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Storyboard18 | Wait, how did we get here? Musings of an adman

As we enter the last month of another pandemic year, an adman ponders the plight of small agencies, the state of creativity and the agency of the future.

November 27, 2021 / 06:33 PM IST
(Representative image) Brand-building is not about aping what's working for another brand.

(Representative image) Brand-building is not about aping what's working for another brand.

Back in 2015, when I joined the advertising space - there was a phrase that was doing the rounds. My then-boss published a paper with that phrase as the title, there were podcasts and articles being circulated internationally with those 3 brutal words: ADVERTISING IS DEAD.

Back then, it simply stood for the advent of digital media, and the shift in focus from offline to online by small and big brands. That advertising, as we know it, is dead. Sure. But is it, though? Is advertising dead, or is good advertising dead? In this daily diarrhea of social media topical content and Twitter banter by brands - are we forgetting what advertisements were supposed to do? Make an impression on the minds of customers by using the power of stories and experiences. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I don’t remember the last time I saw an ad and went “Ha! That’s clever.” instead of “Ah, I’ve seen that before.”

If everyone wants to be as funny as Zomato and Netflix, then why spend time and money on your brand’s identity - if it just had to be a cheaper carbon copy of what’s working. If your defence is that “hey, it worked for them”, well, it worked for them because they thought of it first. When they did it, it was original, if not unique. When you mimic it, it’s just a sad attempt holding onto your pricy accounts. Is this what we want to do till we retire? Without an iota of freshness or innovation. Give the client what they want, what they want to hear - because we need their money oh-yes-abhi. That’s it? That’s our end goal now?

Why do we keep doing this?

Naturally, I don’t have the answers - but I do have a lot of questions. Questions like, why though? Why do we keep doing this? Are we so focused on pleasing the client that we don’t even have the time to cater to the brand? Are we the brand manager’s agency, or the brand’s? It’s a tough question, I realise that. I lose sleep over it often. Or, maybe we’re just great marathon runners. Since we just like to run constantly towards social media awards, features, retainer contracts - and in that race, we let go of that one thing we needed for ideas to marinate, to bloom into something strong and resilient. Time.


Where is the time to sit and just think in this industry? Clients don’t want to pay you to daydream. They want deliverables. By End of Day. Including 9 rounds of changes. Agencies that are sales driven, instead of being idea driven suffer from an institutional sense of insecurity. “What if someone else gets the job?” “What if the client fires us after 3 months?”

This sense of anxiety gets deep-rooted in the management and team members. Just look at your colleagues, the ones with shifty eyes, sweaty palms and dark undereye circles will tell you a very familiar story. But it is this what-will-we-do complex that compels small-medium scale setups to lower their prices to make themselves attractive to the average Indian client. Because Indian clients, as we all know - love to negotiate. If your price for a job is Rs. 50 you have to quote Rs. 150 because the client will bring it down to Rs. 100 in any case. That’s just how we work. No one values your dope designs, ideas and content. You’re just a tomato in one of many sabzi markets, waiting for a customer to pick you up, give you a squeeze - and decide your worth.

The fortunate ones who have risen above this, demand their own rates. But the majority of us - with the exponential mushrooming of ‘agencies’ and ‘studios’ - we’re still desperate for a sense of validation. We’re still hungry for that one gig that lands us in the big league. It is this desperation that just puts us back into a vicious cycle of mediocrity:

1. Lower your prices to attract your client > 2. Churn out bad content because you don’t have the budget to hire good talent > 3. Be known in the market for your affordability > 4. Low prices attract stingy clients

How does it affect the agencies and brands? How do we achieve a balance?

Perhaps then, the only way to be exceptional is to break away from this cycle. Maybe the only way we can get back to enjoying what we do for a living, is to find a way that merges our skillset, with our challenges. For example, if your team is great at UI/UX and sucks at motion graphics, then stop taking up animation projects. Play to your strengths. Don’t strive to be the one-stop solution for all brands. You’re a creative studio, not a goddamn mall.

Even less than five years back, big brands preferred to onboard agencies who would take care of all their needs. It made sense then. These agencies had the resources, team strength and the brand didn’t have to talk to multiple points of contacts. Hence, the need to be a one-stop shop for them became a priority. But the market has been changing, and evolving and welcoming newer models since then.

I have personally worked with at least three ‘bigger agencies’ who would hire my company for our brand design, web design and social media content - but would white label it in their name. The ‘white labeling’ aspect only happened because they felt like the client wouldn’t appreciate multiple smaller agencies working on their brand, when it was the ‘bigger agency’ they were paying to cater to their demands.

They’d also probably feel that the costs would go up by involving multiple vendors. This was true as well, to a large extent. The bigger agency tends to act as a middle-person in these relationships. They are the client’s point of contact, and they’re the ones briefing the other studios. The client is the property owner, the smaller agency is the tenant - and in the middle, collecting a smooth commission is our big agency, as the broker. Basically, the client never meets the small agencies in this scenario. Everyone’s happy. Everyone’s happy until the smaller agency demands recognition.

This is changing, though. I’m seeing newer agencies adopt hybrid models that maintain the accountability of agencies, with the flexibility of working with freelancers. The idea is always to create a team, out of your community. Brands will have to re-learn the game gradually, and I’m not expecting things to change overnight. But in a year, this will be the new norm.

We will see a design studio partner with a social media marketing agency and serve one client. We’ll see a collective of writers, collaborate with a motion design team to conceptualise and create animated shorts for a common client. And in both these cases, the client will be aware of the different people/teams working on their brief - not just that, I’d bet they’d sleep better knowing that each little part of the brief is being catered to by someone with actual expertise in that area.

Perhaps, this is the way ahead. The only way we can bring back that charm of just creating because we enjoy what we do, while solving our client’s problems, is by getting really good at one thing. Instead of being okayish at everything.
Rohan Mukherjee is creative head of Double Clap. Views are personal.
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