Advertisers very often make the mistake of under resourcing their brands: Sam Balsara

Doyen of Indian advertising, Madison World’s Sam Balsara in a free-wheeling conversation with Adgully talks about the major changes that have taken place in the advertising industry in the last 10 years. He also delves into his formidable industry experience to share some of his most valuable lessons learnt over the years. 

Earlier this year, you had presented the 10-year challenge. If you could go back to 2008-09, what are the things that you would want to change in the advertising industry?
The last 10 years have been the most dramatic years in advertising history. For example, the market has tripled in size in the last 10 years, which gives us a compounded annual growth of 12 per cent – from about Rs 20,000 to about Rs 60,000 crore. The number of channels has multiplied on the back of regional news. The number of advertisers has increased dramatically, especially in print, by about 88,000 (approx.). Digital penetration has hit the roof. The advertising market has become dynamic, fast growing and treacherous. It is becoming more and more difficult to succeed for brands using advertising in this market. 

I’ve been saying this for some time and I don’t know if it has completely changed in the last 10 years, but advertisers have begun to look at agencies as businesses. Earlier, they used to look upon advertising people as professionals and this has brought with it a whole lot of problems. 

One of the problems that has surfaced is the fact that unfortunately when you are dealing with a business, you want to squeeze the business as much as possible. This situation has led to a huge quality-talent crunch. 10 years ago, we were able to attract talent from A grade business schools. Now it is getting difficult to attract talent from B grade business school, forget IIM Ahmedabad or Bajaj Institute and what not. 

Also, the emergence of several new sectors such as management consultancies, startups, Internet companies, and others seem to offer a far better rate of growth to management trainees than the advertising sector does. Advertising that once upon a time used to be reasonably up in a management trainee’s priority list to join, has now gone way down. That is one thing I do not like about the last 10 years. 

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What are the 10 major changes that you have seen in the industry during the decade?
A major change in creative is that advertisers are more conscious today that they need to appeal to the hearts of people and not just the mind of the consumer. People use the storytelling format to appeal to the consumer. 

In media terms, we have gone from 7-8 touchpoints to about 50 touchpoints that we can reach the consumer through. This has made the journey more complex, challenging and exciting. In the current context, it is not wise to go after lowest CPRP (Cost Per Rating Point) and things like that. What we should not be doing is looking at media output measures but rather we should look at brand outcome measures. That is what the market perceives and we should evaluate each medium on what role it is playing in delivering brand outcome. 

In the last 10 years, the share of digital has gone from 4 per cent to 19 per cent. The big loser in this has been print, which has lost 9 per cent share points. Television has shown that it is a little more robust, but still it has lost 3 percentage points. The biggest gainer of course is digital. 

What remains unchanged?
The fundamentals have remained unchanged. Brand owners still want to connect in a deep way with their prospective consumers. That desire or objective hasn’t changed. All brand owners want to reach out and connect with the maximum number of people at the lowest cost per contact. Besides that, everything has changed. The route that we use to achieve these twin objectives has changed dramatically. 

How are advertisements today different from those 10 years ago? Thoughts on the new way of advertising compared to the old?
Earlier you didn’t tell a story. You presented the brand and its benefits and that was considered advertising. The skill earlier was how well you could advertise the advantages of the brand. Today, we have passed that stage and because of technological developments, there is brand parity basically on everything. In that situation, how do you find a place in the consumer’s heart? You do that by telling a story, because the story may be remembered and the brand will be remembered along with the story and find a place in the consumer’s heart. That is why you see the kind of advertising you see today. 

What is the importance of self-regulation in advertising and a body like ASCI?
In a society like India, it is critical. Kudos to the early founders of ASCI way back in 1985. ASCI and the self-regulation movement have come a long way in India. There was a time when not many people knew about ASCI in India. I said earlier that the perception of ASCI members was that they were a bunch of old fogies and it was a pass time for them while a lot of people used to ignore ASCI. It is not like that now. ASCI has proved it is a dynamic organisation that can keep pace with the times. It can meet an advertiser’s genuine desire to put out responsible piece of advertising in the marketplace. The alternative to ASCI would be government regulation that is 10 times worse. Recently, we had global awards for self-regulation and I was one of the judges on that. I came across an interesting entry from Australia, where with the help of a management consultancy they have done a study to show how self-regulation is more cost effective and how in real terms it can contribute to an advertiser and the advertising industry. Sooner or later we will do such a study here in India also. 

In the last few years, I must say that the government is also keeping with their motto of less government. They are encouraging ASCI. They don’t want to step in and regulate what advertising should and should not run. They rather leave it to us and ASCI to play a role in this. The Department of Consumer Affairs (DOCA) or Ayush have all sort of appointed ASCI in some way or the other help them do their job more effectively. There is recognition among advertisers as well that ASCI play not just a policeman role, but a positive role in their lives. It increases the confidence that consumers would have in advertiser. If advertising was to lose the confidence of consumers then all is lost. 

Advertisers over the years have had a few complaints against ASCI. We have addressed each one of them. ASCI was once considered to be very slow, so now we have several measures like a fast track complaint procedure. We have a formal review mechanism that involves an ex-High Court judge. We now have 4 CCC meetings a month. It helps speed up complaint processing. We have a process called informal resolution that allows us to speedily resolve the matter. The number of complaints has gone up which is a gone sign regarding the increased awareness of the consumer. However, one area we are least happy with is that the consumer on the road or the market by and large is still not aware of ASCI and ASCI’s resources do not allow us to advertise ASCI. Fortunately, here once again the government has come to our rescue and I&B Ministry has requested channels to put out scrollers or tickers. I believe about 20 channels have started doing that. The fact that ASCI is available to the consumer free of cost if he is aggrieved after watching an ad, I think, is a tremendous achievement. 

Being a board member of ASCI, please tell us how ASCI has played a key role in curbing misleading advertisements?
The existence of ASCI has brought down the number of misleading advertisements dramatically just by the increase in awareness of ASCI. We also have a procedure called advertiser advise wherein if an advertiser has a doubt before he invests money in making a film, he can come to us and show us the storyboard and we can give him advise whether we think this conforms to the code or not. We have about 300 members who get a full list of complaints we’ve received and the decision on the complaints. This is a tremendous learning for advertisers and agencies because then they know what CCC is thinking and what kind of ads are ok or not okay. This is published every quarter and every year we come up with a big fat book that is circulated to our members. We also send it to government societies, members of parliament, ministers and bankers. By and large we talk to the opinion leaders in society and discuss the issues. We have a long way to go but I must confess that we have come a long way. 

How is media planning and buying function changing today? What will the media agency of the future look like?
There are multiple touchpoints that the consumer interacts with and that has made our lives difficult. We now have concepts like consumer journey cycle and use analytics and data in a big way compared to earlier. The media agency of today looks, behaves very differently from the media agency of 10 years ago. 

What has been the biggest lesson for you in the past decade?
Advertisers very often make the mistake of under resourcing their brands. It is not enough to say I am advertising. You need to ask how much am I advertising? I have a saying – if the ideal advertising amount is let’s say Rs 100 and you’ve spent Rs 99, then you’ve wasted Rs 99 worth of advertising. If you spent Rs 101 then you’ve wasted only Rs 1. It takes a lot of experience and expertise to figure out where that target is. Resources are always limited, but then you need to reduce the number of brands you want to launch. Most companies and advertisers tend to launch too many brands when they can obviously not support so many brands. India is a vast and diverse country and it is difficult to do justice to every state. You need to consider regional brands and test marketing. Once you have sufficient confidence and money power that you can launch a brand all India only then should you go for it. 

Many advertisers make the mistake of underestimating the power of local and regional brands. Many of these brands are very strong in their areas and as their promoters get the resources they slowly and cautiously expand. While their expansion is slow and steady over a period of time, say a decade, they operate over a fairly large part of India with a fairly strong market share. My other learning has been to never underestimate the power or nuisance value of a local or regional brand. 

Can you tell us about the most unique advertisement you came across in the past 10 years?
What comes to mind is one campaign by Asian Paints, which I believe is a difficult brand to advertise. Paint is paint and almost everyone has the same colours and finishes. Asian Paints came out with a campaign that went ‘Har Ghar Kuch Kehta Hai’, which I thought was a very powerful concept. We were able to take it further by actually having a whole television serial based on the thought of the ad. I would count it as an outstanding example of good advertising, which has remained with me.


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