The Advertising Agencies of future will be Open Sourced

The alternative ‘new normal’

Sir Martin Sorrell, perhaps the most powerful person in the advertising industry, recently said that the “new normal” for the global advertising industry is that of “low growth.” I think that is not necessarily true—if we examine the underlying assumptions about the source of growth for the industry.

The advertising industry currently works on a pre-digital era assumption: Individuals and small businesses cannot be a sustainable source of business. Most agencies work almost exclusively for big corporate brands (apart from the token CSR/ NGO work that can help them win creative awards at Cannes). This strategy worked for the industry in the 20th century, since much growth was yet to come from globalising markets, increasing consumptive lifestyles, proliferating capitalist economies, etc. So agencies didn’t need other sources to grow.

But now, as the world stands (almost) completely globalised, consumptive lifestyles have maxed out and capitalist economies are struggling from one bailout to next, the advertising industry is finding that growing with only big-spending corporate brands is much more difficult than it used to be. Creative agencies are being squeezed by competitive pressures and demanding clients, who prefer to work on project basis rather than on retainer basis. Agency business was never as uncertain as it is now.

But what if advertising agencies actually embrace this uncertainty? What if we expand our horizons to embrace a wider set of branding efforts?

An open approach would be key to this.

In this article, I’ll discuss why “open source” is the answer for higher growth (and how we’ve so far gotten it wrong). And then I will articulate exactly what it means for agencies to go “open source,” and what will that entail.

The advertising business’ long tail

Let’s begin by examining two potential sources of growth for the advertising industry.

First, consider that 95% of enterprises across the world are small or medium enterprises (SMEs). If advertising is about helping businesses grow, then why don’t we help this 95% do that?

Yes, this would require a fundamental shift in the business model of advertising agencies, but would it not be worth it? Let’s look at the possible worth we can tap into.

There is no existing body of theoretical or practical work that explores the potential of open values in advertising. But I have a few ideas.

SMEs contribution to GDP varies from 16% in low income countries to 51% in high-income countries. Let us assume they spend 10% of their revenues in marketing, out of which, say, 2% goes in creative/ strategy services. That is the 2% not coming to organised advertising industry right now. That is the 2% spent on work by either amateurs, freelancers, or in-house part-timers—often inefficiently, unprofessionally, and with hit-and-miss results.

Second, note the rise of “personal brands.” To help them grow in their careers, people want to build brands for themselves. At present, this expanding pool of potential customers can only look at self-help books, blogs, and other “gurus” for help. They don’t have access to professional services that can help them grow their personal brands.

Combine these two long tails and you’ll see the potential source of growth for global advertising agencies. The potential is huge, but no one has yet attempted to create an integrated offering for the three broad segments of customers: individuals, small enterprises, large corporate brands.

Change is difficult and scary for everyone, especially (it seems) for advertising leadership. Advertising professionals spend a lot of time bemoaning the death of the agency of record, shrinking margins, and frequent pitches. One gets the sense that everyone sees what the problem is and wishes to turn back time—return to the good old days.

But such nostalgia is a form of denial. And it doesn’t bode well when many in the industry fall back on nostalgia to make sense of their present.

In order to adapt the advertising industry to new challenges and new opportunities, we need to embrace a new idea. It’s not a new idea—just a rather a poorly understood one. The idea is called “openness.”

Misunderstanding ‘open’

‘Open’ marketplaces

We’ve seen several attempts to create an “open” marketplace of creative ideas. For example, places like Adhack hoped to be a “marketplace for ad creatives.”

It no longer exists.

The “marketplace metaphor” gives the impression that “open” simply means “a venue for frictionless exchange.” But that’s actually problematic in the case of advertising, because it treats ideas and creative people as commodities. When one exchanges a physical item for a certain sum of money, the exchange is complete—expectations met. Exchanging ideas, however, is more complicated.

An advertising client does not simply want any idea; she wants an idea that she thinks will help her business grow. Many variables are at play here: a client’s expectations, the client-agency relationship, an understanding of current market dynamics, shared creative sensibilities, an understanding of consumer’s emotional needs, cultural mores, etc. The final expression of an idea is almost always a result of a series of discussions, where the objective gets sharpened and creative work undergoes various iterations as it courses through several feedback loops. It’s nothing like a single transaction.

This mode of working is inevitable in creative businesses; any creative work eventually requires this kind engagement with feedback loops. A “marketplace” of either ideas or people can unfortunately never quite capture this kind of interaction, which is necessary for creative businesses. Advertising must embrace a different, broader, and more effective sense of openness.

Crowdsourcing talent

Some companies have adapted crowdsourcing (which is not an open source approach) to varying degrees of success.

For example, 99designs.com solicits designs from hundreds of designers for a client. Unfortunately, this model is exploitative in the sense that a designer is not paid for her time; she’s only paid if her design is selected. In this way, the system is only useful for budding artists who are testing their skills, building their confidence and portfolios. It cannot sustainably scale to win bigger businesses or attract established creative talent.

Curated and crowdsourced ideas

A third example of crowdsourcing advertising agencies is Victor and Spoils (V&S). V&S is essentially a “normal” advertising agency with a “plug-in” for crowdsourced ideas. They open up some client projects to a set of strategists, creative directors spread across the world who have registered with them.

This idea has obvious limitations for sharing strategically important projects, speed of delivery, feedback mechanisms, and more. As such, V&S cannot sustainably scale because not many clients typically have the kind of patience that is required for the crowdsourcing process. Neither do they have the willingness to experiment. They want effective solutions quickly; they don’t care if those solutions come from within the agency or from consumers.

A better approach to ‘open advertising’

Small businesses know that advertising can help grow their businesses but are unsure about its effectiveness. They don’t have enough money for “experiments.” Before committing money for an ad campaign, they need some amount of assurance that their campaign will indeed deliver business results.

This assurance is possible now with big data analytics. Look at how Google shares some data about user behavior and campaign effectiveness. What if that was available for integrated campaigns—TV, print, digital, outdoor, everything. If a global advertising agency puts together data about the campaigns it has conducted across the globe over the last few decades, big data analysis can provide confidence level “thumb rules” that clients can use to make decisions real time. That is an important development waiting to happen. However, even this is only a part, even if an important part, of the bigger “open” possibility.

Surprisingly, there is no existing body of theoretical or practical work that explores the potential of open values in advertising. But I have a few ideas—and in the spirit of openness, I will explain them now.

 

Open source advertising agency

Open source:

‘Open’ = universally accessible and open to contributions.

‘Source’ = the proprietary logic that solves a problem uniquely.

Understanding a basic perspective on open source is critical. When people talk about “open source” and its relevance to the advertising industry, they might think only about using open source material to create advertising. Or they might talk about projects where users and a brand team co-create something. Some may use the term to describe collaborative cultures, and others might use the term to talk about crowd-sourced plugins to traditional business models.

All of these ideas are united by the smallness of their perspectives.

I’m talking about applying “open source” in a way that could fundamentally inform the advertising business model. So what is it, in this context?

The ‘Source code’ for advertising agencies is the unique method of approaching a business problem that guides them in finding, what they believe to be, the most effective and creative solution. As contexts and type of business problem changes, so do the methods.  Typically, this ‘source code’ is a logical set of questions or framework that guides application of common sense to the work of solving business problems. They do so by enhancing clarity regarding strategic choices that the marketer has but might be blind to. Identifying the right branding opportunity/ problem is half the battle in effective communications.

These tools are very useful because it is quite easy to stray away from basic common sense when confronted with too much data. These tools also help in building conviction towards taking the right direction, when the easier (but possibly ineffective) direction seems more attractive.

These are some of the ‘source codes’: Ogilvy has its “Big Ideal“, “Fusion” and “Do brief.” Publicis has “Lead the change.” DDB had its “Springboards.” Saatchi & Saatchi has its “Lovemarks.” And so on.

And I believe this very decision-making process can be subjected to open source thinking.

Open strategy, open creativity

For example, suppose a firm wants to become an open advertising agency. It designs its own “interface” for creative problem-solving, such that people would be encouraged to use, adapt, and improve upon its planning and creative tools. Next, it will externalizes the wisdom its employees and its campaigns have acquired through the years, making it available to people who can learn from it and use it to inform their decisions.

For this to work, our firm will have to be cognizant of various requirements, and hence different consumer journeys for three broad bucket of clients. Again, these are:

  1. Individuals seeking help with personal branding at a flat fee.
  2. SMEs who need help in growing business with limited budgets and where individuals/ small group of stakeholders take decisions.
  3. Corporate owned consumer/ enterprise brands with high media spends, where decisions are made by committee/ hierarchies.

To be able to cater to these three different segment at the same time, the agency will require a new business model, new practices, and new expectations of revenue growth. To get a glimpse of that interface, we can learn from pricing strategies of online services and adapt them to the advertising business (see Figure 1).

offerings

For example, our firm could curate and code tools that make its interface easier to use (not merely accessible)—to all, for free (think of the difference between Google’s search interface now and a Yahoo! search and directory from 1996).

For individual users looking to either build a personal brand or test new business ideas, our firm could provide algorithm-based assistance in formulating strategy (programs that take in key data points to choose the right tools/ perspective). Thereafter the focused “brief” at hand can help the person in finding the right ideas with the help of fellow idea seekers and creators in an open forum (look at the interface of Coursera classrooms, for example).

Say a small restauranteur seeks help making her business grow. She can either access free tools and figure out strategy for herself, or pay a flat fee and access the community of people who might help her. Perhaps she can even find a budding creative artist in the community who could help her in designing art works informed with the “brief” she formulated with the help of an algorithm earlier.

If she is ambitious and is seeking rapid growth—and doesn’t mind paying the fees for access to our agency’s team—then she can do that too.

With millions of people using its free tools, the firm stands to create the “default” language and logic of branding strategy for the industry. The first mover in the “open advertising” game stands to set the rules of that game for 21st Century.

Changing the model

Shifting to open models would help the advertising industry shift:

  • From servicing a few hundred clients at max a year, to catering to potentially a million clients a year.
  • From being critically dependent on a few large clients for survival, to a hedged bet with the long tail.
  • From an enterprise-oriented orientation to more nimble orientation (something adaptable to serve anybody, from an individual to a fortune 100 company).
  • From intimidating jargon to simplified tools that most people can use (simple and obvious always trumps complicated and laborious in advertising—may it be in ads, pitches or everyday work).
  • From resource allocation per brand, to additional resources for Skype services and transition teams who would facilitate the transition of a project from online open source to inside the agency (and therefore confidential).

But it would not change:

  • The creativity that human insight and human-articulated vision can provide.
  • The business dynamic with corporate brands (apart from improvements in universal availability of data and tools).

First-mover advantage

The first firm to attempt this kind of open approach would see the following benefits.

New repository of consumer insights. The agency will have access to big data stores and metadata about users’ businesses, their preferences, and their possible growth trajectories. These data will be useful in building agency intelligence, its effectiveness, and its new business efforts.

Mindshare leadership. The agency will set the language and logic of business growth for a million business leaders of tomorrow.

Virtuous cycle of new business growth. Small businesses and startups would grow with the agency and might stay on as they grow big. Communities of thousands of enthusiasts and free tools users will help establish agency brand credentials. Word of mouth generated by the agency’s tools will position it favorably among business leaders.

Attracting good talent. The community would become a channel for budding talent to get noticed. The transparency in helping businesses grow will excite creative talent and attract the best creative talent to the industry again. The widened pool of visible talent and the plurality of projects will help the agency find, train, and mentor the right talent.

Increased marketing literacy among clients and agency personnel. To be frank, many of us in marketing and advertising industry could do with a basic marketing course. Even in 2017, many among us are unsure about digital marketing. Many advertisers could increase efficiency and improve quality of their efforts if they knew about concepts such as “insights,” “emotional needs,” and “strategic choices” in creative ideas and so on. By “opening up” the culture of advertising thinking, we will help increase marketing literacy and consequently increase confidence in marketing efforts. After all, if clients understand marketing better, they will be more confident about spending money on it.

I am eager to work on this idea and bring it to reality. If anyone finds it interesting, please get in touch. We might be able to do something together. 🙂

____

Update: 

1. Here’s a quick FAQ about the idea basis discussion with senior guys in the industry.
2. Here’s a quicker snapshot of the idea in presentation format, with an appreciation of platform fundamentals.
3. In interest of comprehensiveness, read this idea about pivoting.
The platform idea is a monopolistic pursuit. Everyone cannot aim for such goals. Hence the pivot idea gives two distinct strategies of sourcing growth for agencies.
4. This article won me a 2017 WPP Atticus award.

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How not to be a lazy hack

I can’t think of a decent idea, so how about just using a celeb to sell the brand instead of an idea that can actually do the job better?”

That’s just one way of being a fucking lazy hack. Don’t be that person. A lazy hack writes an unoriginal idea that doesn’t exactly solve the problem at hand, but does tick the boxes in some convoluted fashion. Why be “creative” like that, when you can be creative in creating awe inspiring, award winning commercials?

Here are some handy tips to not be a Fucking Lazy Hack (FLH) of a creative person.

    1. Shifting form Open to closed mode.

      Being ‘creative’ does not mean being unreasonable. There is a time for open exploration of ideas, and then there is a time for hard look at the situation at hand and review of the work done. The latter requires an ability to listen and to argue rationally. You can’t grow professionally as a creative person unless you are able to get in and out of these two modes – open mode for ideation, closed mode for decisions.

       

      (More about open and closed mode in John Cleese’s video below. Excellent ideas from a genius. Must watch.)

       

    2. Let it go.

      As a planner, it is quite frustrating at times. A week ago, we would have agreed on feedback, on directional changes. When it is time for final review (Often too late), the idea remains unchanged apart from a few minor changes. The subpar ideas would incorporate the feedback just enough to silence the concerns – “See, the logo is bigger now”, “See the product shot is 5 second longer”. But the product or brand is still no more intrinsic to the story being told. Or there is no story to begin with, just grandiose poetry that would get an ‘F’ in a creative writing class, but that the writer refuses to let go from a million dollar campaign that has the potential to affect thousands of livelihoods – from managers to retailer.When someone points out that the copy is weak, the reply will be – “Imagine Morgan Freeman/ Amitabh Bacchhan saying it”. I say, don’t. If an idea depends on a celebrity to work, it is a bad idea.

      Your idea was beautiful, maybe. But it is time for you to grow up and accept feedback. The idea is worthless if it doesn’t solve the business problem. Too often, writers cling on to bad ideas that do service to no one. Bad ideas do not win awards, they don’t work for client, they don’t look good on portfolios. Even if a client agrees to a bad idea (perhaps, because he can’t think any better or can’t articulate his concerns, but has time pressure), he will try to make it work for him. Client interference becomes more frequent and your idea is now a bastard child of confusion and desperation. Let it go, before it gets bastardized.

    3. Persist towards originality

      All you have to do is think of an honest need, an honest yearning that is being answered by the product/ brand at hand. Think a little harder. As John Cleese narrates in this video, he came up with more original ideas than his group-mate because he stuck to pondering over the problem longer – Unlike others, he didn’t take the first creative solution that popped in his head. He persevered until he was happy with an idea that was original enough.

4. Don’t do ‘fill in the situation’

There is a way to do this right and many ways to do it wrong. Thinking of ‘situation’ as a way to empathize and to imagine ways of being could be super fruitful. But more often than not, resorting to stereotypical ‘situations’ as the first springboard for imagination almost always leads to terrible advertising with hackneyed story lines, bad characterization and low relevance of brand in the whole scheme of things.  It is the shortest route to conceptualising an idea, a story. And because of it, it is often the biggest impediment to good creative work. Our lazy brain wants to make do with what we have, instead of junking it and thinking anew for something truly original. And then our ego protects that crappy idea from feedback and suggestions of others. We remain mediocre. Don’t be. Don’t do ‘fill in the situation’.

4. Don’t let the work-pressure define your ideas

You have too much on your plate.

You have tight deadlines.

So you agree, not to reason, but to different people – servicing, planner, client etc.

Don’t.

Listen only to reason. And reason with others, reasonably. That will save a lot of your time and effort. That saved time and effort can help you create better ideas. If you let whims and fancies of others (or even your own) guide your work, you will become no more than a mouse cursor on the app that is your agency that people use to create their ideas. Don’t lose your ‘agency’. Fight if you must for sufficient time and space for good work. Why should you be turned into a hack by work-pressure? Fight the right fights.

Honest marketing meetings

Humanity is quite immature as species. A stunning example of our intellectual frailty is the specimen inhabiting glass towers in uncomfortable suits and ties: the marketers. They are ace bullshit artists (well, of-course not you, but others 🙂 ). They can shift responsibilities of decision making as fluidly as a tai chi master might shift qi (apparently the life force, the energy). With the same slow grace of a tai chi master they will words and notions into existence that mean nothing to other creatures who are burdened with logic and common sense. It is their fate to consume the gibberish being spewed by the hippo (highest paid person’s opinion) at the table.

Hippos often hide behind the notion of ‘balance‘ to escape from taking a decision. Should the brand cater to this emotional need or that another emotional need? The client will say that the brand will stand for both – we just need to balance it – 60% this, 40% that. They conjure up percentage right from between their asses and mouths. with complete certainty and confidence. It’s amazing really.

So here are few of the examples of the gibberish I was forced to consume as strategist for advertising agencies. Obviously in service of my future paycheques, I have changed the products/ brands enough to be unrecognisable. Let’s assume we are talking about “Cuttle Soaps” (my favourite nonexistent brand).

Exhibit 1: One soap to bleach them all

Context: Trying to relaunch a failed soap for the umpteenth time. People feel that the soap is dated and was terrible. Apparently, the soap is now as good as the competitor (if not better). No performance superiority story though (and it’s not ‘apple’ to say ‘best iphone yet’. How to make the soap relevant again, purely on the back of bullshitting?

Me: category growth is coming from esteem needs. Our major competitor can’t do that. The current users of that brand show affinity towards such and such esteem need statements. Our pricing is also higher than competition. We should own the category esteem need and position the brand based on that ONE need. And here’s the creative that convincingly establishes brand credentials.

Marketer: Yes. Yes. Exactly what I was thinking. BUT, our source of growth is all soap users. So, we will have to talk about not just about this one need, but soap’s suds and soap’s fragrance and soap’s octopus vitamins and soap’s sequoia-like logevity too. Our communication needs to work harder. The models need to look as soft as a jellyfish. but not too puffy. very slim, like an eletric eel but not too sexy. and not prickly like starfish, but attractive like star fish. Clutter breaking you know. We need to break the clutter. Break it like you mean it. BREAK IT. also, we only have 50 cents for the marketing budget. so think out of the box. But not too out of the box – here are the brand guidelines and category cues. and remember our management is fairly conservative, so nothing outrageous.

So this is the new brief. Yes, yes. this is a pitch and we should ideally be paying you for your work so far. But why don’t you run along and do the 2nd and then a 3rd round for free as well like the pathetic weasel of an industry you guys are.

Me and the team: Excellent. What an illuminating discourse this has been. We think we finally are beginning to understand what you want. But it would be really great if we could ‘arrive at’ and agree on a single benefit to talk about. We can even do a workshop for free…

Marketer: No no. No workshops. Look at my waist. I am getting so fat eating all those free cookies in the countless workshops and meetings I attend. I can’t spare anymore time besides for something that is practically my biggest responsibility. I need to go suck up my higher ups and boss around with the lower downs. No time for any actual decision making. I expect awesome work from you guys. Don’t come unless its AWESOME. (Fake smile)

Exhibit 2: Schrödinger’s soap

Context: Big ass boardroom the size of noah’s ship filled with assorted animals too. A major soap leader has been selling soaps to kill germs for ages. Everybody knows them as the germ kill soap. They are at a mature stage of growth. They can’t handle that maturity though. They want to become hip and young again. The source of growth is younger people who buy more expensive shower gels. They don’t use soaps at all. Marketer has hired an expensive consultant to think on his behalf. The consultant hasn’t thought much, or couldn’t think much. So we get a confused brief. The consultant and marketer duo want the impossibility – the brand, he insists, must be both at once -a soap and a shower gel. They are willing to change the product formulation somewhat. We don’t know exactly how. But they assure us, it would be something real – like photon that is a particle but exhibits wave like properties.

Marketer: So we want to say that soap is now also a shower gel.

Me: Ok. (Trying to digest that. heavy quantum physics shit going down here. Trying to think through this muddle) You are a big corporate. Why can’t you build a new brand of shower gels? That would be easier, isn’t it?

Marketer: We have strong equity. We are rich but too risk averse. Our management lacks common sense too. So there’s that. Decision’s made.

Me: Ok. So lets try to think about what is the cumulative ‘single benefit’ of the duality. What is the one benefit consumer might get out of a soap that is also a shower gel?

(Pin drop silence).
Me: Lets look at it this way. How would your salesman sell this soap? what’s the pitch?

Marketer: That now your soap can now be used as shower gel too. perhaps… what are we paying you for? you tell me what should that be.

Me: Ok. But who needs a shower gel – soap transmorgification? Hmm. lets see… what if the soap is to be shared between family members and the soap can be what the family members want it to be. so the proposition could be soap for the full family.

Marketer: hmm.. but we need to balance shower gel 60%, soap 40% with the launch with eventual stabilisation at 50% – 50%.

Me and the team: Wow. So much. We will let the engineers know that. We will get our R&D pants on now. How about a written brief to begin though?

Marketer: Hmm. I guess we can hire another consultant for that.

Strategy-Wategy

What do you do when you have a shitty creative that is to the brief and a kickass creative that is absolutely useless?
Imagine you need to sell a soap. Imagine that for the sales to move, “strategically”, the brand needs to say,

“This soap will make your elephant like skin into a soft and smooth love affair between velvet and cuttle fish”.

(Because research says so. Perhaps you are in 22nd century Japan and people are really into cuttle fish skin implants.) But the creative team is bored of soaps and they hate soft things. The like edgy things, like armadillo’s back. So they are not really inspired with the whole thought of ‘soft like a cuttle fish’ shtick. Just to get the servicing and planners off their backs, they create something. It says

“Remember that time when you got drunk and left your hand in a water jar for the night and the skin went all mush? That’s how soft your skin will be when you use this soap.”

But in 22nd century Japan, they don’t drink anymore and they don’t have jars anymore. So no one understands what the ad is saying. And the ones who do understand are violently retching. But hey, that was to the brief! “So shut your soft ass up, servicing people” says the creative guy.

The other creative route they prepare says,

“Your elephant skin is sexy as it is. But you can make it sexier with this armadillo fart scented soap that is totally out of this world. Wow. So. Much. Armadillo.”

For some reason, armadillo fart scent is all the rage in 22nd century Japan. Its not just a scent, it is a way of life for the young there. It is like #YOLO, but more chill. So you know the ad has the potential to go viral. The young (who are not the TG) would devour this campaign whole. It looks amazing. Fabulous. I mean, creative teams are crying over the beauty of the whole campaign. It is that good. But, our customers with elephant skin are older people. They are old school. They don’t even know armadillos or their farts.

But it’s a pitch. and this one client is excitable. easily so. You know he will love the second route. Because, remember, all our decisions are emotional. And the first route is not exciting by design. Perhaps he feels these are only two choices for him. Perhaps his guts are reactive and they have reacted positively.

You take both routes to the client to keep everyone happy. Client likes the second route. We get the business. In a year’s time, it will be agency review time.

And the client will keep on choosing armadillo farts over cuttle fish, because agency can’t always afford to push for the seemingly right solution at the expense of their business. Who knows what will work at the end of the day, anyways. You can only make educated guesses and hypothesis.

And pitches go on.

 

Advertising is not art

Well, of-course advertising requires creativity. It is one of the most creative industries. And that is about the only thing that is common between advertising and artistic pursuits.

The thing with art is – it means different thing for different people. The beauty of art is in its plurality of purposes or complete purposelessness. An artist may chisel away for perfection at one corner of his mind for that one specific purpose. Another artist may move around aimlessly, exploring worlds through his subconscious. Someone else might simply want to evoke reactions. Someone purely wants to push limits of her craft/ morality/ possibility.

However, advertising can afford none of these explorations. Often, young creative writers justify their copy with ‘poetic license’. It’s almost a knee jerk reaction to defend one’s work. I have never seen a senior creative guy however justifying work for its artistic merit. And that is one of the key things that a creative learns as he grows in industry. The poetics are to be used only to accentuate, to increase the impact of what we want to say. And what we say is in the service of increasing someone’s business, not for creative pursuits.

In an attempt to become an artist or a poet, ad folks like us often create muddled and  half-baked commercials. Sometimes even planner like me are swayed to go with a tremendously creative idea even when it might not work for the objective. This is bound to happen, as it is mostly people with ‘artistic aspirations’ that come to advertising (and even some marketing departments of clients). I am one of them. It has to be a conscious effort not to be awed by ‘mind-blowing’ ideas that do not fit the strategy.

But it is not an easy battle to fight, especially if the client is also taken by the creative idea. And once a client is in awe of something, you can’t choose the less appealing but strategically correct route. Clients, if not seasoned, are more likely to fall for creatively stunning but superfluous ideas. They don’t push hard enough for better ideas. They get happy far too quickly with the first ‘decent enough’ idea that comes their way. They live vicariously a ‘creative’ life for the duration of the project. They do everything they need to, to sell the project internally. They like their names in the credit. It is natural. Our decisions are always emotional. They fall prey to the same emotional bait that they intend to lure with the consumers. They just bought themselves a creative ego massage that was served in one of the lazy creative routes.

But smarter, more experienced marketers know better than that. The key determinant here is, would the consumer we are trying to target react with just as much awe to the commercial? He/she is subjected to hundreds of commercials everyday that they are increasingly capable of ‘tuning out’ of. And most ads look the same to a layman. We, consumers, while consuming media, don’t give a rat’s ass about the ‘thought’ behind the commercial, or how lovely it all looks. All commercials peddling the capitalist philosophy of #YOLO look the same.

The commercial must work for the favourable reaction of the person who the advertiser is trying to influence. No one else’s reactions matter.

 

Advertising as an amoral tongue on rent

The amoral tounge

In my earlier years of advertising, I was fairly uneasy with the thought of working in advertising on moral grounds. There is a sense of lack of control over the truth about what we are talking about on behalf of the brand. In a sense, advertising is just a rented tongue for an organisation. The tongue doesn’t control the hands and legs or even the mind of the organisation. The disembodied nature of corporate makes it easy for morality to escape its being. Advertising says sweet things, it serenades consumers with beautiful tag lines and jingles, it says sorry on behalf of insincere suitors when shit hits the fan. It would all have been fine if advertising industry had the ‘agency’ to direct and compel organisations to ‘walk the talk’. But it can’t. and there in lies a problem.

The agency-less agencies

For example I worked on Volkswagen’s campaign for ‘blue planet’ early in my career, talking about their ecological innovations. And then it turns out that it is a fucking decepticon of a brand that innovated a lying machine to save itself from it’s ecological responsibility. What a douche brand.

Then came Nestle’s asshole MD talking about privatising all water of the earth. And then came the lead laced maggi. How fucking irresponsible. And I was working in Publicis then, it’s Agency On Record, globally. I managed to not work on that brand for most of the time. But I was not comfortable working in the company that worked for Nestle, and I quit soon after.

I jumped the ship the first chance I got with Junxion strategy, an agency working in the social sector (NGOs, CSR etc). The opportunity to do something good with my narrow skill set was tremendously exciting. But it couldn’t sustain.

I returned to advertising with a clarity there after. I joined Dentsu a tad bit mature from the earlier angry phase of working in advertising. I accepted the role with the realistic appraisal of its limitations and morality.

Advertising industry is a symptom, the disease is Capitalism

Systemically, advertising is morally problematic. But once you accept that you are within the system, then you can try to work with good people and better brands from within the system. That choice is liberating: If you can’t cure the disease, then it your duty to at-least alleviate the symptoms. There is always a choice to be made, to rebel and to strengthen an alternative system (to cure the disease)  or to work with the system (to alleviate the symptoms until you can cure the disease). But until you have the wherewithal and clarity of rebelling constructively, work within the system, as constructively as possible within the small domain of your existence.

I know that systemically, I am contributing to the capitalist engine of pollution – polluting minds, polluting ecology, polluting communities. But there’s a large distance between the immediate ‘good’ that I am doing and long distance ‘bad’ I am contributing to. It’s a trade-off with which I have made my peace for now.

Fight for your tomorrow

A generation working against its own interest

It’s been 7 years since I entered the world of advertising. It’s been longer than that with the attempt to understand world and power – by reading Chomsky, Ambedkar, Amartya Sen and so on. As you can imagine (if you have read these people that is), there was a certain heaviness of heart with which I worked in my early years in advertising. How to reconcile with the utopia of a non-consumerist worldview where humanity is undivided and equal, with the reality of consumerist culture that not only perpetuates but glorifies inequality? Working in advertising meant perpetuating this reality, against  the utopia that I must work for. I am working against my interest!

And I see around and see so many people doing the same. They can’t articulate it, but they know it deep down. That unease, that momentary recklessness.. We all feel that discomfort but we can’t name it. Here’s you name for it – its the pain of severing ties with the world that nurtures you – your family, your community, your ecology. It’s the pain of severance for an imposed injunction to enjoy. We are working against our future to make our present a little more comfortable.

How did the ‘powers that be’ convinced us to live and work against our own interest?

We rationalise it in the interest of certainty of today’s livelihood. We rationalise it in the face of apparent overwhelming global consensus – ‘YOLO’, spend your way to happiness; “only today matters, for tomorrow may never come”. This philosophy  is convenient for the global capitalist power. Since this philosophy has no conception for tomorrow.

It is the commercialized version of ‘American dream’. It is ‘Id’s dream, imposed on the ‘superego’. It is an empty dream of excess. It is a childish dream of narcissistic joys, now! It has no conception of a realistic tomorrow – of where we are going and where we should be going. That is what the capitalist ‘system‘ (not particular people, but particular interests of power webs) wants us to believe. “Fuck the planet, fuck your family, fuck your community, fuck everyone else. enjoy NOW. for those empty pursuits fund our ego massages.”

The globalised world  creates a sense of an opportunity, an opportunity to escape from the mess one creates. Global mobility is your passport to the dream of remorseless enjoyment… of an eternal escape to ‘better places’ with impunity. Hence the profusion of travel pics on facebook. It creates a distance between one’s acts and its effect. Oops! I did it again. and i hope it will be taken care of by the time I come back. Or not. We have nostalgia in its place anyways. which is even better. it is like reality, but better.

How did I get here?

By not fighting against the flow. You just go with the flow – school, college, MBA, corporate ladder, increments, cars, loans etc. and if you have no clear conception of an alternative, you just go with the flow. The media and education system doesn’t exactly prepare us to ask the right questions, to work together in formulating and working towards a utopia. You just do what is seemingly working for others.

So what now?

Like every good plan, mine looks ahead with a sound (i hope) appreciation of reality of today; a realistic vision of utopia you want to work towards while earning honestly in service of the future. This blog and this one is an attempt to articulate that utopia, to plant / support that meme of the utopia we need. I plan to do more in ways of content and engagements in service of a tomorrow built with cognizance of reality seen from a compassionate perspective.

The second part is about survival today. I hope to do that by honestly helping businesses grow through my skills in strategic choice making, in the present tense. There is a time to fight the system and a time to work with the system. Earn within the system to fight the system, essentially.