? Sell to more people!
Who could these ‘more’ people be?
Millions of refugees are braving death and worse to reach safer shores. Surely, if they find safer havens and are given the opportunity, they will stand on their feet soon enough and very well could become loyal consumers of brands that helped them.
So here’s the radical idea in a nutshell –
Grow by Doing good – Helping refugees find save haven and become self-reliant economically.
Western markets are saturated, real growth is practically the sole preserve of developing economies of Asia and Africa. Whatever growth you see in US/ UK is speculation based – lottery bets on who gets to dominate the world in the future by monopolizing some commons or the other – amazon, apple, FB, google.
Helping refugees seems like the obvious answer to brand’s growth woes. By helping people grow, brands would in effect create a new and growing base of customers.
It would be cheaper than global campaigns – $600 Bn is spent on marketing by brands, he said, for declining growth. “…You might say that never have so many done so much for so little.”
Imagine what could be achieved with even a fraction of those funds if employed in service of humanity.
Imagine being a refugee. Imagine a P&G volunteer helping you with supplies when you reach safer shores. Imagine being helped by brands to set up your home. Would you be more likely to buy P&G products or Unilever products, there after?
Brand contributing to the cause would not be simply creating customers, they would be building possibly lifelong loyal relationships.
So here’s a radical idea Mr. Pritchard, How about companies like P&G and Volkswagen and all the rest of them… how about doing a concerted effort, perhaps by setting up a shared fund among all the global conglomerates to help refugees. A fund to help the refugees find a home and in turn, create a new middle class that could consume your wares? You have the power to do good and you have lead with example with the empowering messaging. Here’s a stronger way to grow and to lead.
After all, inequality is market growth’s nemesis. No matter how much efficiencies you increase and smarter algorithms you create, if more people get poorer they simply are not going to buy enough for you to sustain your growth.
Helping refugees is the only way to sustainably grow over the long term.
Simplicity is good. A Simple message is more readily understood, more readily spread. So I am all for the final expression of ideas being simple – the tag line, the copy.. simpler the better, generally.
Even if we look under the hood, the thinking behind the ad, the strategy – simplicity often helps prioritise, helps clarify. The search for simplicity helps us frame our questions better, zero-in on key questions quicker.
However, simplicity has also become an excuse for the ignorant not to learn. Simplicity has become a tool that helps older generation remain in denial. The simplicity mantra has allowed the advertising industry leadership to remain complacent in the face of existential crisis.
Life is not simple. Understanding life is not simple. To arrive at a simple clarity, one typically has to go through fairly complex experiences and a conscious effort to engage with that complexity. Engaging with complexity to unearth meaning is the bedrock of human evolution. We are evolutionary deadwood if we don’t engage with emerging complexities and strive for relevance in the new world.
Here’s a few anecdotes of what I want to convey –
A client wanted to create a ‘platform for X’: a very promising and untapped area. But they had obviously not thought through yet. I thought of Scott Galloway’s insight that lists 10 factors that affect chances of success for a global platform company. The fact is, even this list of 10 factors would be considered over simplification by wiser folks. But it could help us help the client see the obvious areas of improvement in their business plan. Climbing up the value chain for us – from simply brand identity to strategy consultancy.
But unfortunately, the agency leadership did not understand and did not have the time to understand the basics of the new economy. They didn’t want to dabble into things they don’t understand, fair enough. But that means sidestepping a fair amount of opportunities.
Their desire for simplicity meant tremendous opportunity costs.
Second anecdote –
This was a typical NGO project related to changing certain health habits. Creative team jumps onto a morbid ‘shock treatment’ idea. Why not do something like ‘dumb ways to die’? The death part, not the fun happy jingle part. Never mind the context.
Fear works! they pronounce.
I show research saying that it is not very helpful. Some people rally, but a vast majority of TG would perceive it as an attack on their identity and pull up their defenses, strengthening their bad habits. It is a fairly well documented effect – the backfire effect. But sharing the knowledge of backfire effect, backfired. Creatives pulled up their defenses and held their morbid deathly idea even tighter to their bosoms.
They responded by ridiculing the research – there are so many conflicting researches. No point in listening to it. We ‘know’ fear works, they pronounced.
Fear to engage with unknown psychological complexities held them back from doing what could have been amazing work.
I feel that people who analyse ads often put far more thought than the people who make those ads. Because it is their job to deconstruct complexities with the first group. And to simplify and elicit a reaction for the latter group.
How do you learn if you don’t engage with the complex?
We need ruminations over complex matters to achieve the essential simplicity.
The ones who don’t engage their grey cells and their heart with real complexities, won’t find the elegant voice of truth that shapes great creative work.
I received a curious mail today from Campaign magazine. It was soliciting content. so far so good. I skimmed through it and was delighted. They wanted content and towards the end they had mentioned a huge sum of money, almost half a year’s salary for me. I assumed it must be honorarium for the ones whose content is selected. I was thinking, man, these guys are amazing – can they really afford to give away that kind of money to contributors? Didn’t make sense. Perhaps it is a way of cultivating the best talent?
so I read the whole thing – turns out, they are not giving honorarium, they are ASKING for the sum. In exchange, the contributor gets their photo published in the magazine.
This is some weird shit. All this while I thought their business is in getting free content and distributing it at profit. (which I find problematic anyways. Why should any labor be free?) But it turns out, their business is about validating the poor insecure idiots in the narcissist industry of advertising, who seek validation for their expertise.
I understand, for many small agencies perhaps, this is a way of getting noticed by the right people. For a down and out senior person, this is a way of getting back in the game. For a low esteem somebody, it is way of feeling secure about their expertise. and I am sure it is of positive utility to somebody somewhere, the use-case for which I can’t think of now. Nevertheless, what a scam!
The mice needs security and the vulture is selling helmets.
Advertising industry is plagued with this insecure-narcissistic game that drains its people of their money, their time and their esteem. The countless awards, the countless publications, the countless events – what good comes of all that masturbation?
Cannes, One show, Effies – what a fucking waste of money and efforts. It does curate some amazing work, but it is not available freely for all industry folks to learn from, now is it? It is available at a price and not readily usable. The learning, the cases, they are not turned into usable insights, usable learning tools for the young in the industry to learn from, freely. If it is behind paywalls, it is useless. It is unethical to first charge for entries and then again charge for accessing the end product. Its the most dick move ever. In the age of AI, why can’t knowledge gathering digital dust behind paywalls, be turned into an Open advisory for a world where businesses grow more efficiently and people don’t have to weather terrible ads?
I can see the parallel here with the pharma industry – companies that have recipes of wonder drugs that can cure TB, malaria – but won’t give it out to needy people. Well, the comparison is wrong – atleast pharma companies own their own IP, all that award shows do is massage a few egos. Its the most expensive ‘curatorial’ service ever.
Awards might help build agency credentials. But why does a company need new credentials every year? I mean, I don’t see volkswagen or Mahindra spending as large a proportion of their revenue towards awards, as agencies do. No other industry spends as much money on validation as percentage of its revenue as we do.
Look at Publicis. With a year’s worth of spends on awards, they are planning to build a AI assistant for their employees! (Shitty idea, but one must commend on trying to be relevant) I mean they could start new businesses every year with that kind of money, put it to far better uses than advertising awards.
With Unilever, P&G cutting down their ad spends, agencies will have to further tighten their belts. They better start with the awards, instead of employee raises.
Which other industry has so many ‘thought leaders’, so many publications and yet doesn’t move an inch ahead in the game of innovating it’s own value proposition?
What do adage, campaign, afaqs, thedrum etc add to the universe’s knowledge? Not much. These publications regurgitate same points of views over and over again. They keep discussing similar trends over and over again without critical analysis (programmatic is the future, maybe it is not. Native is the future, maybe not. Context is king. maybe not. where is the data to support the hypothesis anyways?) Never have I read an actual original point of view about media/ business/ culture/ consumer in these rags. They are mere propaganda vehicles for ad agencies and its career climbers.
Its quite possible that half the ‘views’ and engagement of ‘famous’ campaigns are generated by people in marketing only – readers of these publications. I suspect, the feedback effect is detrimentally strong in advertising. Shiny, smart ideas get propped up even if it might not be effective.
Lastly, I feel the publications normalise the alienating bubble of advertising. By repeating trends that are not actually trending, by idolising campaigns that are not effective, by giving trophies to agency folks… they are holding back the industry.
Agencies often have fairly smart people. People with ideas. People who can start their own businesses, create things of great value. Instead they get too comfortable by publication powered validations and publication powered point of views. They hold them back in the industry.
Well, I think, advertising people would gain far more if they went to art galleries, tech expos, civic issue seminars, political rallies, academic seminars even etc. There’s marginal utility in going to advertising industry events where you will bump into people exactly like you. (unless you want to network).