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India is huge. Like, massive. Geographically it is the largest country in south Asia and the seventh largest in the world. 

Home to 1.3 billion, it has the second largest population on Earth, marginally behind China. With such an enormous number of people, spread out over such vast areas it is, as many people mentioned over the course of shots’ trip to Mumbai earlier this year, like many countries crammed under the umbrella of one. 

Clients are embracing digital and they’re more willing to take risks in that space. Brands want to cut through the clutter and stand out…

From a creative point of view, that can pose challenges, but it’s one that the Indian advertising industry is used to facing. Like the country itself, its industry is a mass of contradictions and varying cultures and ideals all vying for space, and whether this helps or hinders its creative impact, depends upon your point of view. 
“Indian advertising has always been creative,” says Arvind Krishnan, MD at BBH India. “Our exposure to Western media is high, but so is our adherence to local culture, and the work we produce is a reflection of that; it’s schizophrenic. The only thing that unites everyone is the cricket team and [Bollywood] superstars.”

While it’s true that there’s a preponderance of cricket-themed work, and more than a smattering of Bollywood superstar-fronted campaigns, there is more to Indian work than that. Last year’s Cannes Creative Effectiveness Grand Prix featured neither cricket nor Bollywood but was won by Ogilvy Mumbai for its Savlon campaign, Healthy Hands Chalk Sticks [below]. 

Our exposure to Western media is high, but so is our adherence to local culture, and the work we produce is a reflection of that; it’s schizophrenic.

The campaign saw sticks of chalk specially made with soap so that the dust from the chalk sticks (chalk sticks and slate are still widely used in Indian schools) became a hand sanitiser when the children ran their hands under water before having lunch. It was the answer to the problem of increasing ill health in schools and showcased that Indian creativity is alive and kicking. “From a production point of view, I guess [India] might be lagging a few steps behind [the West],” says Harshad Rajadhyaksha, joint ECD at Ogilvy, “but as far as world-beating ideas go, we are up there with the best in the world.”

Savlon – Introducing Savlon’s Healthy Hands Chalk Sticks

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Entering the age of outrage

Savlon’s campaign also shows that India is no different to many other territories across the world when it comes to what’s trending. The boom in brands highlighting their ethical credentials and aiming to stand for something seems as strong in India as elsewhere. “It’s the age of authenticity,” says Krishnan, “and that’s got more important as social media has grown here.” And because social media has grown, it is also, Krishnan points out, the age of outrage. 

Creativity shouldn’t be associated with scam in any way, it’s theft. But sometimes you’ve got to go to a client and tell them you have a brilliant idea.

A 2017 spot, part of Vicks’ Touch of Care campaign [below], that featured the true story of an Indian orphan adopted by a transgender Indian woman, was highly praised but also criticised in some quarters for apparently sensationalising transgender issues. “Social issues and awareness are important now,” says BBH’s CEO and Managing Partner, Subhash Kamath. “Standing for something in Indian advertising has been embraced, but not everyone has learned how to do that properly yet. These trends are what you see on the surface, but real change is what happens beneath that.”

Vicks – Generations of Care #TouchOfCare

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One big change in the industry is the general insistence that it has moved away from a previous association with scam advertising. Scam has dogged certain territories – India included – over the years, with unapproved or, more often, just extremely limited-release work being passed off as genuine but created with the express goal of winning awards. 

There are a lot of ambitious clients out there, and clients love awards too. [But] awards are gravy, and they’re worried about the meat.

In 2013, JWT India got into hot water with a series of Ford press ads [below] that were created seemingly without the client’s approval and which were accused of being sexist, with the Managing Partner and Chief Creative Officer at the agency eventually resigning over the affair. It’s one of many examples but, says the industry, times are changing. “Scam has become a lot less problematic in recent years,” says Khalil Bachooali, Founder and EP at Offroad Films, before offering a defence to agencies that have been in the firing line. 

“We almost always hold agencies responsible for scam, but there are a lot of ambitious clients out there, and clients love awards too.” It’s become less of an issue though, thinks Bachooali, because the clients have their focus on other elements of the business, namely financial ones. “Awards are gravy,” he says, “and they’re worried about the meat.”

Click image to enlarge

Of course, the conversation becomes confused when the definition of ‘scam’ varies. Some say that the resultant campaign needs to be part of a bona fide brand strategy that hits a specific brief and does so at scale. People such as Srija Chatterjee, Publicis Worldwide, India’s managing director: “[The campaign] needs to be real. Something that fits with the brand strategy and which has a certain critical mass. It also needs to be for an existing client and not a random shop.”

In India, production company diversification is about creating more online and long-form content. For agencies, it’s a move into production.

Senthil Kumar, JWT India’s Chief Creative Officer, on the other hand, abhors scam advertising but believes that, as long as there’s a client involved, a campaign can’t be considered scam. “Creativity shouldn’t be associated with scam in any way, it’s theft,” he says. “But sometimes you’ve got to go to a client and tell them you have a brilliant idea. Maybe after 10 rounds of research you hope the idea doesn’t get killed and you use the power that you have as a leader to find a way to bring it to life.”

Whatever your view of the intricacies of scam advertising, it seems that true scam ads that are made without client consent or with tiny distribution, are on the wane. What is definitely not waning is India’s love affair with technology, and especially with mobile. 

Talent lost to Amazon’s jungle

Pravin Sutar, Executive Creative Director at Dentsu Webchutney Mumbai believes that mobile technology, which has been adopted en masse by swathes of the country, both in urban and rural territories, will be the force which both saves and disrupts the Indian ad scene. His agency’s recent work for brands including lending platform EarlySalary [below] and an anti-piracy campaign that utilised a spoof trailer for a real film, using the actual actors, have created big waves. The latter even managed to get the piracy law in India altered within 22 days. 

“Disruption has to be the key,” he says, “or people will just skip over all advertising. Clients are embracing digital and are more willing to take risks in that space. Brands want to cut through the clutter and stand out so I think, rather than there being challenges, there are opportunities.” 

But, as with many things in life and business, there are two sides to every story, because the uptake in digital has also seen a downturn in more traditional advertising platforms. “It’s becoming a difficult landscape as digital and mobile take hold,” explains Offroad’s Bachooali. “The penetration of digital content is high but people haven’t embraced e-commerce yet in India. People will see an advert online for a holiday then go visit a travel agent. Brand managers are having knee-jerk reactions; today, every film we do pretty much isn’t part of a long-term [brand] strategy. Brands know they need an engaging digital strategy but they don’t know what will stick.”

[Advertising] used to be corridors through which many creative people ambled. Today, the access to many creative alternatives has become a lot easier.

Another challenge the Indian (and wider) industry faces comes from relatively new players in the market such as Netflix, Amazon and their relatives. It’s not necessarily their ad-free output that is causing concern, more their tendency to attract some of the most innovative talent in the marketplace. “There’s such a wealth of creativity outside of advertising,” says Amitabh Bhattacharya, Founder and EP at Nomad Films, “that advertising is just a drop in the ocean. We’re facing a huge talent shortage and advertising also doesn’t pay enough.” Publicis’s Chatterjee notes “There’s also been a mushrooming of hotshops. So creatives, planners and good account people have a lot of choices, alongside the competition from tech and telecom companies.”

Indian advertising is like an adult learning to walk again.

“The Indian advertising industry is going through a talent drain,” comments Rahul Mathew, National Creative Director, DDB Mudra Group. “Once, it used to be corridors through which many creative people ambled while they found their calling, and the industry was enriched by their interactions and contributions. Today, the access to many creative alternatives has become a lot easier. So, many who would have walked through our corridors, pass us by completely.”

Ambling away from adland

Bhattacharya, along with many others, can see that the Indian industry is changing as the line between agency and production company blurs. “There’s a lot more project-based business,” says BBH’s Kamath, “and less AOR work. That can be good, but also means creatives are less emotionally engaged with the brand they’re working on. Agencies are often less at the top of the table to guide a brand. If a client is a great brand-builder then that can work, but 95 per cent of clients aren’t, that’s why they need agencies.”

Publicis’s Chatterjee is already preparing her agency for the future with Prodigious, the agency’s in-house production arm. “In India, production company diversification is about creating more online and long-form content. For agencies, it’s a move into production.” Does she think agencies will continue to encroach on what is traditionally production company territory? “I think all agencies will have in-house production arms,” she says. “It’s the way the industry will go.”

A lot of what we know, and have known, is being redefined. Starting from how we’ve defined demographics to media consumption and even how we’ve been structured as agencies.

If there is one thing to take away from the series of conversations shots had with advertising luminaries in India, it’s that there is no consensus of opinion – digital is on the rise and the country is embracing mobile, but many brands are unsure of how to negotiate that opportunity. There are plenty of creative people in India, but many are being drawn away by competing platforms and industries. The Indian ad industry is diversifying and welcoming new opportunities, but some of that diversification could be at the expense of traditional production companies’ core business. 

“Indian advertising is like an adult learning to walk again,” says DDB Mudra’s Mathew. “A lot of what we know, and have known, is being redefined. Starting from how we’ve defined demographics to media consumption and even how we’ve been structured as agencies.” The one thing that seems unequivocal is that the Indian industry is focussed on the future and has creativity, in whatever form it takes, at the forefront of its collective mind. 

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