Seven Mantras for Change: Saurabh Varma

30 Dec,2014


By Saurabh Varma


Advertising agencies have been fantastic at creating daring destinations for their brands. Agencies are the harbingers of change for their brands. They seek unexplored territories for brands to differentiate from the over-crowded marketplace. They investigate the latest cultural trends for brands to ride on or oppose. Yet, a closer inspection of the agency model clearly indicates that agencies themselves have changed little.


Fifteen years back, we saw meaning in a print ad. Print ads were shared and celebrated. Beautiful, well-crafted copy was the benchmark of great communication. This changed with the emergence of television. A new kind of narrative emerged, which celebrated and connectedwith the Hindi heartland. Unfortunately, for the last 15 years, even though human beings have changed, our approach to communication has remained the same. We still have the same copy-art partnership to drive our creative product. Frankly, the level of innovation or change we have thrust on ourselves is close to zero.


Why is change needed? Change is needed because people have changed. We don’t have consumers anymore. The word consumer implies that there are people waiting at the end of a message waiting for a transaction. Messages today are likely to be received with cynicism rather than automatic receptiveness. Loyalty is over, opt-in is in. Obviously communication needs to change to connect with the new consumer. Also, a close reflection of the communication model indicates that we now have new unprecedented opportunities. In the past, we created the stimulus, and the response was the marketshare. Today, we can use response to create the new stimulus which itself can lead to a completely new response. We can create branded content. We can create branded utility. We can create new products and platforms. ‘Always on’ communication is a possibility. And yet, we refuse to change.


Why do we resist change? One, because, change comes with risk. And the larger agencies like us do not want to disrupt what works for us. Two, because, we don’t know better. Almost everyone is playing by the rules created, and curated by the leader. The benchmark is not global but Indian. Three, we have created too many silos. Today, we are the victims of our own greed. The challenge is our ability to get many specializations to work together to create a new symphony. And finally, we refuse to change because of our fascination with Bollywood. Almost everyone in advertising at some point in his or her life wants to create a Bollywood film. No wonder the natural evolution of the 30-second TVC is now the 3-minuter.


Personally, I think the agency world is ready for a disruption. And disrupt we must.


One, we need to re-define new benchmarks. I am personally happier with my agency creating an app for a food brand than creating a 30-second TVC which just creates awareness for the food brand. Once the benchmark is clear, we will then need to figure out the teams needed to deliver and solve client problems.


Two, we need to understand the difference between an idea and solving a client problem. The difference between the two, although subtle, is infinite. Clients want us to solve their problems not present them with ideas. We need to move from being solution providers, to actually problem hunters. We spend too much time thinking solutions, than defining the problem in the first place. Our belief is that the bigger the problem the bigger the solution.


Three, we need to understand the difference between the integration and 360-degree advertising. They are not the same. Making an idea travel across mediums is an outdated model, yet it is shocking to see so many portfolios pretend an idea is integrated when clearly it is not. We will also need to understand and appreciate that integration does not mean generalisation. Integration, sans specialisation is meaningless. We will need integration managers who understand specialisation. For example, how are the worlds of shopper and e-commerce collapsing into a continuum?  Understanding specialisation will be the key to build a robust integrated solution.


Four, we will have to find a way to dissolve the silos. Individual P&Ls cannot come in the way of holistic storytelling. At the same time, specialisation thrives in a specialist atmosphere. Overcoming this complex paradox will be a key to true integration.


Five, we will need to re-define the people needed for the new kind of storytelling. It might not be copy-art partnerships. It could be a creative-technology partnership. We will need project managers who understand the creative idea and the technology needed to enable it. We might have T-shirt Designers and sound engineers being part of team if the problem deserves this kind of team.


Six, we will need to explore new revenue models to create the new kind of teams. Ultimately, integration of the true kind has to be monetised. If we don’t know the teams needed to solve the problem, how do you ask the client to pay for it in the first place?


Seven, we will need to be brave. Chances are anything new will be questioned. Change will be resisted by people who know better and believe in the current paradigm. It will be questioned by the existing status quo. We will need to experiment and explore new models. Chances are we will fail as much as we succeed. At least we would have tried.


Like Oliver Wendell Holmes said, I would not give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity but I would give my life for simplicity the other side of complexity. In 2015, we want to explore simplicity the other side of complexity.


Saurabh Varma is CEO, The Leo Group, India.

First appeared in ‘dna of brands’ issue dated December 29, 2014


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