Advertising in India is evolving at a fast pace

In the increasingly competitive Indian business environment, advertising agencies play a key role in marketing a brand even as they try to position themselves within the advertising industry to offer sharper creative solutions for brand requirements of their clients. The Delhi and Mumbai based Foolish, founded in 2016, is one such advertising agency that offers a relatively unique ‘design-based art-vertising model’ to its clients such as HP, NDTV, Grover Vineyards, Xerox, Goodyear and India Gate basmati.

In this interview, Vandan Chopra, founder member and Creative Director, Foolish, gives his views on contemporary advertising, the importance of the ‘Big Idea’, and the evolving balance between ‘return on imagination’ and ‘premium of creativity’ – having had the experience of devising campaigns for television to point-of-purchase retail promotion for brands such as Adobe, California Almonds, British Telecom, Attero Recycling, Blackberry, The Park, Olive Garden, and Xerox.

As an advertising and brand solution agency, you have handled clients that have diverse yet highly-defined brand positioning. While the core positioning remains largely consistent due to strategic and market requirements, what kind of challenges do you face from a client when you suggest a campaign or idea that challenges or realigns the core brand positioning?

Vandan Chopra: The answer to your question lies not in the kind of challenges we face when proposing a positioning change, but the intent behind the suggested shift. Often, I have come across brands that have changed their positioning, because they changed their agency. And every time I have come across such a scenario, I ask myself, and hope the brand managers asked themselves the question, ‘should this brand be re-aligning?’ Only tectonic shifts in consumer behaviour (or belief) or market forces warrant a brand positioning shift. In all other scenarios, the positioning of a brand should only evolve, as naturally as possible. As long as you back your argument up with solid research and subsequently, a deep unbiased interpretation of data, I have noticed that clients are largely reasonable people. After all, we’re all driven by the same goal, the success of the brand we build.

When you are given a marketing brief by a client for above the line communication, what are the critical areas in the creative solution process that occupy most of your time – the understanding of objective, the ideation, execution, or the feedback?

Vandan Chopra: The part of the process that takes us the longest time is finding the problem statement. Client briefs rarely tell you the problem. They’re always talking about the symptoms or the outcome. The objectives are almost always the desired outcome, and that doesn’t get us far.

Which is why, it’s always the route to behaviour modification that takes the air out of us. Simply put, the question ‘what can I say, that’ll make the consumer do what I want them to do’ is the route. Most agencies call this the ‘strategy’.

Your agency has handled many industry heavyweights such as HP, British Telecom, California Almonds, and ESPN. As a competitor in a highly competitive Indian advertising industry, do you think specializing in certain industry segments makes good business sense or do you intend to keep all options open and rely on internal ability to deliver on a wide portfolio?

Vandan Chopra: I get asked this question at least a few times a month. The answer really lies in defining what we do. Do we really help clients sell their products, or do we guide consumers through their purchase decisions. I believe we’re in the business of the latter. And hence, that leads me to believe that as an agency, we specialize in ‘consumer behaviour’. As we move across industries, the consumers needs change, the belief and expectations change, but there are only a handful of motivators that eventually drive behaviour. It’s in those motivators that our business and billings lie.

As an agency, we’ve always been driven by the ‘idea’. Use the ‘idea’ to solve a business problem and then pick the right mediums to take it to market. Once we have the idea in the bag, then putting a TVC on the air, activating a digital engagement or putting an event on the road is not a problem. We have in-house capabilities to manage them all. All we care about is ‘coming up with the Big Idea for the Brand, and then taking good care of it, till it reaches the consumer’.

Brands in India have been using public personalities for anchoring their print and television campaigns since the last 25-30 years. Today, cricketers, film stars and other public personalities dominate campaign development and brand leadership. Has this trend and strategy made the ‘Big Concept’ based creative solutions secondary in the eyes of a client?

Vandan Chopra: Absolutely, it has, and it’s not a pretty place to be. There is so much more you can do with a celebrity. For instance the Fastrack lifestyle brand communication with Virat Kohli and Genelia beautifully used the personality of the endorsers to tell the brand story. So yes, while the ‘Big Concept’ has given way to ‘celebrities’, it’s not something that we as agencies, or clients should be proud of. Like I always say, ‘be driven by the idea’.

There are many alternate targeted and cost-effective ways to reach out to customers for smaller clients. The cost of production keeps climbing and clients are very careful of marketing spend. The top agencies garner most of the business. Do you think the advertising business has become less profitable than say 20 years back?

Vandan Chopra: Actually, I am still to come across a more cost-effective way to reach the end consumer than television. While the entry cost might be a bit higher, the cost per contact would always make it a great way to reach consumers in India. But surely, TV cannot be the answer to every marketing problem. Depending on the business problem at hand, outdoor, digital, print, radio, visibility on and around the shelf, and even engagement mediums like events and digital all play their part. You’ve got to ask yourself the potential each medium has to take the message to the consumer.

As far as the top agencies garnering most of the business is concerned, you are correct. A large part of the billings pie currently lies with the big agencies. But like all industries, small players come into the fray, and some go on to be tomorrow’s ‘big agencies’. With the right talent, robust processes and strong leadership, every small agency today can give the big guys a run for their money. It’s already starting to happen.

When you deal with clients – how do you deal with the key result area of return on promotion spend? In this context, do you think advertising is all about building brand and market momentum or is it about profitability of that particular ad spend?

Vandan Chopra: If the business objective that you are working towards is sales, then sales are what you as the advertising agency needs to be measured by. For instance, for one of our clients, our mandate was to grow revenue by 50% in the next 3 years. We grew their business from USD 126 million to USD 186 million in that period. With that same client, we’ve taken on a target of a further 60% growth in the coming 3 years. And we’re well on our way.

Having said that, spontaneous recall, aided recall, message recall and intent to buy are great mind measures to gauge if your advertising is working, because if the consumer’s mind is giving you the right signals, consumer action is bound to follow.

Nowadays, it’s rare to come across great copy and headline in print or on television. Some TV spots have good script and the filmmaking is good. But by and large the copy and the script are not memorable. Do you think this is a fair assessment of Indian advertising in Hindi and English?

Vandan Chopra: Radio is in the dumps, and innovations aren’t innovative. I believe print can do with more creative focus. But I’ll still say, I believe advertising in India is evolving at a fast pace and we’re starting to do some very good advertising. The current Bournvita film with the baseline ‘tyaari jeet ki’ being a great case in point. It was not only bang on brief, but also beautifully written. In print too, there have been some interesting campaigns like the ‘Screw the Couch’ ads by Ditto TV. There are many many more, although few and far in between. This is why I strongly cling to our motto ‘always be driven by the idea’ and nothing else.

Do you think advertising has become less subtle and more in your face? Has communicating the marketing message in a dramatic way at the cost of the message itself become a viable strategy?

Vandan Chopra: Has it happened? Yes. Is it viable? No. It’s only a matter of time that someone from your category is going to find a strong positioning that resonates with the consumer and walk away with your market share. When advertising bluntly says ‘buy me’, it’s a turn off. When an ad says ‘WOW’ for the product it advertises, the consumer rejects it. When your copywriter needs to use an exclamation mark, you need to change your copywriter.

Advertising has always worked on a sub-conscious level. This is not a new age phenomenon sparked by the emergence of digital media. It has always been the case. The more your ad doesn’t look like it’s selling something, the more likely it is that your message will stick and you will build a brand that people will flock to buy.

On the contrary, if I were to speak for the agency world, you are absolutely right. It has become a viable strategy, because it is easier to sell to the client. Clients often judge a creative by the number of mandatories or guidelines that the creative fulfils. So pack the ad with mandatories to the point that there is no craft left in the commercial, because the quicker you get it past the client, the quicker you get to invoicing. That’s just wrong and I urge all clients to see through this behaviour of your servicing counterpart.