No Dhamaka Advertising this Diwali?

10 Nov,2015


It’s that time of the year when marketers maximise their sales. Well, they also happen at other festive occasions like Pongal, Ganesh Chaturthi, Navratri and Christmas, but it’s Diwali where large parts of the country that marketers converge to announce sales and special offers. Naturally, these are accompanied with high voltage advertising and attempts to woo customers. But does Diwali bring out the best creative juices in the ad fraternity? Pradyuman Maheshwari engaged Sonal Dabral, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer, DDB Mudra Group and Partha Sinha, Managing Director, Publicis Worldwide in a conversation to discuss this and more.


Would it be correct to say that every year, Diwali sees the best of creativity coming out of Indian advertising agencies?

Sonal Dabral: Diwali, like any other big festival, is the right platform for great creativity to happen. Whether it happens or not, is the case in point. Like this year, the output hasn’t been as creative as it has been in the previous years.


Partha Sinha: I agree with Sonal, but it’s not only this year. Compared to the average creative standard of the industry, the standard around Diwali actually drops. We talk about multiple dimensions and multiple ways of looking at things, but when it comes to Diwali, it becomes very linear. I don’t know whether it’s a problem with agencies or clients, Diwali [results in a] sea of sameness. I’ve recently tweeted that if you take out the two words ‘Iss Diwali’ or ‘This Diwali’, the industry’s revenues will come down by 20 per cent. Diwali advertising is extremely formula.


Dabral: Because of the emotions attached to Diwali, this is the best time to give out stories that engage, entertain move people. Instead, as Partho also said, all we see is noise and noise. Diwali is not just about crackers and sound; the noise actually starts to happen on television itself.


Or in the newspapers, where you have jackets upon jackets upon jackets. But do you think the sea of sameness that you mentioned is also there in the west around Christmas and New Year?

Sinha: I disagree there. There is lot of boiler-plate advertising during Christmas and New Year in the West, but a lot of brands come up with fantastic work at this time of the year. Even if you go way, way back, the reason Santa Claus wears red clothes started with a Coca-Cola promo. We’ve had great Diwali ads, but they are few and far between compared to the West because every year, during Christmas, there are at least one or two pieces which are out of this world.


Would you say the reason creativity dips is because the emphasis is more on sales and making people consume more?

Dabral: Yes, definitely. So much of buying happens that marketers see this as a time to maximise their revenue. With e-commerce companies coming in, it’s becoming a game of ‘how big my logo is’, and how loud can I be. My agency, DDB Mudra, did the Big Bazaar commercial where we talked about fire crackers which create smoke and sound and asked, why not create sound with paper crackers this year? That’s the commercial that went out, and was loved by people. You can have creative solutions which connect with people.


We spoke about emotions earlier. Many Diwali commercials are meant to be tearjerkers. Is there a definite intent to produce these kinds of commercials?

Sinha: There was a time when every Diwali ad had a mother and a son or daughter who lives far away, and then there is Skype and some laddus exchanged. That was the formula for Diwali advertising. Brand after brand is telling this 30-second story which is soaked in saccharine and nostalgia. There seems to be no search for a new narrative, even though emotions are myriad.


Dabral: Diwali brings families together, so emotions are considerable part of this festival. But the thing is that the people start to take it easy. Again, as Partho said, we are not trying to find a variety of insights, a variety of different stories around Diwali. It’s one kind of emotions being played around.


Do you see a shift towards digital because the kind of audiences you are possibly targeting, are also out there on social media and various digital platforms?

Sinha: What you are seeing on digital is a sad replica of television and print. They still use those marigold garlands and a little bit of starburst, and the 30-second things are becoming seven minutes long. That’s all. There is no attempt to get into a new narrative or even connect with people over social media in a different manner. Tell me one piece of communication or digital activity that has gone viral this Diwali? Perhaps only Gujarat Ambuja’s Khali. Point is, there is no dramatically new narrative even on social media.


Both of you are masters of the craft. Why would you say we’ve only seen mediocre work during the biggest festival in the country? Why is there no outstanding work?

Sinha: I think one of the key reasons is too much pressure on clients to reach their Diwai sales target numbers. If you take a little bit of risk, you don’t know whether you’ll meet your sales numbers. So you tend to hedge your bets when your stakes are high, and Diwali stakes are increasingly becoming so. The last two Diwalis haven’t been good, so people are hoping for a better one this time. But they won’t take a chance to connect with audiences in a different way. Whether it’s e-com advertisements or four jackets on a newspaper, it’s all just about discounts: Come buy now, that’s it.


Dabral: I keep reiterating that Big Bazaar also had to watch its sales, but took a conscious decision to find different insights, different narratives to talk about the brand rather than just look out for sales.


And do the multiple jackets in the newspaper work?

Sinha: There is a running TV joke about this. That the only thing that can survive three jackets in Mumbai weather, is a newspaper. So whether it’s three jackets or two, in advertising and communication, everything should be there for a reason. If there is an idea behind using those three jackets, then it’s fine. But if the idea is simply to state that I’ve got more money and therefore I’m a bigger brand and you should buy from me, then it’s absolutely wrong and foolish. But that’s what is happening. Actually the three-jacket thing is really a marketing success — for the newspaper, that is.


But they are obviously here to stay. Media professionals and agencies are still buying [this space] and advertisers still see some return on these investments…

Sinha: I’m sure they do. But if you measure everything with the [yardstick of] money — the amount of visibility, or the amount of recall — then you’ll only come up with tried-and-tested things. Nobody is measuring returns on ideas. [In the West] everybody does Christmas advertising, but then somebody does something which is dramatically different. Then they get disproportionate impact on their brand and sales. If you go to the West, nine out of 10 ads look exactly the same during Christmas. It’s all about 30 per cent and 20 per cent off, and buying one to get two free. Increasingly, I think it will change; we will have landmark Diwali ads.


Dabral: There is also a question of budgets. How much time and money are you ready to put into a certain piece of advertising? People have to step back and start to find newer, better insights and to see whether by doing these short-term, loud, ‘sale’ kind of ads, is you are building your brand. Or are you getting lost amid so much of noise, as is already happening


Sinha: That’s a good point. The brand has to answer that question. Do you see Diwali as a tactic to get in there and get out quickly because people are in a spending mode? Or do I see Diwali as an opportunity because people are in a different frame of mind – they are happier, and [therefore able] to connect with things — that I use this opportunity to build a stronger affinity for my brand and turn it into successful sales? Many times, the answer to this question will determine what kind of communication will happen. One more thing. To cite a classic example, people believe to push a blunt nail into the wall requires a really large hammer. That’s what they are trying to do, rather than make the nail sharper. If you make the nail sharper, that is, with really good communication, you’ll need a smaller hammer.


Thanks Sonal and Partha, and a Happy Diwali to you!

Happy Diwali! And may we have really good advertising.


A shorter version of this appeared in dna of brands on November 9, 2015. Catch the chat with Sonal Dabral and Partha Sinha that was aired on BrandStand on November 7 at 


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