Digital awaits breakthrough: Shashi Sinha

23 Dec,2014


Twenty-fourteen will be remembered for long because of two things, the general elections and the upsurge we saw in e-commerce. But if you were to remove these, I don’t think adspends have gone up dramatically. There is a lot of noise about ‘achche din’ but we haven’t seen any real change on the ground. In our business, the FMCG sector is the true indicator of performance and these companies are not reporting a big turnaround. I know it takes time after a new government settles in, but the fact is it hasn’t happened so far. The trends in e-commerce indicate that the upsurge will continue through the next year but if FMCG revenues don’t improve and they don’t start spending, then we could be in trouble.


Digital has been a big talking point of the year but I think we are far away from a big breakthrough. It will grow at a particular pace. So consumers may adapt to it but advertising will take some more time. I have always believed that collective consumption of media is in our DNA, and purchase decisions still happen collectively in India as opposed to the western world where decisions are mostly individualistic. This difference is because of our culture. Our society is very outwardly-directed, unlike the US, which is an inwardly-directed society. When it comes to consumption and spends, societies and culture matter a lot. For instance, television viewing in our country is still perceived as a family thing. So while personalisation has happened with devices, the family still remains in our DNA. In fact the whole Hindu ethos is made up of the family and the principle of collectivity. And that’s not going to go away. Devices will help you, they are mere enablers. But our ethos, psychology and culture are not going to change.


There has been a tremendous increase in numbers as far as the internet penetration and users go, and I believe India is the second biggest user of Facebook today. But have you ever wondered why is India such a big Facebook user country? That is because Facebook stands for a collective consciousness and it is the same as our ethos. As a country, the penetration of Facebook is higher because Facebook is an example of connected-ness. That culture is not going to change in a hurry. It will happen, with a lot of internalisation, but it will take time. At this point of time, it will all be collective.


As for the talk of 2014 being the year of digital innovation, I think we haven’t scratched the surface yet. I think we have a long way to go for us to say that this is the year of digital innovation in India. India is a very strong content country, one of the few countries in the world where original content is done. In my mind, while creativity will stay, digital is just a format. A lot of people are experimenting with content but the truth remains that digital spends are still at 8 or 9 per cent of the overall spends.


Digital is also a mindset. In our mindset, the transition to digital has happened, it may not reflect in terms of numbers and volumes. But as far as mindsets go, at least we are talking digital. It’s probably the fashionable thing to do or even the right thing to do but I’m not sure whether the numbers justify. Television and print are still very big in this country.


Today, to get into digital, you have to make investments in people, for the right kind of talent, which is expensive. It’s a huge investment. We are making the investments and hoping that the returns will come.


As for the next year, the situation on the ground is not good but there is collective hope.


The forthcoming ICC Cricket World Cup will bring some hope of being a trigger to growth in ad spends. It’s all about activity around events. Cricket is a big sport in India and World Cup come once in four years. I see some advantages, it may not be as dramatic as last time because it was in India then but still, the World Cup is big enough.


Reports indicate that the global economy is expected to improve and therefore global adspends will improve. Hope is what drives the economy, hope is what drives the stockmarket, hope is what drives sentiment, this is the hope for India and why should I go against that hope. But we have to be slightly cautious. We are hoping that with the new government and with their will to improve things, things should improve. It all depends on the budget. If the government can push through the budget, they can do a lot of stuff otherwise there is trouble.


What I see as a challenge for myself is to ensure that our clients do well. I am not sure that it’ll be dramatic. But I feel if we can consolidate in the next year in spite of what everyone is saying, that’ll be a big achievement. If we can sustain, if we can just do what we have done in 2014, it should be alright.


Shashi Sinha spoke to Shruti Pushkarna on the sidelines of The Advertising Club’s Media Review 2014 held last Thursday (Dec 18) in Gurgaon. A version of this appeared in the December 22 issue of ‘dna of brands’


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